The Case Against (Temporal) Perfection

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.

Sandel writes:

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?

18 comments for “The Case Against (Temporal) Perfection

  1. Well, the genetic engineering I’m familiar with is the effort to inculcate clotting factors in children born without them. The program has been a lifesaver for hemophiliac children who otherwise would have gotten tainted blood.

    I don’t regret that the Bishop’s son I knew didn’t die, not a bit.

  2. More “exorcised”? Meaning opposed, or just animated? I would agree with the latter. As to the former, I can imagine early Neanderthals debating whether fire was a good thing, too. Prometheus, we should remember, was on the side of the humans, not the gods.

    I agree that our (future) mastery of genetics will radically change not only our appearance, but our society, as well.

  3. I think it is pretty much a hard sell. By the same logic, isn’t curing bad vision also removing our sense of gifts and giving hyperagency? After all those of us with very bad vision normally could do little. Our agency is getting out of hand. And all those with good vision don’t appreciate it now that nearly everyone can see well. Quick. Everyone. Get rid of your technology!

    This whole line of thinking just seems like Luddism wrapped up in new clothing.

  4. Gordon,

    I’m a little surprised that so far the threads in response to your post seem to disagree with Sandel (though the day is still young). I don’t get the impression that he is saying we should NEVER seek to alter genetics (and Ethesis’ example of saving children without clotting factors is a perfect example of the “giftedness” of this very technology), but rather we should be circumspect about our MOTIVES for doing so, as welll as the LIMITS of far we should go with this technology. Such an ethical debate needs to be kept constant, I think, in the same sense as would be the case with, say, nuclear technology (it can diminish the energy costs of the poor, and blow the whole world up as well). I hope we’re not going to fall in to the mindset, actually expressed a couple of times on some threads here at T&S, that the very existence of genetic technology argues that it must be “God’s will” that we use it, and without limits. That’s a crazy trap to fall for, but I am disturbed to see many prominent members (no G.A.’s, though) doing just that on fetal tissue research, etc.

    I would think it should be a given, that the fact that Man is able to do something does not automatically mean that we SHOULD do that thing, or that we should not consider ethically what we do. Sartel’s contribution here seem’s to be an honest effort at getting a handle on some of the ethical questions that may be forced upon us sooner than we think. Isn’t there a difference between saving children born with hemophilia, versus making all children born as athletes, or geniuses, or trained killers? If we could ensure that all children born have an IQ of 130, what is our reason for doing so? Are the children not so born unworthy of love? Are we genuinely seeking to ease human suffering, or to just avoid having to look at it? At the very least, these are questions worth asking.

  5. Oops! I meant “Sandel”, not “Sartel”. This is what happens when you’re trying to write into blogs and two or three other tasks at the same time!

  6. While there certainly are differences and the questions are worth asking, it seems the proposed answers are questionable at best. As I suggested, the better comparison are ‘non-essential’ problems we humans have. Say poor vision, speech impediments, genetic obesity, deafness, and the like. But IQ (ignoring the problems of what is ‘measures’) is relevant. What about children with IQs below 90? But if that is appropriate to fix, what about 100, 110, 120?

    I think that the issue of whether “flawed” children are worthy of love is a red herrring. Of course they are. But isn’t love trying to remove fixed limits on their potential?

  7. Some very intersting ideas. Of course we all like to agree that improving the quality of life is worth the attempt, but there are serious considerations as well. Since science has not completely caught up to science fiction yet, Scifi provides a window to what the future may hold through the eyes of creative and visionary writers. I can think of two examples.

    In Star Trek TNG a genetically engeneered race was facing destruction, when Geordi LaForge (a blind man with a device to help him see) found a solution for thier destruction through his device. A device that would never have been created in thier world because blindness had been removed, an irony he pointed out.

    The second and more powerful example is the movie Gatticca. This warns us of the potential social problems. Not just the genetic issues that may come out as we conquer disease and improve peoples lives. A second class will evolve. This is a great example of what may wait for us on the edge of tomorrow.

    Motives are certainly a big factor as well. Unfortunately, we cannot legislate motives only actions. Doing so, puts us in danger of a totalitarian regime. If we cannot limit why people would partake in genetic engineering then we must decide where to limit the actions of doing it. This is a steep slippery slope that does need to be debated.

    I fear the reason it is taken to such a backseat is to things like gay marriage is because technology has not reachted the proportions scifi has warned us about. By the time that reality reaches that capability we will already be engaging in engineering and it will be too late to begin regulating.

    Loving our children includes unconditional love. That is hard enough to do now with people who are flawed. How much harder will it be when we can have “made-to-order” children and they still don’t reach their potential? Will we love them less for not accomlishing what we couldn’t when they were given such a boost? Will they wonder if we would have loved them as much if they were born naturally?

    What responsibility do we have, knowing what the purpose of life is, to provide challenges to our children that will help them grow?

  8. Clark,

    Along the lines from your last thread, what happens when “made-to-order” children really DO live up to the potential they were “bred” for by their parents, but now the parents have “changed their minds” about what they want after all. Again, as you point out, and as I was rather inarticulately getting at, is the danger of creating second-class people, and the slippery slope towards an “uber mensch/unter mensch” society in which the people God has created (Latter-day Saints perhaps?) are shunned, persecuted, and even oppressed by the people Man has “created”. This is a theme Hugh Nibley hinted at as an issue in the days of Noah in an article he wrote years ago. “Sons of God” vs. “Sons of Men” may make for an interesting dichotomy. Wild speculation, but science fiction, as you point out, can be a good way to postulate future possibilities, and we do ourselves no favors by waiting until the technology is in full bloom before we think about limits.

  9. Sandel’s argument seems to me like a soft-fatalistic outlook on life, sort of like taking a backseat and letting someone else drive so that we can appreciate “unbidden” turns and scenery, and not feel so responsible for avoiding accidents and other mishaps or good fortunes.

    While there’s a certain admiration in humility and a wonder in taking in the unbidden, this attitude is too similar to fatalists who too easily accept their lot in life–be it poverty, or handicap, or even wealth–and live as if they have no sense of automony or responsibility in the matter. Isn’t that attitude just a little anti-American and anti-Mormon?

  10. The problem is that there already is a second-class grade of people. Look at the prospects for people with IQs of less than 100. Look at the prospects for people who don’t learn as fast.

    The problem in Gatticca was that it confused two issues: genetic enhancement with testing based on genes rather than performance. Performance won’t always correlate (as I thought the film brought out).

    I certainly worry about class structures. But our increasingly technological society is merely ascerbating the limits of our existing genes. i.e. the ability to deal with increasingly complex and mathematical tasks to get good paying jobs. What genetic manipulation will do is *level* the playing field, not make it worse…

    The old Enoch fables are interesting. The mixing of the angels and men led to all sorts of things. I don’t think I agree with Nibley’s take. But one should also note that correlated with the differences was wickedness, something that need not be taken for granted. (i.e. the problem was that the interbreeding angels in these myths were *fallen* angels)

  11. The Book of Mormon encourages a rememberance of our nothingness, but is this extreme humility the same attitude Sandel encourages?

    Mos 4:11
    “I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own cnothingness•, and his dgoodness• and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of ehumility, fcalling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing gsteadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.”

  12. I recommend Phillip Kitcher’s “The Lives to Come” which treats these same issues and is quite thought-provoking.

  13. Clark,
    I don’t see how engineering can level the playing field. We already live in a world that is divided in class by economic barriers. Unless such engineering is freely available to all who want it, it will not level anything. Those who can afford it will breed a “better” human, while the lower economic classes continue to do things the old fasioned way.

    This would actually widen the gap. Those who already excel at science or mathematics or business will build children better suited to do so. Those without the means would not be able to keep up.

    Most of the science fiction I’m familiar with addresses the social implications of the technology. Gattica was two fold. 1) being able to predict future defects. 2) correcting them or customizing our children.

    The first comes about with a better understanding of how we are built in the first place. Reverse-engineering the genome. It is the basis for the upcoming social caste system. Knowing what defects a person may have or what personality traits, and then basing insurance rates, or what schools they will be permitted to attend based on that knowlege.

    It is also the precursor to being able to customize the genome. Which in turns widens that class gap.

    We are already at the first stage. Diseases can be tested for before a child is born or even concieved. Thankfully, we have not yet entered the social state which is what science fiction is warning us most about.

  14. Clark,

    I don’t think we really disagree here as much as we are emphasizing two sides of the same coin. I agree that we should not assume the very worst uses of the technology we discuss here, but at the same time we would be foolish to not take it into account, and to do so early in this process of building a system of ethics to govern what future advances will bring. Sandel brings up points that need to be considered, and carefully, but of course they are not the only points. A desire and need ease the suffering of others, and allow all to be able to participate in the normalcy of mortality is just as important a consideration, as you and others have pointed out. My concern, ultimately, is determining our motives for genetic enhancement/correction of human beings, and ensuring that it is the noble motives that are driving and informing policy, and that wicked motives are checked and protected against. Are we seeking to “lift the hands that fail and strengthen the feeble knees”, or is our attitude, “I will ascend to the sides of the north; I will be like the Most High”. The problem is that the world tends to the latter attitude.

  15. Tom,

    You’ve hit on an interesting tension — the necessity of balancing the scriptural statements that “we are nothing” with the idea of our potential godhood, and the importance of our exercise of free agency in attaining that end. You’re right — excessive humilty, if it makes us forget our potential godhood, could be harmful. (Sort of an “I am nothing, so it doesn’t matter what I do” attitude).

    However, the scriptures seem to indicate that people more naturally gravitate to the excessive pride end of this spectrum, rather than the excessive humility end. So the case against physical perfection may still be a good idea.

    (By the way, how’s Egypt treating you? The ward is still rather chaotic here, and I’m still in the EQ presidency).

  16. Charles, it really depends upon the cost. Even if the technology is initially costly, probably within 20 years it will be cheap, given past experiences with technology. So the benefit of genetic testing and sperm/egg selection to the rich would be short term. At that point the cost would be minimal and even the upper lower class could afford it – especially if trends regarding family size continue to increase.

    Certainly there will be an issue of those who for whatever reason don’t take the responsibility of ensuring kids with abilities. And those will form a lower class. However my argument is that this will be far *smaller* than what is going on at present. i.e. less of a class division.

    Of course we’re all speaking science fiction now – although there are some hints of the last few months that increasing things like math skills are discernable. Tying it to an analysis of stem cells might be trickier – but probably doable within 50 years.

    Gary, with technology what counts are effects not motives. Motives are great for discerning individual worthiness. Very poor for discerning effects. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think Sandel misses that rather important point by focusing in (incorrectly) on motivations rather than effects.

    A stronger argument would be something like social benefits by undesirable traits. i.e. how many people would pick homosexual kids, yet perhaps homosexuality also inherits certain artistic skills society would lose or have decreased by the genetic specialization. Unfortunately he doesn’t take this approach and instead adopts a basically luddite approach. (IMO)

  17. Kaimi,

    This is a great thing you’ve started up, this blog-community. I only recently discovered it, and so far I have enjoyed it.

    I’m happy to hear that you’re still in the EQ presidency in the Bronx. I thought for sure you would have moved more to midtown by now, though. The branch here in Cairo is so very different (in a good way). But Shannon and I are leaving at the end of this semester, moving to Tampa, Florida, where most of my family lives. I’m going to try to get out of teaching and into technical or marketing writing.

    Living in Egypt, seeing how easily people accept their condition in life as fate (my officemate sometimes resolves concerns about grades by telling students that it was their fate to get a C!; or, in a taxi, if you tell the driver to turn left at the next street he often says, “God-willing”)–all this has helped me understand how American it is to want to change or control or manipulate our future rather than be resigned in a passive way to it.

    Keep up the good work.


  18. Clark,

    I agree about motives vs effects. I would go even further though and say that this applies to all things not just technology. As I said earlier we cannot legislate motives (or thought) only actions. When an action is deemed illegal or unethical we can certainly take in an individuals motive when determining punishment but we cannot become thought police. This totalitarian perspective would be dangerous and seriously impact our agency.

    I would still have to argue though that the class differences would be prominent. Even if the cost was reduced within 20 years, that is still an entire generation later. Imagine the wealthy class customizing the next generation in thier image. Kids graduate college earlier get higher paying jobs, perform better.

    Even if the lower class reproduces at a higher rate the distinction will become more clear. There is also another social problem when it comes to reproduction among the classes. It seems that the lower class has a greater number of unplanned pregnancies. Unless we learn to engineer after conception, the cost would not be as much a factor as we may first have thought. But even if this is just an uneducated observation and not fact, the cost is still there for a generation.

    What I believe the scientific community should do is put a mortitorium on the research once we hit a certain point. Then we should have a predetermined amount of time to educate the public and publicly debate the issue. Only then should we move forward. This might stifle technology’s growth but it would allow us to better understand and use it. It would make sure we are ready for it.

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