In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Michael J. Sandel makes the case against perfection. Last month we had a vigorous discussion about “Enhancing Nature,” which focused on the use of medical technology (or herbal remedies) to enhance physical appearance. Sandel talks about similar issues (muscle enhancement, memory enhancement, growth-hormone treatment, and reproductive technologies that enable parents to choose the sex and some genetic traits of their children), but focuses on gene therapy. Interestingly, he connects these debates to the topic of human agency.
It is commonly said that genetic enhancements undermine our humanity by threatening our capacity to act freely, to succeed by our own efforts, and to consider ourselves responsible?worthy of praise or blame?for the things we do and for the way we are. It is one thing to hit seventy home runs as the result of disciplined training and effort, and something else, something less, to hit them with the help of steroids or genetically enhanced muscles. Of course, the roles of effort and enhancement will be a matter of degree. But as the role of enhancement increases, our admiration for the achievement fades?or, rather, our admiration for the achievement shifts from the player to his pharmacist. This suggests that our moral response to enhancement is a response to the diminished agency of the person whose achievement is enhanced.
Though there is much to be said for this argument, I do not think the main problem with enhancement and genetic engineering is that they undermine effort and erode human agency. The deeper danger is that they represent a kind of hyperagency?a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and may even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements.
Sandel argues that our failure to appreciate giftedness will cause us to love our children less (“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”), changes our relationship to God (“To believe that our talents and powers are wholly our own doing is to misunderstand our place in creation, to confuse our role with God’s”), and ultimately leads to the “transform[ation of] three key features of our moral landscape: humility, responsibility, and solidarity.”
On Humility: “In a social world that prizes mastery and control, parenthood is a school for humility. That we care deeply about our children and yet cannot choose the kind we want teaches parents to be open to the unbidden. Such openness is a disposition worth affirming, not only within families but in the wider world as well. It invites us to abide the unexpected, to live with dissonance, to rein in the impulse to control.”
On Responsibility: “One of the blessings of seeing ourselves as creatures of nature, God, or fortune is that we are not wholly responsible for the way we are. The more we become masters of our genetic endowments, the greater the burden we bear for the talents we have and the way we perform.”
On Solidarity: “A lively sense of the contingency of our gifts?a consciousness that none of us is wholly responsible for his or her success?saves a meritocratic society from sliding into the smug assumption that the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor. Without this, the successful would become even more likely than they are now to view themselves as self-made and self-sufficient, and hence wholly responsible for their success. Those at the bottom of society would be viewed not as disadvantaged, and thus worthy of a measure of compensation, but as simply unfit, and thus worthy of eugenic repair. The meritocracy, less chastened by chance, would become harder, less forgiving.”
If Sandel is right, we should be more exorcised about genetic engineering than gay marriage. Or abortion. Or any other political debate I can think of. Shouldn’t we?