Three years ago in The Atlantic, the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel wrote a critique of genetic engineering titled “The Case Against Perfection.” Now he has turned it into a book. The title is the same, but the text has changed, and sections have been added. That’s what human beings do. We try to improve things.
Sandel worries that this urge to improve can get us into trouble. Steroids, growth hormones, genetic engineering and other enhancements “pose a threat to human dignity” and “diminish our humanity,” he argues. That’s the way ethicists talk: things are good or bad, human or inhuman. The book’s subtitle encapsulates this project: “Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.” But genetic engineering is too big for ethics. It changes human nature, and with it, our notions of good and bad. It even changes our notions of perfection. The problem with perfection in the age of self-transformation isn’t that it’s bad. The problem is that it’s incoherent.
Sandel’s critique is refreshingly sophisticated. Opponents of eugenic technologies usually complain that they’re unsafe, coercive, exploitative, nontherapeutic or unavailable to the poor. Sandel rebuts these objections, pointing out that they’re selectively applied and can be technically resolved. His deeper worry is that some kinds of enhancement violate the norms embedded in human practices. Baseball, for example, is supposed to develop and celebrate an array of talents. Steroids warp the game. Parents are supposed to cultivate children through unconditional as well as conditional love. Selecting a baby’s sex betrays that relationship.
How do we know these norms exist? Because when they’re violated, something in us rebels. When parents choose their children’s sex, we recoil. When baseball players use steroids, we frown. We, the audience, embody and express the norm.
But audiences, too, can change. Look what happened to Broadway musicals. Thanks to sound amplification, “audiences inevitably grew less alert, more passive,” Sandel observes. Musicals became less verbally clever, but we no longer cared. We were “rehabituated.” Sandel laments this, but it’s not clear why. If everything has changed—the practice, the audience, the norms—what basis for complaint remains?
When norms change, you can always find old fogeys who grouse that things aren’t the way they used to be. In the case of football, Sandel finds a retired N.F.L. player to support his contention that today’s bulked-up linemen are “degrading to the game” and to players’ “dignity.” But eventually, the old fogeys die out, and the new norms solidify. Sandel recalls a scene from the movie Chariots of Fire, set in the years before the 1924 Olympics, in which a runner was rebuked for using a coach. Supposedly, this violated the spirit of amateur competition. Today, nobody blinks at running coaches. The standpoint from which people used to find them unseemly is gone.
To defend the old ways against the new, Sandel needs something deeper: a common foundation for the various norms in sports, arts and parenting. He thinks he has found it in the idea of giftedness. To some degree, being a good parent, athlete or performer is about accepting and cherishing the raw material you’ve been given to work with. Strengthen your body, but respect it. Challenge your child, but love her. Celebrate nature. Don’t try to control everything.
Why should we accept our lot as a gift? Because the loss of such reverence would change our moral landscape. “If genetic engineering enabled us to override the results of the genetic lottery,” Sandel worries, we might lose “our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate.” Moreover, “if bioengineering made the myth of the ‘self-made man’ come true, it would be difficult to view our talents as gifts for which we are indebted rather than achievements for which we are responsible.”
Well, yes. In such a world, it would be hard to see ourselves as slaves to the genetic lottery or to a common fate because that perception would no longer be true. But why defend a perception against a truth? It’s a particularly awkward posture for a philosopher like Sandel, who infers norms and virtues from the way people live. Once gene therapy becomes routine, the case against genetic engineering will sound as quaint as the case against running coaches.
If the genetic lottery were better than the self-made man, we might prefer the old truth to the new one. But Sandel’s egalitarian fatalism already feels a bit 20th-century. The older half of me shares his dismay that some parents feel blamed for carrying babies with Down syndrome to term. But my younger half cringes at his flight from the “burden of decision” and “explosion of responsibility” that come with our expanding genetic power. Given a choice between a world of fate and blamelessness and a world of freedom and responsibility, I’ll take the latter. Such a world may be, as Sandel says, too daunting for the humans of today. But not for the humans of tomorrow.
Sandel thinks this vision of freedom is flawed. Part of freedom, he argues, “consists in a persisting negotiation with the given.” To abolish the given by re-engineering not only our world but also ourselves would “leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.” This is a profound insight. But it’s not fatal to freedom. It’s fatal to perfection.
In a world without givens, a world controlled by bioengineering, we would dictate our nature as well as our practices and norms. We would gain unprecedented power to redefine the good. In so doing, we would strip perfection of its independence. Its meaning would evolve as our nature and our ideals evolved. The more successfully we engineered I.Q. and muscle-to-fat ratio, the more central these measures would become to our idea of perfection. We already see this phenomenon in our shift of educational emphasis from character to academic testing. We might create a world of perfect SATs, E.R.A.’s and C.E.O.’s. But it would never be a perfect world, because the point of perfection is that its definition doesn’t bend to our will.
This is the real problem with self-engineering. It seizes control of humanity so radically that humanity can no longer judge it. We can’t be certain it’s diminishing us. But we can’t be certain it’s perfecting us, either. Sandel got it half right, which ain’t bad. Nobody’s perfect.
Michael J. Sandel is a Faculty Associate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He is also the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, Department of Government, Harvard University.
William Saletan writes Slate’s “Human Nature” column and is the author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.