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The Case Against PerfectionReview - The Case Against Perfection
Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering
by Michael J. Sandel
Harvard University Press, 2007
Review by Marc Baer, Ph.D.
Oct 16th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 42)

Michael Sandel's The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering is a short and accessible--though not simplistic--critique of the ambitions of parents, scientists, and societies who would employ genetic enhancement in the pursuit of improving the next generation of children.

The philosophical battle, as Sandel sees it, is between the Promethean aspiration to master nature, to take it and remold it into an image of our own making, and his own ethic centering on the "giftedness of human life" which holds that "our talents and powers are not wholly our own doing, nor even fully ours, despite the efforts we expend to develop and exercise them" and that "not everything in the world is [morally] open to any use we may desire or devise." (27) A significant implication of the "giftedness" approach is that children, too, should be seen as a gift and that some of our fundamental values are threatened when we do not respect that giftedness.

Chapter one introduces a variety of cases and possibilities that are intended to stimulate moral discomfort and to make us eager to discover just what is wrong there. Consider the following. Two deaf lesbians chose a deaf sperm-donor so that their child would be deaf. (They succeeded.) Soon there will be a synthetic gene that makes muscles grow and prevents them from deteriorating with age. Also on the horizon are gene enhancements for memory. Perhaps most in demand will be the bioengineering of sex selection. According to Sandel, something seems wrong with these uses of technology. But what, exactly, is it? After entertaining a variety of suggestions, e.g., that there is, in the deafness selection case, an autonomy violation, or that there is, in the sexual selection case, impending sexual discrimination, etc., he finds that even when such concerns can be assuaged, e.g., when sex selection is used only to balance children within a family, some moral concerns remain with the use of the various technologies. The balance of the book is a working out of how "giftedness" can explain this moral response in a way that autonomy and rights considerations cannot.

Chapter two probes the question of the use of genetic (and other) enhancement for athletic purposes. Sandel pulls out a surprise here. The usual plaint against genetic enhancement is that its use would diminish human agency. Think of the bionic athlete who, with more enhancement, becomes less human. Turning things around, Sandel raises the worry that the deeper danger is a hyper-agency. Such hyper-agency of the Promethean spirit cannot accept human talents as given and must transcend them.

Yet Sandel notes that it is hard to explain what we admire about sports and more broadly, human activity and achievement, without appealing to giftedness. Giftedness underlies the idea that excellence--and not spectacle--is the very point of sports. Indeed, he believes that the problem with genetically altered athletes is that they corrupt athletic competition as a human activity that honors the cultivation and display of natural talents. The alternative--accepting that the ends of sports are arbitrary and serve merely spectacle value, e.g., the "belly-bumping" of NFL linemen--fails to highlight natural talents and gifts.

In Chapter three, Sandel addresses the potentially more pervasive and even more troubling concern of parents in the role of makers of children. "To appreciate children as gifts," he tells us, "is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition. Parental love is not contingent on the talents and attributes the child happens to have." (45) The parental molding of children, Sandel tells us, exhibits hubris. The pursuit of mastery of nature in this domain may or may not lead to parents being tyrannical, but it certainly will disfigure the parent-child relationship, as well as "deprive the parent of the humility and enlarged human sympathies that openness to the unbidden can cultivate." (46) The danger here is that "parents bent on enhancing their children are more likely to overreach, to express and entrench attitudes at odds with the norm of unconditional love." (49) In what can be seen as the core chapter of the book, Sandel argues that giftedness, and not the spirit of Promethean mastery, best supports what we must accept: that we must love children unconditionally.

Chapter four presents Sandel's thoughts on liberalism and eugenics. The most important point here is that though liberalism, with its official policy of state neutrality, permits non-coercive eugenics and poses as an alternative to Nazi-style policies, in fact, there is a liberal impulse pushing in the direction of coercion. Given the duty of parents to promote the well-being of their children and the fact that the liberal "principle of ethical individualism" commands the struggle to make the lives of future generations of human beings longer and more full of talent and achievement, Sandel comes to the troubling conclusion that "liberal eugenics does not reject state-imposed genetic engineering at all." (79) It merely requires that such coercion be compatible with a child's autonomy.

In the final chapter, Sandel brings together his thoughts on giftedness and considers some objections to his position. Three core values are threatened when giftedness is abandoned for the project of mastery. The first is humility, which "teaches parents to be open to the unbidden." (86) The second is responsibility. As indicated above, the danger is not a loss but an explosion of responsibility since more and more will be attributed to choice and less to chance. Professional baseball players, e.g., are encouraged by pitchers to enter games wired on amphetamines and not to "play naked" lest they perform inadequately. Even more troubling, parents become more responsible for choosing, or failing to choose, the right traits for their children. We are, thinks Sandel, ill-equipped to deal with an explosion of new responsibilities. Finally, there is the value of solidarity with those less fortunate than us. "The more alive we are to the chanced nature of our lot, the more reason we have to share our fate with others." If so, genetic enhancement, which rejects that chanced nature, "would make it harder to foster moral sentiments that social solidarity requires." (90-91) To sum up his concerns, Sandel tells us that "changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world, and deadens the impulse to social and political improvement." (97)

In an epilogue on the stem cell debate, perhaps the argumentatively meatiest part of the book, Sandel finds Bush's "Don't Fund, Don't Ban" policy to be inconsistent and comes down in favor of the moral permissibility of such research, because its purpose is the relief of suffering and not enhancement. This permissibility, however, must acknowledge respect for embryos by realizing that they are not simply objects at our disposal.

This engaging book, with its rich use of current examples and direct argumentation, is more suited to those who are not specialists in ethics than those who are, but the professional, too, can learn much from it. And though it is slim in size, one should not be led into thinking that the argumentation is superficial. Quite the contrary. Although Sandel is not always persuasive and his defense of the principles of giftedness stops where one wishes more would be said, e.g., with the claim that individuals do not fully own their talents, he nevertheless presents his view and that of his opponents clearly, addresses a number of objections to his proposals, and carries many of the arguments out multiple steps. In so doing, Sandel provides a well-articulated perspective on the debate that may do much to stem the perfectionist tide. In his capable hands, this is done without what might otherwise be the implication that this opposition must result from intellectual naivete.

© 2007 Marc Baer

Marc Baer (Ph.D., UC Irvine, 2006) specializes in moral philosophy and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he is a Fellow at the Parr Center for Ethics. mbaer@email.unc.edu.


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