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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Case Against Perfection, by Michael J. Sandel

I recently read Michael J. Sandel's The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

It's a small and short book, considering various aspects of what has been called human enhancement, especially in athletics, and in genetic engineering of embryos. As the title suggests, Sandel is generally opposed to such enhancement. His arguments are of this sort:

The real problem with genetically altered athletes is that they corrupt athletic competition as a human activity that honors the cultivation and display of natural talents. From this standpoint, enhancement can be seen as the ultimate expression of the ethic of effort and willfulness, a kind of high-tech striving. (p. 29)

He has a similar objection to genetic engineering of human embryos -- he says that it would make us less human:

It is sometimes thought that genetic enhancement erodes human responsibility by overriding effort and striving. But the real problem is the explosion, not the erosion, of responsibility. As humility gives way, responsibility expands to daunting proportions. We attribute less to chance and more to choice. Parents become responsible for choosing, or failing to choose, the right traits for their children. (p. 87)

Are there religious objections to enhancement? I find them hard to draw. We take it as given that we are expected to purchase glasses for our children, the best equipment, such as shoes, for our athletes, and provide sometimes expensive training for both our kids and our athletes. So why draw the line at allowing, or even demanding, that the athletes take hormones, or injections of extra copies of normal genes, which will cause them to produce larger quantities of materials that will enhance performance? Yet most of us think that such treatment is unfair. Going down the path of enhancement, Sandel says, would logically lead to having the Super Bowl played by teams of robots. Do we want that? Do we want to genetically engineer our children for supposed superiority in some academic or physical endeavor, when, perhaps, they would not have chosen to live the life suggested by their enhancement?

Interesting questions, and interesting, if non-definitive answers. I'm glad I read this book. Thanks for reading.

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