THE CASE AGAINST PERFECTION: ETHICS IN THE AGE OF GENETIC ENGINEERING
by Michael J. Sandel. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007
ENHANCING EVOLUTION: THE ETHICAL CASE FOR MAKING BETTER PEOPLE
by John Harris. Princeton University Press, 2007
Few books could present more implacably opposed views, and few could raise more provocative questions. Michael J. Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University and a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, assumes that many people find the more extreme forms of genetic engineering (cloning and designer children, for example) disquieting, and he attempts to explain why this unease makes moral sense. John Harris, a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester School of Law and a member of Britain’s Human Genetics Commission, assumes not only that biotechnological enhancement is going to happen but that we have a moral obligation to make it happen. “I propose,” Harris writes, “both the wisdom and the necessity of intervening in what has been called the natural lottery of life, to improve things by taking control of evolution and our future development to the point, and indeed beyond the point, where we humans will have changed, perhaps into a new and certainly into a better species altogether.”
Sandel argues that the drive to enhance human nature through genetic technologies is objectionable because it represents a bid for mastery that fails to acknowledge that human powers are a gift (whether from nature, God or fortune). If biotechnology dissolved our sense of giftedness, he continues, we would lose three key features of our moral landscape—humility, responsibility and solidarity. “Rather than employ our new genetic powers to straighten ‘the crooked timber of humanity,’” he writes, “we should do what we can to create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings.”
One is the more eloquent—and even at times uplifting—argument. The other is no doubt the way the world is going to go.