Far from Perfect


A review of Michael Sandel's The Case against Perfection.

Advertisements offering $50,000 for Ivy League ova; an athlete running a three-minute mile; a deaf lesbian couple selecting a deaf sperm donor to produce a deaf child; “Viagra for the brain” to improve memory — these are just some of the scenarios that Michael Sandel asks us to consider in his new book The Case against Perfection.

He recognizes that most readers — while these prospects make them uncomfortable — aren’t up to the task of explaining why: “When science moves faster than moral understanding, as it does today, men and women struggle to articulate their unease.” He doesn’t blame them, though; our “moral vertigo” is the fault of modern moral and political philosophers who have artificially narrowed their focus.

That insight is actually Sandel’s most important contribution to bioethics discussions. He says professional bioethicists need to broaden their discourse: “The familiar categories of autonomy and rights, on the one hand, and the calculation of costs and benefits, on the other” are inadequate. Only by reintroducing ultimate questions about our purpose, nature, and fulfillment can we successfully evaluate the ethics of human enhancement. Sandel, of course, knows why these have been excluded: “Since these questions verge on theology, modern philosophers and political theorists tend to shrink from them. But our new powers of biotechnology make them unavoidable.”

This isn’t exactly a new criticism of the bioethics industry, but it is noteworthy for its source: Sandel is a popular Harvard government professor and a liberal Jewish former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics — in other words, hardly a “Christian fundamentalist.”

As Sandel explains, the trouble with the rights-talking Kantians and the consequence-weighing utilitarians is that they miss the big picture. All they can consider are equality, fairness, and safety: Will the benefits of biotechnology be equally available to all socioeconomic classes? If only some can afford enhancement, will it be fair for them to compete (athletically, economically, academically) against the unenhanced? Are new genetic therapies safe?

But these questions miss the point: Should we even aspire to these types of enhancement in the first place? Sandel moves beyond personal autonomy and distributive justice to consider what type of community biotechnology would foster: “The real question is whether we want to live in a society where parents feel compelled to spend a fortune to make perfectly healthy kids a few inches taller.”

To broaden the discussion, he offers a thought experiment. Assuming that threats to equality, fairness, and safety could be resolved — including pro-life concerns — would bioengineering be a good idea? What goals should it serve?

Parents should welcome children as a gift and “accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition.”

Sandel proposes the “gifted” nature of life as the proper framework for answering that question. If life is a gift, then our primary attitude toward it should be one of gratitude, not mastery. “What we mean is simply that the talent in question is not wholly the athlete’s or the musician’s own doing; whether he has nature, fortune, or God to thank for it, the talent is an endowment that exceeds his control.” Biotechnology threatens not so much our rights as our attitudes toward ourselves and others, threatening to fundamentally change our “habit of mind and way of being.”

Whereas pro-lifers object to sex-selective eugenic parenting because it kills innocent children, and feminists because it discriminates against girls, Sandel points to a broader objection: “It expresses and entrenches a certain stance toward the world — a stance of mastery and dominion that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements.” Parents should welcome children as a gift and “accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition.” The phenomenon of “hyperparenting” and the consulting group “IvyWise Kids,” which gets children into elite elementary schools in Manhattan (the so-called “Baby Ivies”), are warning signs of this changing disposition toward children.

What else might a move away from “gift” and toward “mastery” entail? Sandel fears it would threaten social virtues. Humility would give way to hubris as we ceased to understand our talents as “gifts for which we are indebted” and started considering them “achievements for which we are responsible.” Meanwhile, enhancement would force absolute responsibility on parents for shaping their child’s genome, on athletes for their physique, and on scholars for their mental prowess. What room would there be for solidarity? If everyone had a radical ability to be the “self-made man,” would “the successful owe anything to the least advantaged members of society?”

And, as Sandel is quick to point out, genetic enhancement can’t remain a voluntary commodity. “Today when a basketball player misses a rebound, his coach can blame him for being out of position. Tomorrow the coach may blame him for being too short.” No one will be “free to escape the burden of choice that new technology creates.”

But for all of the merits of Sandel’s big-picture approach, it does both too much and too little. It rules out some enhancements that could authentically promote human flourishing while also failing to exclude some manifest affronts to human dignity. Worst of all, it’s too vague to guide choices in concrete situations.

Perhaps this is why Sandel resorts to a different framework when he considers enhancement and athletics. Does the use of muscle-enhancing steroids or genetic therapy differ in kind or degree from protein shakes and energy bars? How do gloves and cleats differ from corked bats? To answer these questions Sandel refers to the difference between the excellence of the game and its deterioration into a spectacle. (Imagine if every baseball game were like the Home-Run Derby.) As he notes, “not all innovations in training and equipment corrupt the game.”

But if this is true for baseball, why can’t it apply to other human practices, and to life in general? The gifted character of life does little to show which innovations will deepen our authentic fulfillment and which will corrupt it. For this Sandel needs to supplement his theory with an account of human flourishing and its constitutive goods. Few argue that caffeine offends the gifted nature of life, and many argue that it helps the pursuit of knowledge, so why should we fear the “Viagra for the brain”? Provided a genetic enhancement will really help us flourish more fully, we should not reject it outright.

Lacking such an articulation of the goods that fulfill us, Sandel’s theory remains incomplete. Bioengineering appears to present three challenges, each of which requires a robust account of the good: the prospect of offering illusory fulfillment — consider a mood enhancement that makes us feel as if we’re enjoying friendship without helping us to make real friends; the prospect of reducing (or eliminating) human agency in the pursuit of happiness — consider an enhancement that causes actions apart from our willing; and the prospect of violating our intrinsic dignity — particularly the respect due to us in our origins.

George has also definitively refuted Sandel’s fallacious analogy: He pointed out that acorn is to oak tree as embryo is to adult. Both the acorn and the tree are oaks, just at different developmental stages. So, too, an embryo and an adult are different stages of development of the same human organism.

The practical hurdle for bioengineering, of course, is the necessary experimentation on human subjects — especially human embryos. Until techniques can be perfected that do not pose undue risks to test subjects, bioengineering remains an unethical dream. But that’s precisely why Sandel’s concluding chapter, “Embryo Ethics,” is so disappointing. He starts off promisingly, admitting that “the fact that a moral belief may be rooted in religious conviction neither exempts it from challenge nor renders it incapable of rational defense.” That is, pro-life objections to embryo destruction can be rationally engaged. But then he offers poorly paraphrased accounts and facile dismissals of those arguments. To show “that a blastocyst is a human being, or a person,” he swiftly concludes, “requires further argument.”

Yet Sandel thinks he has the conclusive answer, and so rehearses an argument he previously published: While “every oak tree was once an acorn, it does not follow that acorns are oak trees.” Therefore: “Just as acorns are potential oaks, human embryos are potential human beings.” The upshot is that while creating designer babies is “the ultimate expression of the hubris that marks the loss of reverence for life,” embryo-destructive research “is a noble exercise of our human ingenuity.”

Here Sandel’s errors are grave. They are compounded by the fact that they had already been pointed out to him — both on the Council and in writing — by his colleague Robert George (my former boss and sometime co-author). George has provided a “further argument” — explaining why the blastocyst is as a matter of scientific fact a human being, and as a matter of ethical principle a bearer of inherent worth and dignity. But Sandel ignores this. George has also definitively refuted Sandel’s fallacious analogy: He pointed out that acorn is to oak tree as embryo is to adult. Both the acorn and the tree are oaks, just at different developmental stages. So, too, an embryo and an adult are different stages of development of the same human organism.

To mischaracterize the opposition’s arguments while ignoring powerful objections to one’s own is intellectually embarrassing. Doing so to defend human-embryo destruction in a book proposing the gifted nature of human life is perverse.

Bottom line? Sandel has raised the right questions, but in the end he shrinks from providing the right answers.


Ryan T. Anderson. “Far from Perfect.” National Review (June 11, 2007).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.


Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things. He is also the assistant director of the Program in Bioethics and Human Dignity at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Copyright © 2007 National Review

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