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The Case Against Perfection

“The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering” is a concise, and rich book written by Michael J. Sandel, critiquing the ambitions of scientists, parents, and the societies who employ genetic enhancement to improve next generation of children. Sandel holds that the philosophical battle is between the Promethean aspiration to dominate nature and remold it in an image of our choice, and his ethics, which centers on the “giftedness of human life”. It states 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 “not everything in the world is morally open to any use we may desire or devise." (Sandel, 2007, p. 27). This latter opinion, according to Sandel, implies that our children too should be viewed as a gift, and that if we do not show respect to their giftedness, some of our basic values are at risk of being threatened.

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In Chapter One, Sandel introduces various cases that are intended to stir up moral discomfort to make us keen in discovering what is wrong. He gives an example of two deaf lesbians who choose a deaf sperm-donor in order for their child to be deaf. Sandel thinks there is something wrong with the way technology is being used, citing the increasing demand for bioengineering of sex selection. How technology is used draws a lot of moral concerns, according to Sandel.

The second chapter explores the use of genetic enhancement for the purposes of athletics. Opponents of genetic enhancement usually argue that it diminishes human agency. However, Sandal gives an example of a bionic athlete, who becomes less human as a result of additional enhancement. Sandel is worried about the danger of hyper-agency. He says that such hyper-agency of the Promethean spirit does not recognize human talents, and is bound to exceed them. Sandel notes how hard it is to explain what people admire about sports, without appealing to giftedness. Giftedness is the basis of excellence, which is the very essence of sports. He believes that genetically modified athletes corrupt athletic competitions, as an activity that honors the display of people’s natural talents.

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Chapter Three addresses the more pervasive and worrying concern of the parents’ role as makers of children. Sandel (2007) says, "To appreciate children as gifts, 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.” (p. 45). According to Sandel, the pursuit to master nature, may or may not result in authoritative parents, but it surely disfigures the relationship between the parent and the child, and “deprive the parent of the humility and enlarged human sympathies that openness to the unbidden can cultivate” (p. 46). Parents who are bent on genetically enhancing their children have a high likelihood of overreaching and entrenching attitudes, which are in conflict with the custom of unconditional love (p. 49). In what seems to be the core chapter of this book, Sandel thinks that giftedness (and not the spirit of mastery), supports what people must accept; that is to love children unreservedly.

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In the fourth chapter, Sandel presents his thoughts on eugenics and liberalism. The author points out that liberalism allow non-coercive eugenics, and masquerades as a substitute to Nazi-style policies. Given the role of parents in promoting the welfare of their children, and the fact that the liberal "principle of ethical individualism" stresses on the need to strive to prolong the lives of future generation children, and make it fuller of achievement and talent, Sandel concludes that “liberal eugenics does not reject state-imposed genetic engineering at all” (2007, p. 79). It just necessitates that such coercion be well-suited with a child's autonomy.

In the last chapter, the author puts together his ideas on giftedness, and considers a number of objections to his position. According to Sandel (2007), the pursuit of mastery of nature threatens three basic values. Humility is the first value, which “teaches parents to be open to the unbidden” (p. 86). Responsibility is the second value. The author gives an example of pitchers who encourage professional baseball players to engage in games which are wired on amphetamines, instead of playing naked, for the fear of performing inadequately. Sandel claims that there is danger of explosion of new responsibilities, and that people are unprepared to deal with it. Lastly, there is the value of solidarity to which he says, “The more alive we are to the chanced nature of our lot, the more reason we have to share our fate with others” (p. 90-91). Sandel maintains that genetic enhancement rejects the chanced nature, making it harder to promote solidarity in the society.

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Perhaps the meatiest part of the book is the epilogue on the stem cell debate, in which the author finds Bush’s policy of, "Don't Fund, Don't Ban" incoherent. He however, favors the permissibility of such research on moral grounds, since its intention is to alleviate suffering and not enhancement. However, he stresses that permissibility must accord respect to embryos by recognizing that they are not merely objects at our disposal.

Sandel argues that the search for perfection is blemished due to reasons beyond safety and fairness. The ambition to improve human nature via genetic enhancement is questionable since its focus is on dominion and mastery over nature, at the expense of appreciating natural human abilities and achievements. Sandel believes that it is the duty of parents to promote excellence in their children. He recognizes that parents are overdoing this through Scholastic Aptitude Test and orthodontics coaches among other ways. Sandel asks that if it is allowed for parents to help their children in the above ways, then why is it not equally admirable for parents to employ genetic technology to improve their children’s appearance, intelligence, athletic skills etc.? A group of liberal eugenicists think that eugenic measures for instance, embryo selection, are morally needed, so long as there is fair distribution of the burdens and the benefits throughout the society. Sandel has quoted Ronald Dworkin saying that, “If playing God means struggling to improve our species, bringing into our conscious designs a resolution to improve whatever God deliberately or nature blindly has evolved over eons, then the first principles of ethical individualism command the struggle” (p. 95) It is important to note that Sandel is not a liberal eugenist; in fact he disagrees with eugenic parenting citing that it confuses God’s role, and misrepresents our place in creation.

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According to Freeman Dyson, a physicist and mathematician, biotechnology will dominate our lives in the coming 50 years, the same way computers have been part of our lives for the past 50 years. Robert Sinsheimer, a biologist also noted that human beings can be enhanced upon evolution. However, Sandel disagrees arguing that the dream of having the liberty to carry out genetic manipulation is flawed since it threatens to rid people’s appreciation of life as a divine gift.

Safety, as opposed to metaphysics has been the most significant hurdle in genetic enhancement. Due to untoward events that have occurred in the recent past, regulatory agencies and advisory panels have attempted to close Pandora’s Box of cloning awaiting responsible opening. The fact that Dolly, the cloned sheep died prematurely, while other cloned animals have shown a high occurrence of birth defects, led to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies to call for a lawful ban on human cloning till there will be a demonstration of safety and effectiveness in animals. Sandel is aware of the probable closure of the Pandora’s Box, but even if the safety issues are overcome, genetic enhancement still threatens to take away the values that we hold dear, leaving us with nothing to behold other than our own will.

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Even though Sandel may not be very persuasive, and his argument on the principle of giftedness stops where I wished he would say more for instance, the claim that persons do not entirely own their talents, he however presents his idea and that of his antagonists vividly, tackling numerous objections to his suggestions, and carrying a majority of the arguments out in multiple steps. In this manner, the Sandel offers a well-articulated viewpoint to widen the readers understanding of the crucial topic of genetic enhancement.

“The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering”, is a short but engaging book, that presents numerous arguments against suggestions to genetically enhance human life. Sandel argues carefully and vividly not only against the excessive cases like human cloning, but also against self-effacing proposals of gene modification. As title of this book suggests, Sandel’s opinions are nearly exclusively negative, though his most creative and interesting suggestion is the idea that human bioengineering will cause people to loose their sense of life as a gift, which as a result has a morally negative effect on the social structure of the entire society. I entirely agree with Sandel. It is high time that people accept themselves for who they are, and quit trying to challenge God’s creation.

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