The Hubris of Genetic Enhancement

Published May 16, 2007

New York Sun

The Case Against Perfection by Michael Sandel
Harvard University Press, 128 pages, $18.95

Debates about biotechnology tend to be about means. We argue about the limits of what we may do in pursuit of science or medicine. The ends to which new technological powers are put are far less frequently questioned.

In The Case Against Perfection (Harvard University Press, 128 pages, $18.95), Harvard political scientist Michael Sandel seeks to question those ends. Everyone agrees that curing disease is worthwhile, he acknowledges, but what about going beyond cures to improvements of the human whole, aiming not to heal what is broken but to perfect our nature and make human beings — in bioethicist Carl Elliott’s evocative phrase — “better than well”?

This brief book is an extended version of an essay Mr. Sandel published in the Atlantic Monthly in 2004, which in turn was an extension of a paper he wrote for the President’s Council on Bioethics two years earlier. Mr. Sandel was a member of the council from 2001 until 2006 (and I served on the council’s staff for some of that time). His paper was part of the council’s “Beyond Therapy” project, which culminated in a report under that title in 2003. Strangely, Mr. Sandel never directs his readers to that document, which addresses many of the issues he takes up.

The Case Against Perfection explores two arenas in particular: the enhancement of athletes using new biotechnologies, and the genetic selection (and someday perhaps genetic design) of children before birth. With the passion of a sports fan who knows what he likes, Mr. Sandel argues for the integrity of sport as a profound human endeavor. He insists that what we value about athletes has as much to do with natural gifts as superior effort, and that the threat posed by enhancement technologies is, perhaps counterintuitively, a threat to nature more than effort. “To acknowledge the giftedness of life,” he writes,

is to recognize that our talents and powers are not wholly our own doing, nor even fully ours, despite the efforts we expend to develop and to exercise them. It is also to recognize that not everything in the world is open to any use we may desire or devise. An appreciation of the giftedness of life constrains the Promethean project and conduces to a certain humility.

Such humility before the great human mysteries is also at the heart of Mr. Sandel’s critique of what he calls “modern eugenics.” Parental selection and someday parental design of the next generation may not be coercive like early 20th-century eugenics, but, Mr. Sandel argues, it is no less misguided. “The problem with eugenics and genetic engineering,” he writes, “is that they represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.” This is of course a deeply conservative sentiment, and while Mr. Sandel is no conservative, he certainly shows himself to be a different kind of liberal than we are accustomed to nowadays.

Mr. Sandel describes three problems with the posture of mastery he finds behind the quest for biotechnological enhancement: It makes us less humble, it makes us responsible for too much, and it diminishes our identification with our fellow man.

The last point is especially intriguing. Mr. Sandel worries that advances in our ability to control human traits will cause us to identify to a diminished degree with those less fortunate, as we lose our ability to put ourselves in their shoes. Yet he never explores the underlying cause of such a failure of solidarity: a loss of faith in the essential liberal principle of human equality.

This oversight is especially evident in his discussion of eugenics. Mr. Sandel is surely right to argue that coercion was never the deepest problem with eugenics, but nor was willfulness its deepest flaw. The most crucial contention of the eugenics movement was not that the state must enforce a collective duty to improve the race, nor that human power would bring an end to human failings, but rather that science had shown the principle of human equality to be unfounded. It is that insight that was rejected when eugenics was finally put aside after World War II. And it is unfortunately that insight that threatens again to rear its head, and to do so, now as then, in particular among progressives.

Mr. Sandel is right to note that when we lose our appreciation for the gifted character of life we lose our humility, and therefore our sympathy, too. But he fails to see that the same attitude informs an implicit rejection of human equality — a rejection he himself evinces in an epilogue to the book devoted to the stem cell debate.

The epilogue feels abrupt and forced. One can hardly escape the conclusion that having voiced fairly conservative views about biotechnology, Mr. Sandel feels compelled to varnish his liberal credentials before signing off. The author’s depth and care disappear, replaced by parlor tricks and patently unsupportable logical leaps. Rather than hubris, he directs his censure at mere inconsistency, arguing that opponents of abortion rights and embryo research really believed what they said, they would picket in vitro fertilization clinics and hold funerals for embryos. And having criticized inconsistency, he then asserts his own position as follows:

Genetic engineering to create designer babies is the ultimate expression of the hubris that marks the loss of reverence for life as a gift. But stem cell research to cure debilitating disease, using unimplanted blastocysts, is a noble exercise of our human ingenuity to promote healing and to play our part in repairing the given world.

The epilogue’s contortions of logic and argument are almost enough to nullify the reader’s sense — built up in the earlier chapters — that behind this book is a serious man contending with serious issues.

But only almost. None of us is immune to blind spots, and thoughtful contention with great questions ought not be dismissed merely because the contender chooses to be less than thoughtful on other questions. Nobody’s perfect, and Mr. Sandel’s book makes an instructive and engaging case that that nobody should be.

— Mr. Levin is director of the Bioethics and American Democracy program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and senior editor of the New Atlantis magazine.

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