Stephen Pinker’s diatribe (an appropriate word, I think) has prompted a fair number of responses from some pretty intelligent folks around the blogosphere.
The assumption implicit in my question about Pinker’s reading of Leon Kass is that he fundamentally misunderstands Kass’s hermeneutic and philosophical style. My brother, rightly, wondered what had prompted that thought in me.
I was going to answer him, but then I read Darwinian Conservative Larry Arnhart’s take, who pointed out exactly what I would have:
Here’s an example. Pinker writes that in the report, many of the authors “assert that the Old Testament is the only grounds for morality (for example, the article by Kass claims that respect for human life is rooted in Genesis 9:6, in which God instructs the survivors of his Flood in the code of vendetta: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God was man made.'”
Now, if one actually reads Kass’s contribution to this report, which can be found here, one sees the following passage that Pinker is citing: “Human life is to be respected more than animal life–Why?–because man is more than an animal; man is said to be god-like. Please note that the truth of the Bible’s assertion does not rest on biblical authority.” Notice that Pinker ignores Kass’s disclaimer that the truth of this assertion does not depend on biblical authority alone–in contrast to Pinker’s claim that the authors of the report are asserting “that the Old Testament is the only grounds of morality.”
There is a serious point here. In Kass’s book on Genesis, and in some of his other writings, Kass does sometimes suggest that the Bible might provide a moral teaching that goes beyond secular reasoning. But Kass is rather evasive about this. And Pinker has no interest in probing into the complexity of Kass’s writing. All that Pinker cares about is condemning Kass as a conspirator in promoting theocracy in America.
After reading Pinker’s essay, I was pretty confident he had badly misread Leon Kass. I didn’t think, though, that he may not have read the collection essays he was writing about. But among those who have read the essays, that is very much a possibility.