The Case against Perfection: A Book Review
The twenty-first century is the age of computers and breath-taking technological breakthroughs and advancements. Even various fields of science such as biology, genetics and nuclear studies are becoming more advanced. While the lives of men and women have become easier and more comfortable, there are also a number of ethical issues that must be addressed by scientists and other members of the society.
More than just the technologies and the breakthroughs, the application of these breakthroughs are constantly evolving. Appearance could be enhanced, health could be improved and quite probably, behavior could be changed through some miracle drug or some tinkering with genetics. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit for becoming better and becoming more aesthetically appealing. However, the use of biotechnology in human bodies and lives poses a number of ethical issues that are worth exploring.
Through genetic engineering and biotechnology, athletes will be able to use substances that could enhance their performance in the sport they have chosen. Parents, too, will have a say about the characteristics and genetic makeup of their children. In case that there are undesirable characteristics found by science, then these, too, could be remedied while they are yet unborn. In a speculative mind, there might come a time when the possibility of superhumans and superheroes will be realized.
Biotechnology for Medical and Aesthetic Enhancement
Biotechnology is not only being used for curing diseases and other illnesses. It is now highly possible to pursue perfection and continuous improvements of the capacity of human beings—whether in terms of appearance or performance. Michael Sandel argues for the necessity of biotechnology for medical reasons. When it comes to enhancement and the pursuit of perfection, however, he is unabashedly opposed to such acts.
His argument is premised on the notion of ‘giftedness’ and the random dispersal of such giftedness among the populations. While a person may have natural propensity to excel in a particular sport such as athletics, or has the natural appearance of looking beautiful, the efforts to go beyond such giftedness may be akin to playing God and doing away with the limitations that are the very essence of humanity.
He buttressed his arguments by stating that there are three features of the moral landscape involved in this pursuit of perfection. Playing God would mean the loss of humility and the sense of reverence. While this may be easily dismissed by some thinkers as nothing more than an attempt to bring back the influence of religion, Sandel argues that losing such humility and sense of reverence will lead to an arrogance and superiority unwarranted by the human condition. Secondly, the issue of full responsibility for the genetic alterations done would be solely borne by humans. When most things are known and planned for, the occurrence of the unexpected will have to be accepted by those who tinker with the genetic makeup of people. As it stands now, it is still highly possible for people to point out to the “act of God” for things that are difficult or too painful to explain.
Lastly, Sandel believes that the continuous pursuit for excellence and perfection would lead to a lack of human solidarity and an increasing sense that everything is planned and “self-made.” In this case, human civilization would be less forgiving to those who do not succeed, to those who are not beautiful and to those who cannot keep up with the increasingly high standards of appearance and performance. What he recommends, instead, is that the genetic technology being discovered now should be used to deal with “the crooked timber of humanity” and help establish social institutions and political and economic arrangements that take into account the plight of those who cannot reach the standards of appearance and performance.
The Quest for Perfection
Interestingly, Sandel’s arguments seem to be colored with a religious perspective, which could be difficult for atheists and agnostics to swallow. If there are some possible means of improving our situation in life, our appearance and performance, why should we not?
Sandel does not ignore these kinds of questions. Rather, he looks at the purposes for genetic engineering that most people pursue rather than the actual act of genetic engineering or alteration. For Sandel, the pursuit of perfection is wrong. At stake here is the concept of fairness, justice and equality more than just safety and health concerns.
The search for perfection is essentially a bid for power, mastery and dominion of others. It is the logical extension of the emphasis on freedom of choice. Because humans are free to choose and the options for perfection are available through genetic engineering, then such perfection could be achieved. Sandel, however, revolts against this notion.
He recoils against the pursuit of perfection, specifically those attained by using biotechnology and genetic engineering. For him, the concept of good and bad, what is acceptable or not is rooted in human nature. Biotechnology, however, tinkers with the very nature of humanity. There are norms and ethical considerations that arise out of the present makeup of humanity and of the choices available to everyone.
The salient examples cited by Sandel in his book include the use of steroids in sports. When players use steroids, they violate an important norm of the game, which is a celebration of human physical prowess and skills. Another example would be the choice of a baby’s sex or genetic makeup. Parents might not be able to display unconditional love anymore if their child becomes close to being perfect. While the existence of these norms is difficult to detect and quantify, they still exist because of the natural reactions that come to people whenever these norms are violated.
The Right to Pursue Perfection
Norms are far from being written on stone. They change depending on the prevailing moral landscape of the society and the technologies available. Absolute norms of right and wrong appear to be a region of theology and religion rather than by contemporary ethics. As human experiences change, so will views and the norms of the society.
One of the important tenets of Western society is the freedom of choice. It means that a person is free to choose the kind of life he wants to live and the arrangements that he wants for his life. In this regard, when the possibility of perfection is available, it could be pursued without remorse unless there are dangers to people and society.
Sandel responds to this by saying that If genetic engineering enabled us to override the results of the genetic lottery,” we are bound to lose “our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate… 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.”
As it stands now, most humans cannot control the occurrences of diseases and abnormalities. Sandel appears to justify this random distribution of genetic qualities. Yet, through biotechnology and genetic engineering, humans now have the power to make things better, including their situation and their appearances and performances.
Sandel is afraid of the possible domination of “genetically enhanced-humans” over those who are not. He says that this will lead to a lack of solidarity with the common fate. This need not necessarily happen, given the appropriate responses and policies that could be arrived at by the very institutions and norms that society will develop.
In addition to this, true perfection will never be achieved. As genetic treatments become routine and commonplace, they will become acceptable and safety measures will be put in place to deal with the difficulties and challenges. The world now is undergoing the transition to the right approach and set of norms in responding to these practices. This will highlight the necessity for new modes of showing responsibility and ensuring accountability.
Freedom of choice and responsibility go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other. With the coming of biotechnology and genetic engineering, the expressions of responsibility and accountability will be renegotiated by society. It is a complex process and will involve rethinking of the very norms and ethics of the society. Perfection is a difficult state to achieve. What can be achieved, instead is the capability of humans to make significant choices that would lead to improvement of individual nature. With the improvement of individuals, the society will also be improved.
The Impossibility of Perfection
Although the foregoing argument would be seen as a means to justify the use of biotechnology and genetic engineering, Sandel would respond by pointing out the pursuit of perfection would yield benefits in the short term. But in the long term, the social consequences would be unsettling and would reveal that the “choices” of an individual are not really well crafted choices but rather a reflection of the cultural mindset and the result of effective advertisements and persuasion of those who are bound to benefit greatly from such “choices.”
Manipulating one’s own nature is an outgrowth of an excessive emphasis on freedom. While the importance of responsibility and accountability will be negotiated by the society, the tendency for the emergence of discrimination and prejudice will always be present. The drive to power and mastery is inherent to human nature, explains Sandel. Human limitation will then cease to matter and will be looked upon negatively by most people, especially so because perfection could not really be achieved.
This drive for mastery and dominion is central to Sandel’s fear that overrides any potential for responsibility and accountability that might be derived. The idea of ‘giftedness’ and limitation serves as a reminder for humans to be temperate and understanding of those who are not as good, not as beautiful and not as powerful. With the enhancements and the relentless pursuit of perfection, what is going to prevent human society from degenerating into the very basic law of survival and competition? The weak will be eliminated and the strong will reign supreme. This may be seen as alarmist and may be construed as an argument from a doomsayer. Yet, the previous world wars, instances of tyranny and other violent encounters of history have proven what human beings are capable of doing when they are given close to unlimited power.
The sense of wonder, solidarity and humility engendered by human limitations temper the drive to mastery and dominion by humans. In a manner of speaking, such limitations are also a source of compassion, solidarity, norms and standards of behavior in the society. If such limitations and solidarity will be removed by the quest for perfection, then ethics will take on a very different approach.
With these choices available through biotechnology and genetic engineering, the sense that life is a gift is also being challenged. The thought that a person chooses the “specifications” of his skills, talents and other “features” of his life indeed removes the sense of wonder and awe about life, itself. Inevitably, the need to change these “features” and “specifications” later in life would arise. If the level of technology in the future will catch up, then biotechnology will be a convenient way for people to modify their makeup. Such possibility, albeit remote at this time, is still rather scary.
In the realm of parenting, excessive and unrestricted use of biotechnology and genetic engineering will stem from the seemingly harmless motive of removing unwanted qualities of children such as abnormalities, genetic diseases and other undesirable characteristics. When such practice becomes prominent, and the possibility is high given the right scientific, technological and economic access, then it will possibly give rise to greater discrimination against those who will be born with deficiencies and the unwanted qualities that most people would not want for their children.
Technology, Economics and Ethical Responses
Ethics change in response to the prevalent social, cultural and economic context of the time. Some of the fears of Sandel might be realized while some may not. The perspective he utilizes necessarily draw upon same feelings and views espoused by religious and spiritual groups. Sandel’s concept of ‘giftedness’ presupposes the existence of the giver of the gift. He also wrote about the dangers of ‘playing God’ by humans through the use of biotechnology.
Human pride devoid of humility, solidarity with humanity and a sense of giftedness can indeed lead to a society stripped of mystery and awe. The reality of choices made and the responsibility of humans for their choices replace chance. This also presupposes that humans should be able to look at both the short-term and long-term consequences of the choices they make.
Too often, the consequences of the choices made by humans cannot be mapped out completely. There are still minute and small impacts of such choices that will elude the best scientific and technological minds in the planet. When this occurs, humans will also have to take full responsibility for the choices they made, which is similar to what is happening now to the environment due to human activities.
With the availability of technology, however, the question of using such technology will no longer be asked. The technology will surely be used unless strong regulation from the government or scientific community will be implemented. As time goes by, the cost of such technology will also decrease, thereby increasing the access of people to such technologies. The transition period, however, will not be easy because the ethical views of most societies and peoples are not attuned yet to these new technologies.
Sandel raised really important questions necessary in thinking about biotechnology, genetic engineering and their role in the world. During their developmental stage, the questions he raised should be asked as a means of preparation and dealing with the technologies that will become popular in the future.
Although his emphasis on ‘giftedness,’ the sense of mystery and awe of life, the importance of humility and responsibility is very close to a religious worldview, he affirms the sanctity of life and respecting the givens and the element of chance. Reducing the element of chance by means of biotechnology for the purpose of enhancing appearance, performance and reducing “errors” of nature has negative effects that might not be readily discernible at this time, yet, will significantly change the ethical landscape of societies and peoples all over the world. Sandel’s argument is not without flaws. The existence of choice is an affirmation of freedom. As technology and science grows, the process of knowing and discerning the impact of these choices will be made less challenging. Both the scientific community and the society at large should work towards acceptable solutions that will not diminish humanity and the ‘giftedness’ of life.
Sandel, M. J. (2007). The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. New York: Belknap Press.