The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic EngineeringBy Michael J. Sandel. Published 2007 by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. (176 pp., $18.95)
Journal of Intercollegiate Sport
In this slim, elegantly written, and persuasively argued book, Michael Sandel asks whether there is anything morally untoward about trying to make ourselves "better than well" through genetic engineering. Sport is one of his central targets in this regard but certainly not the only one. For Sandel is as interested in whether the bioengineering of humans will corrupt sporting ventures as he is in whether it will corrupt medicine, parenting, or countless other human endeavors that might be
... hat might be morally compromised by technological interventions of this magnitude. My review, of course, will concentrate mainly on what he has to say about genetic enhancement in sports, which isn't as narrow a take on Sandel's wide-ranging examination of the ethics of genetic engineering as it might at first seem because it has obvious implications for any perfectionist practice in which excellence of one kind or another is the principal aim. What makes Sandel's book such a compelling read, aside from its powerful prose, is not just its seductive topic-after all, what could be more tantalizing than the chance to remake ourselves genetically?-but the novel means by which it proposes to guide us morally through this technological thicket. For he lets it be known early on that he won't be dipping into the standard liberal vocabulary most ethical theorists consult when trying to figure out what is the right thing to do in a particular context. That means that appeals to such moral commonplaces as autonomy, fairness, and individual rights will not be found in his analysis, not because of any anti-liberal bias on his part, but because the topic of genetic engineering itself rules out, or so he claims, any such appeals. That said, his ethical approach to genetic enhancement is not entirely novel even if the conclusions he draws are. For he begins his inquiry in much the same way as most contemporary ethical thinkers do, by probing our intuitions about this whole genetic enterprise. He thinks we have few other choices in this regard because scientific breakthroughs such as gene therapy almost always outpace our moral understanding, which gives rise to a kind of moral vertigo that renders us mostly inarticulate about how to think about them. That proves true of genetic engineering in spades, because we are left wondering whether the moral unease it engenders is merely a superstition that we need to shake off, or a deep ethical problem we need to resolve. Of course, because Sandel chose to write a book about the subject, it is clear he thinks it is a dilemma we need to unravel rather than a superstition we need to slough off.