Leon R. Kass, M.D., Receives 2012 Irving Kristol Award

Leon R. Kass, M.D., Receives 2012 Irving Kristol Award

American Enterprise Institute (AEI) president Arthur C. Brooks has announced that AEI scholar Leon R. Kass, M.D., is the recipient of AEI’s 2012 Irving Kristol Award. The annual award, selected by AEI’s Council of Academic Advisers, is given to individuals who have made exceptional intellectual or practical contributions to improve government policy, social welfare or political understanding. Dr. Kass—who concurrently holds the Madden-Jewett Chair at AEI and is the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago—will receive the award and deliver the Irving Kristol Lecture entitled "The Other War on Poverty: Finding Meaning in America" at AEI’s annual dinner on Wednesday, May 2, 2012, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

"Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder," warns Dr. Kass. And he should know. Dr. Kass has been addressing ethical and philosophical issues raised by biomedical advances for more than 40 years, including as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2007, where he served as chairman from 2001 to 2005. At AEI, Dr. Kass studies broader moral and cultural issues. His most recent book (co-edited with Amy Kass and Diana Schaub) "What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song," seeks to promote American identity, character and citizenship.

It is fitting that Dr. Kass would be drawn to science and the study of American identity because he shares a birthday with both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Coming from a Yiddish-speaking family in the South Side of Chicago, he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago at the age of fifteen and later completed his medical degree there. He also met his wife, Amy, at the University of Chicago, thus beginning a long intellectual partnership.

After completing his medical internship at Beth Israel hospital in Boston, Dr. Kass returned to academic study, this time at Harvard University, where he received a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He then moved to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where  he did research in molecular biology. But he became increasingly interested in medical ethics and the challenging moral issues raised by biomedical advance.

In the summer of 1965, Dr. Kass and his wife joined the civil rights movement and traveled south to register voters. Dr. Kass was surprised to discover that "I found more honor and dignity in the county’s uneducated, churchgoing black community than I had noticed among my fellow students at Harvard...whose greatest cause was their own personal advancement."  That experience, coupled with reading Jean Jacques Rousseau’s "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences," led him to doubt whether progress in science and technology leads necessarily to moral progress.

As his scientific work continued, Dr. Kass became vocal in his support of the notion that just because science makes something possible, it does not make it desirable. In 1970, he took a leave of absence from NIH to become, for two years, executive director of the Committee on the Life Sciences and Social Policy at the National Research Council. Dr. Kass never returned to NIH, but instead began a series of thought-provoking essays on important issues such as the Hippocratic Oath and the proper goals of medicine.

In 1972, he began teaching at St. John’s College, home to the well-known Great Books program, and in 1974 joined the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. Then, in 1976, alongside his wife, he joined the University of Chicago faculty where they both were award-winning teachers until 2010.
Dr. Kass has always taken into account moral ideas and the facts of biology. He is perhaps best described "as a philosopher who remained a man of science while seeking to defend human dignity."

Further information about the Irving Kristol Award and Lecture is posted at http://www.aei.org/events/2012/05/02/annual-dinner-2012/.


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