Event Summary: A Debate on the Ethics of Genetic Engineering

March 31, 2004

Speaking at a Brookings/Pew briefing today, Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel spoke out against medically unnecessary genetic engineering, reinforcing arguments made in his April 2004 Atlantic Monthly piece, “The Case Against Perfection.” Sandel argued that these unnecessary genetic enhancements undermined what he called the “moral landscape of mankind” that consists of “solidarity and humility.”

“The problem is not the drift to mechanism,” Sandel said, “but the drive to mastery. What that drive misses is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements. To acknowledge the giftedness of life is to recognize that our powers are not fully our own doing.”

Recent advances in science have opened the door to genetic manipulation that has the potential to treat and prevent devastating illnesses, including Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease. The application of this science is at the core of a debate over the appropriate use of scientific technology and the limits of human perfection.

The technology can also be applied to more controversial ends, most notably human cloning and gene manipulaiton that seek to improve everything from physical appearance to intelligence. For instance, gene therapy aimed at reducing muscular dystrophy could also be used to enhance athletic performance and treatments for Alzheimer’s could be used to give a struggling student a mental boost. This quest for human mastery, Sandel argued, is part of a dangerous quest to tweak genetics to our desires.

“The deeper danger is that genetic engineering represents a kind of hyperagency,” Sandel said, “a Promethean aspiration to remake nature to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires.”

To make his case, Sandel, who also serves on the President’s Council on Bioethics, cited four examples of genetic enhancements that are either currently available or on the horizon, with the potential to improve muscles, memory, height, and sex selection.

The primary threat posed by these procedures, he said, isn’t simply the elimination of a sense of fairness in a meritocratic society. “The real question,” Sandel said, “is whether we should aspire to it in the first place” and “whether we want to live in a society where parents are compelled to spend a fortune to make perfectly healthy kids a little bit taller.”

Sandel sees genetic engineering as part of a troubling overall trend towards human mastery, a response to mounting pressures on parents and children to succeed in an increasingly competitive world. He cited “low-tech” enhancements such as SAT preparatory classes and dance and piano lessons and conceded that “improving children through genetic engineering is similar in spirit to common child-rearing practices.” However, “this doesn’t vindicate it. Instead, it highlights a problem in the trend towards hyper-parenting” and the drive for “designer children,” which threatens to alter the parent-child relationship and “misses the sense of life and giftedness.”

Sandel also sees genetic engineering as a slippery slope towards eugenics, saying that “both represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, or dominion and mastery over reverence and restraint.”

The implications of these procedures, according to Sandel, are far-reaching and could alter the fundamental principles of a society built on a sense of community. “Giftedness saves a meritocracy society from sliding into the assumption that the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor?Those who retain a lively sense of the contingency of their gifts are more likely to take a more generous stance towards those who lack similar talents.”

Panelist Lee M. Silver, a Princeton professor of molecular biology and public affairs and the author of Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family, agreed with Sandel’s concerns, but saw no way to avoid genetic engineering “in a democratic society where we know the playing field is not fair to begin with.”

“We can’t hide the fact that there are genetic differences between us,” Silver said. “We’re are not monolithic. The genetic mythology in a liberal society is that anyone can do whatever they want. That’s simply not true.” Silver said the move towards genetic enhancements was “a very worrisome trend,” but he added “it’s not clear to me how we can stop it.”