Michael Sandel’s, “The Case against Perfection”

Brewing was an early application of biotechnology.

(Here is a brief outline of Michael J. Sandel‘s article, “The Case against Perfection.”)

Genetic engineering will improve the species, but some of it seems yucky. To understand why we need to consider “the moral status of nature, and …the proper stance of human beings toward the given world.” (Does nature have a moral status? Is there a proper stance toward it?)

Why is genetic engineering so bad? “The problem with eugenics and genetic engineering is that they represent the one-sided triumph of wilfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.” (What does this mean? This is all very cryptic.)

With genetic engineering:

  • we won’t be humble (about our gifts): “If bioengineering made the myth of the “ self- made man” come true, it would be difficult to view our talents as gifts for which we are indebted rather than achievements for which we are responsible.” (Is this true? And if it is, is it bad that it’s true?)
  • we will be too responsible (for human fate): “As humility gives way, responsibility expands to daunting proportions. We attribute less to chance and more to choice… 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… A domain once governed by fate has now become an arena of choice.” (Is this true? And if it is, is it bad that it’s true?)
  • We will feel less solidarity (with others): “…genetic enhancement, if routinely practiced, would make it harder to foster the moral sentiments that social solidarity requires.” (I don’t see why this is true.)


1)”Some may complain that it is overly religious; others may object that it is unpersuasive in consequentialist terms.” Response – “These various understandings of the sacred all insist that we value nature and the living beings within it as more than mere instruments; to act otherwise displays a lack of reverence, a failure of respect.”

2) “But those who care more about gaining a competitive edge for their children or themselves may decide that the benefits to be gained from genetic enhancement outweigh its allegedly adverse effects on social institutions and moral sentiments.” Response – “My concern with enhancement is not as individual vice but as habit of mind and way of being.” Sandel concludes:

The bigger stakes are of two kinds. One involves the fate of human goods embodied in important social practice–norms of unconditional love and an openness to the unbidden, in the case of parenting; the celebration of natural talents and gifts in athletic and artistic endeavors; humility in the face of privilege, and a willingness to share the fruits of good fortune through institutions of social solidarity. The other involves our orientation to the world that we inhabit, and the kind of freedom to which we aspire. ..But changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world, and deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. Rather than employ our new genetic powers to straighten ‘the crooked timber of humanity,’ we should do what we can to create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings…

(Nothing about genetic engineering excludes changing social institutions for the better, and if we had followed Sandel’s advice throughout history we would still die young.)

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One thought on “Michael Sandel’s, “The Case against Perfection”

  1. Perhaps I missed this part of the discussion on the book, but I was wondering about the case for IVF and “spare” embryos at all. If the argument can be made for the embryo having a life at its inception, why is it okay to have “spare” embryos at all. What is to be done with them? From a Christian perspective, they are doomed to purgatory. Is it fair for a human with free will to damn an embryo to purgatory?

    For me, an interesting question was not brought up. Aside from reverence for amazing things, what about the balance of choice and life? What about the grandeur scheme of choice where bringing about your own progeny, and perhaps in a genetically selected way, over those babies already brought forth into being, as being more desirable, degrades the reverence for the Miri ale of life itself? To pick and choose certain aspects of science for ones own benefit and to stand on the miracle of life, yet denying that miracle by not adopting a life is quite troubling to the argument.

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