Book Review: The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering by Michael J. Sandel

A recent article in the April 29 edition of the New York Review of Books, “Editing Humanity’s Future” by Natalie de Souza, awoke in me a very insistent interest in the topic of bioetics. Rather than begin with any of the books reviewed in de Souza’s article, I took an interest in a considerably lighter novel mentioned in a footnote; that title? Michael J. Sandel’s Case Against Perfection.

Sandel’s arguments advise caution against the liberal use of genetic engineering that seems ever closer to becoming reality. That is not to say he doesn’t make allowances for the use of gene therapy to cure debilitating diseases–on the contrary, Souza recognises it for the potential powerful tool . The arguments he gives voice to stem from the following issue:

The moral quandary arises when people use such therapy [the kind that repairs or replaces defective genes] not to cure a disease but to reach beyond health, to enhance their physical or cognitive capacities, to lift themselves above the norm.

The Case Against Perfection, p. 08

What worries Sandel–and many of those who examine the ethics of bioengineering–is the use of gene editing technology for the corruption of “natural gifts…with artifice” (29). If this sounds a little arcane, don’t worry; the author presents the notions of “giftedness” and “mastery/control” as two ends of the pole of human development, pre- and post-genetic engineering. Giftedness is that mystical thing that keeps us humble, that awareness that our skills and abilities, whatever it is we excel most at, are not wholly our own. They’re at least partially based on luck, on winning the genetic lottery–whether in intelligence, physical prowess, virtuoso musical ability. On the other side of the coin is the control that we, as a species, are close to having over our genetic make-up, thanks to CRISPR. If we uncoil the complex weaves of DNA in such a way as to figure out what set of genes make for a good writer, or a phenomenal athlete, the whole notion of giftedness goes out the window. Our children might be engineered from the very onset of their development to have natural advantages, tailor-made by demand of ambitious parents. This creates a host of issues, Sandel tells us, including but not limited to:

…the explosion, not the erosion, of responsibility. As humility gives way, responsibility expands to daunting proportions. We attribute less to chance and more to choice. Parents become responsible for choosing, or failing to choose, the right traits for their children.

The Case Against Perfection, p. 87

I am not wholly convinced by the arguments Sandel puts forth–some of them land better than others. His early points about the impermissibility of cloning human beings due to robbing their agency, for example, is well-reasoned and commonsensical enough that I struggle to imagine anyone arguing against it. His anxiety about humanity losing track of itself over self-deterministic genetic changes is understandable, but even despite his best efforts does not altogether escape an explanation more spiritual and less concrete. Sandel appeals to our common humanity, fearful that, say, the capacity of parents to tailor certain traits of their offspring will pervert humanity in the long run:

This takes us back to the notion of giftedness. Even if it does not harm the child or impair its autonomy, eugenic parenting is objectionable because it expresses and entrenches a certain stance toward the world—a stance of mastery and dominion that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements, and misses the part of freedom that consists in a persisting negotiation with the given.

The Case Against Perfection, p. 98

Overall, a worthwhile entry point on what is a complicated field of socio-political and philosophical questions. well-structured and easy to read. I leave you with the following questions:

The problem with eugenics and genetic engineering is that they represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding. But why, we may wonder, should we worry about this triumph? Why not shake off our unease with enhancement as so much superstition? What would be lost if biotechnology dissolved our sense of giftedness?

The Case Against Perfection, p. 85

They are important questions, no doubt. But it seems to me you might find answers different from the ones Sandel puts forth–and in doing so, you will begin to involve yourself in a conversation that must be had, and soon.

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