No Child Left Behind

Article excerpt

A review of The Case Perfections: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering by Michael J. Sandel. Belknap (Harvard University Press) 2007, 162pp, hardback, $18.95, ISBN-13. 978-0-674-01927-0)


What apiece of work is man! How noble in reason/how infinite in faculties! inform and moving, how express and admirable/in action how like an angel/in apprehension, how like a god/the beauty of the world/the paragon of animals!

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet

History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.

--Edward Gibbon,

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

AT THE OUTSET, LET ME PREFACE this critique of Prof. Sandel's book with a confession: I am a closet eugenicist. A eugenicist for reasons that I shall set forth in taking issue with Sandel and for further reasons that I shall expound somewhat apart from my evaluation of The Case Against Perfection. A closet eugenicist because it seems apparent to me that in this culture any overt "movement" bluntly promoting eugenics as a social cause is doomed to ridicule and censure because of the sad accidents of history. Eugenics, early on, became associated with political causes that were ethically odious, scientifically ignorant and ultimately, quite monstrous. It is futile to try to disentangle it, in the public mind, from these associations, so that any argument in favor of the basic idea must be constructed and articulated ab ovo, with fresh and uncompromised terminology. Even then, the default assumptions of our sociopolitical environment are so resolutely anti-eugenicist that, no matter how carefully ideas are ratified and isolated from the various chauvinisms that drove early 20th century eugenics, there is no hope of winning general approval for even a modes@ eugenicist policy.

Paradoxically, however, forms of private choice and behavior, only now beginning to become common in our society, promise to cohere into something resembling a de facto eugenics program, one which moreover, generates little in the way of sustained or effective opposition. Since it is private behavior we are talking about, and directed by narrowly personal concerns, the ethic of personal liberty, in both its "liberal" and "conservative" forms, automatically congeals into an effective shield against critics who are alarmed by its eugenicist implications. Sandel's essay, a rather concise booklet that Harvard University Press has conjured into print with a price-tag appropriate to a work three times its modest size, is unusual in that it cedes so little to the privacy and individual choice arguments; arguing in effect that they are the mark of a certain kind of selfishness and a desire for immunity against mere contingency that, in Sandel's view, is deeply flawed.

It should be noted that even in this brief work, there is little specific focus on eugenics (that is, a systematic program to make future generations more genetically fit) per se; still less on the specific possibility that it might be accomplished by ingenious use of the genetic engineering methods that are commonplace in creating new crop varieties and which can probably be extended to human beings within a matter of decades. There is very little technical discussion in the book, and not much concern with a "Frankenstein" scenario wherein the good intensions of gene technology are swamped by unanticipated consequences. It is the intended and fully anticipated consequences that alarm Sandel. Moreover, these are seen not in technophobic isolation, but as a particularly sharp and revealing version of an ethical error that has already saturated middle class culture, quite apart from the wizardry of gene-splicers:

   Those who argue that bioengineering is
   similar in spirit to other ways ambitious
   parents shape and mold their children
   have a point. But this similarity does
   not give us reason to embrace the
   genetic manipulation of children. …