Harvard Government Professor and Ethicist Michael Sandel Argues the Case Against Perfection


Author Michael
Sandel with
Daivd Brooks

On Tuesday, June 5, 2007, Michael Sandel, Harvard professor of Government and prominent voice on ethics and political philosophy, spoke about the current trend in society towards genetic engineering for the purpose of enhancement at an Aspen Institute Alma & Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series talk in Washington, DC. In this interview, moderated by New York Times columnist David Brooks, Sandel elaborated on his new book, The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Harvard University Press).

As he commented on "designer" children, eugenics, sex selection, and the difference between gene manipulation for medicine or for enhancement, Sandel contended that our society now is striving for something unhealthy and detrimental: limitless mastery over our own kind. "The danger is that if parents got used to designing the traits of their own children, they’d lose an important moral teaching of being a parent: that there are limits to how much we can master, control, and exercise dominion over our world and our kids," said Sandel. "Not to mention the moral fact that parenthood is a school for humility and solidarity. The more we enlist biotechnology to make what we want of our ourselves and our children, the more we lose solidarity and humility. We lose that essential thought: Who I am and what talents and gifts I have — they are not fully my own doing. I am indebted to them."

Conversation with Brooks and the audience inevitably led to discussion of the "gray areas" of ethics and morality in genetic engineering, which Sandel expounded upon, finally offering: "It's the limitless bid for mastery that I worry about. If we quarrel over the lines, I'm not so worried." As for parents' tendency to control their kids talents and successes, "there may not be such a difference between genetic engineering for enhancement and the epidemic of hyper-pushy parenting," said Sandel, "so you may say, 'What’s wrong with genetic engineering?' But I say we've got to rethink this tendency or need in our society for that low-tech side of it: hyper-pushy parenting. We need to rethink that part of it."