A better life, or just hubris?

The Case against Perfection
August 10, 2007

This book is about misgivings over enhancement rather than what would be the Aunt Sally of perfection. The concern is the enhancement of human capabilities on offer from advances in genetic engineering. Is our unease rationally justifiable or just an irrational fear of the new? Many people feel that there is something inherently morally wrong with such enhancement, over and above its being imprudent.

Michael J. Sandel holds that the familiar categories of Kantian autonomy, and weighing the costs and benefits consequentially, are inadequate to capture what is morally at stake with bioengineering. His answer is that genetically engineered enhancement beyond normal function is an expression of hubris that marks a loss of reverence of life as a gift and a rejection of openness to the unbidden, so that what was once simply presented to us becomes instead subject to the will.

That the two main moral theories fail to impinge upon our concerns in this area might lead one to suppose that we must widen our moral perspective, or it might make one wonder whether moral issues are really at stake at all. It might just amount to a justifiable amoral fear of foolhardy meddling in matters the consequences of which we are in no position to predict. We may then fall into interpreting this as moral disquiet, when in fact the concern is purely practical.

Sandel removes the possibility of consequentialist theory coping with bio enhancement by ruling out by fiat the usual proffered bad consequences, such as safety and fairness, while showing that there is still something worrying us. But I don't think Sandel is right to rule out Kantian autonomy getting a grip on many of the issues. He argues fallaciously that, since the alternative to parents' designing their children would not be babies choosing how they are, but rather chance doing so, arguments from Kantian autonomy cannot explain our moral disquiet. But Kantian autonomy concerns our not being subject to the will of another in some matter, and does not suppose that for this to be objectionable it must be subjectable to our will. It is not necessary to show that my getting diphtheria would be subject to my will for it to be the case that deliberately infecting me with it is morally objectionable.

What Sandel means by a "gift" is a romantic way of selling the appeal of blind chance and the appreciation of our "good luck". Despite his denial that this need assume any religious metaphysics, it's hard to see how something that happens to us by chance should be something revered for which we should be thankful. This attitude looks like a hangover from religious thoughts whereby non-human events are imbued with autonomous meaning.

The mirror of "gifts" is bad luck, and we are usually told it is foolish and superstitious to curse it. How can this be if we are supposed to revere our "good" gifts? The whole notion of luck imbued with value makes no sense in a universe that does not intrinsically bear moral epithets.

However, Sandel claims that it does. But to make this convincing he sets up a mistaken false dichotomy. Either things other than persons have intrinsic value, or those things are just available for use and have only instrumental value. But there is nothing to prevent things - other than people - being valued by people as ends in themselves, and not only as means to other things we value, even though without people (valuers) to bestow value they would have no value at all. If this were not so, nothing would have value. Trees can be valued as trees without thinking of them as logs for the fire or as having value autonomously.

What Sandel objects to is that designing ourselves would undermine certain valuable features of human life. He seems sometimes to hold that enhancement would improve us so much that we would have hardly any edifying difficulties left to overcome. The discussion of enhancement in sport is oddly long. The objection is that it would render many sports pointless, since they erect artificially contrived challenges set against what we might normally accomplish. But the extinction of sport is hardly a serious moral issue. Perhaps it is meant as a metaphor for life, where the "rules" are not set by us but the world.

Some of his arguments remind me of those heard in the early days of medicine claiming that meddling with the natural course of illnesses or, say, relieving pain in childbirth, would dangerously upset certain sacrosanct features of the human condition. This does not ignore Sandel's distinction between a restoration back to normal function and an enhancement, for it may be doubted that this distinction exists.

What really seems rightly to bother us about focused enhancement is hubris; but not as a threat to a positive sweet fatalistic affectionate reverence for the given. Rather, first, it's the sweeping aside of justifiable anxiety over the uncertainty of the outcome in matters that were once beyond our control but may now become our crushing responsibility. Second, the hubris is not only factually epistemic, but also morally so in the broad sense. To enhance our natures implicitly carries with it a positive grossly presumptive knowledge of the good life - loaded with values far beyond what our level of sureness as to what it might be would entitle us.

John Shand is associate lecturer in philosophy, Open University.

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

Author - Michael J. Sandel
Publisher - Belknap/Harvard University Press
Pages - 176
Price - £12.95
ISBN - 97806740190

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