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

Sandel starts this short work with a very poignant example that gets people thinking right away … he gives the example of two female partners who are deaf and wish to have a deaf child. They succeed in obtaining sperm that will likely produce deaf offspring. If you are like me, you may feel a bit of unease when hearing about this. I found it hard to articulate why. I have no doubt that deaf people share a rich and awesome culture and identity, but something seems wrong to me about choosing that for someone else. I would also find a problem with choosing your child to have blonde hair and blue eyes, for example. Even if the child cannot control what genes they receive, I don’t think the parent necessarily should be able to completely select them either.

Sandel describes this unease as the discomfort with the “hubris” that comes along with exerting power over another human life in the most fundamental way: in creating it. I found myself more comfortable with more remedial types of genetic modification, like knowing your child would have some very rare form of cancer or other life threatening disease and changing that… but I still didn’t feel completely comfortable the idea even though the more remedial type felt better to me. Sandel does not seem to differentiate between enhancing and remedial, if I’m okay with one it seems he thinks I should be ok with the other. I don’t know. My boyfriend pointed out that it may just not feel comfortable because it’s new. That very well could be part of it but I think it goes beyond that, at least for me.The unforeseeable consequences are what scares me. I think genetically modifying super smart, athletic, pretty, whatever children could change the culture we live in for the worse. The unattainable race toward perfection is already so cut-throat, I worry that it will get worse. When would it stop? I’m thinking about how there probably wouldn’t be equal access for such modification and the disparities between the classes would grow. Not to mention, females are not valued as much as males… so many country’s populations may become skewed if you could choose the sex of your child. Essentially, it seems that genetic enhancement may just exacerbate problems in an already problematic culture saturated with perfectionism and worshiping of youth, fame, and unattainable beauty standards… at least in the U.S.

Sandel also points out that having kids is an exercise in loving the unbidden, or loving unconditionally. Modifying your child perhaps puts some responsibility on you for how they end up, more than normal anyway. This is not to say that you couldn’t love your genetically engineered child, it just may change the relationship in unforeseeable ways.

The last part of his book involves Sandel very eloquently dismantling the argument that an embryo, blastocyst, or grouping of cells is the equivalent of a human. He gives the example that no one would save 20 blastocysts over one 5 year old girl from a burning building– but if they were truly equal, why not? Additionally the “point” where a grouping of cells becomes a human being is completely arbitrary. A piece of hay is no more a haystack than an acorn is a tree. The potential is there, and the potential “thing” should be treated with respect, but it does not equal its potential. I think that is key.

This short work really lends itself to critical thinking as well as being informative.


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