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The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering

reviewed by Jeff Frank - May 15, 2007

coverTitle: The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering
Author(s): Michael J. Sandel
Publisher: Belknap Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 067401927X , Pages: 176, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Although most parents want what is best for their children, how far is too far? Test preparation is now a $2.5 billion industry (p. 55), parents consult with college admissions counselors who charge upwards of $30,000 (p. 56), and parents spend large sums of money to give their children private lessons in music, dance, and sport. Given this, Michael Sandel asks:

If it is permissible, even admirable, for parents to help their children in these ways, why isnt it equally admirable for parents to use whatever genetic technologies may emerge (provided they are safe) to enhance their childs intelligence, musical ability, or athletic skill? (p. 51)

Sandels new book is aimed at a general audience who he hopes will respond to the question above with, I dont know, I havent really thought of it. Still, something makes me feel that there is an important difference. Genetic engineering, argues Sandel, is a topic that deserves significant public attention. This is especially so because we are already engaged in making decisions about genetic technologies that we might be unaware of. As such, we may assent to policies and practices that we find morally suspect.

For readers who have already thought about the question above and do not feel that there is a difference between test preparation and genetic engineering, Sandels book may prove unconvincing. The Case Against Perfection is not an argument against genetic engineering as much as it is an invitation to an intellectual journey for those who feel that there is something problematic about new genetic technologies. I find this approach more congenial. Rather than doing all of the work for his reader, Sandel invites her to think about why she finds genetic engineering to be problematic; his book serves as a resource for a reader so that she can begin to articulate her unease. It is worth quoting Sandel at length on why articulation is important:

When science moves faster than moral understanding, as it does today, men and women struggle to articulate their unease&That is why the genomic revolution has induced a kind of moral vertigo. To grapple with the ethics of enhancement, we need to confront questions largely lost from view in the modern worldquestions about the moral status of nature, and about the proper stance of human beings toward the given world. Since these questions verge on theology, modern philosophers and political theorists tend to shrink from them. But our new powers of biotechnology make them unavoidable. (p. 9-10)

I find this very convincing. Because science is moving faster than our moral understanding, confronting difficult problems posed by scientific advances does cause moral vertigo. The resources which modern philosophers and political theorists have at hand to forestall this dizzinessthe language of autonomy, fairness and individual rights (p. 9)dont seem to work. As such, it is worth trying Sandels approach, which is to reengage with moral language derived from attempts to articulate the proper stance of human beings toward the given world.

Before doing this, consider some objections. It might be the case that the language of autonomy, fairness and individual rights is not given its due here by Sandel. Although modern philosophers and political scientists do not have the language to properly respond to the ethics of enhancement yet, it is worth going along with them a little while longer before drawing upon the language of theology. For example, Onora ONeills (2002) work on trust and bioethics seems promising on this count. As well, I am troubled that language verging on theology might prove problematic. Can one safely use a notion of excellence or giftedness derived from a religious background in a non-religious discourse? Although neither of these objections will be pursued here, it is worth holding them in mind as we examine Sandels approach.

The Case Against Perfection is organized in five chapters with an epilogue on stem cell research. After an introduction in the first chapter, Sandel discusses genetic engineering and: athletics (chapter 2); parenting (chapter 3); the eugenics movement (chapter 4). Chapter 5 is the conclusion of the book. In it Sandel lays out his case against genetic engineering. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 follow roughly the same format. As such, I will focus on chapter 2 as a means to explore the overall argument put forward in the book. After doing this, I will examine Sandels conclusion.

To begin, Sandel draws a distinction. He writes, The difference between curing and improving seems to make a moral difference (p. 12). Many athletes sustain injuries over their careers. In rehabbing injuries, athletes may take drugs that momentarily enhance their physique so as to return them to their previous level of performance. Sandel sees nothing ethically objectionable about this. But, it may be difficult for the athlete to stop taking these drugs once she returns to her previous level of performance. If it was permissibleeven advisableto take enhancement drugs to rehabilitate an injury, why should she stop once she is cured? Why shouldnt she see how far drugs can take herassuming, of course, they pose no major health risks?

This question is difficult to answer. Recourse to ideals of fairness doesnt seem to work. Athletes are always attemptingthrough better equipment, diets, and training regimensto outdo their opponents. If an athlete finds a way to genetically enhance her performance, she shouldfollowing her ordinary logictake advantage of it. If not, her opponent surely will as soon as she discovers it. A defender of non-enhanced athletics seems left in a bind. If in every other aspect of sport competitors seek every advantage that presents itself, why should advantages posed by genetic alteration prove different?

Sandel finds traction in the distinction between sports and spectacle. He argues that there is a difference between trampoline basketball and basketball as it is played in college; there is a difference between professional wrestling and college wrestling (pp. 36-37). Spectacles, by isolating and exaggerating through artifice an attention-grabbing feature of a sport depreciate the natural talents and gifts that the greatest players display (p. 37). Genetically enhanced athletes will turn sport into spectacle. For example, in the 1972 Super Bowl, linemen weighed an average of 248 pounds; in 2002 this figure jumped to 304 pounds, and 400-pound players are now entering the league (p. 34). If genetic engineering became a live possibility, this growth would surely accelerate. A hypothetical 500-pound lineman, according to Sandel, would turn football into a spectacle. Where the 1972 players exhibited grace in the performance of their natural talents, these 500-pound players would do little more than crash violently into one another.

This is where the problem lies for Sandel. Genetic engineering in sports is unethical because it does not treat sport as a human activity that honors the cultivation and display of natural talents (p. 29). An athlete like Roger Bannisterthe first runner to break the four-minute mileillustrates this distinction. He trained for his historic run during his lunch break at a hospital where he was a medical student (p. 31). Bannister did not, like some modern athletes, resort to technologically advanced techniques like Nikes altitude house where scientists artificially create conditions of high-altitude for runners, thereby boosting production of the athletes red blood cells (p. 32). Where Bannister trained as best he could, given the conditions at hand, modern athletes attempt to beat their circumstance. Where Bannister pursued excellence through the development of his natural talents, modern athletes attempt to use mastery of nature as a means to success.

Genetic enhancement is the next logical step in this drive to mastery. Like athletes attempting to design their success, parents attempt to create the perfect conditions for their children. From listening to classical music in the womb, to kindergarten test preparation and on to the college admissions process, parents attempt to control and direct their childs future. The next logical step in this process is to take more extreme action. Parents will begin giving their children all of the genetic advantages that science makes available. This hyper-concern, this attempt to master is the problem. The problem with eugenics and genetic engineering is that they represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of domination over reverence, of molding over beholding (p. 85). Though Sandel does not want parents to be uninvolved in the lives of their children, he does think that they are slowly going too far. Parents, he argues, need to respect their childrens gifts as they are given; they should not attempt to force their children to conform to some pre-given model of perfection. Likewise, parents need to leave more space in their own life for revering the very fact of the existence of their children. They should remain open to the unbidden in their childs development instead of forcefully molding it. This is both difficult and hard to formulate. As Sandel repeatedly acknowledges, the line between concern and willfulness is hard to demarcate. Nonetheless, it is worth the effort. Failing to think about this may usher in a future that we would not want to live.

So, what is to be done? First, Sandels bookas it is aimed at a non-specialist audienceaddresses the people who are on the frontline of the genetics debate: parents and coaches. Parents and coaches are already making decisions that are determiningeven if unwittinglythe future of genetic engineering in the United States. If these parties are not informed, then this future may quickly prove undesirable. And yet, this doesnt have to be the case. By reading this book and seriously reflecting on ones reactions to it, one is in a better position to change the future.

Granted, this is a bold claim to make about a book, especially a book of philosophy. But, the book stands up to it. It is public philosophy in the best sense. The Case Against Perfection is an important book that deserves a wide audience. Though readers may disagree with his conclusions, given the strength of Sandels prose, they will most likely find themselvesdespite their disagreementdeeply engaged.


ONeill, O. (2002). Autonomy and trust in bioethics. New York: Cambridge UP.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 15, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14485, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 11:36:08 AM

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About the Author
  • Jeff Frank
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    JEFF FRANK is a doctoral student in the Program of Philosophy and Education at Teachers College. He is also a member of the EdLab and on the staff of the Teachers College Record. His research interests include moral philosophy, and philosophy and literature.
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