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The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering [Hardcover]

by Michael J. Sandel
3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2007 067401927X 978-0674019270 1

Listen to a short interview with Michael Sandel
Host: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

Breakthroughs in genetics present us with a promise and a predicament. The promise is that we will soon be able to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases. The predicament is that our newfound genetic knowledge may enable us to manipulate our nature--to enhance our genetic traits and those of our children. Although most people find at least some forms of genetic engineering disquieting, it is not easy to articulate why. What is wrong with re-engineering our nature?

The Case against Perfection explores these and other moral quandaries connected with the quest to perfect ourselves and our children. Michael Sandel argues that the pursuit of perfection is flawed for reasons that go beyond safety and fairness. The drive to enhance human nature through genetic technologies is objectionable because it represents a bid for mastery and dominion that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements. Carrying us beyond familiar terms of political discourse, this book contends that the genetic revolution will change the way philosophers discuss ethics and will force spiritual questions back onto the political agenda.

In order to grapple with the ethics of enhancement, we need to confront questions largely lost from view in the modern world. Since these questions verge on theology, modern philosophers and political theorists tend to shrink from them. But our new powers of biotechnology make these questions unavoidable. Addressing them is the task of this book, by one of America's preeminent moral and political thinkers.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Our quest to create the perfect athlete or the perfect child reflects our drive for mastery and domination over life, says Sandel, a Harvard professor of government and a former member of the President's Council on Bioethics. In this evenhanded little book, which grew out of an essay in the Atlantic, Sandel says this quest endangers the view of human life as a gift. Allowing genetic engineering to erode our appreciation for natural gifts and talents, Sandel says, will affect how we understand humility, responsibility and solidarity; it deprives parents of "the humility and enlarged human sympathies that an openness to the unbidden can cultivate." (The discussion of perfect children also gives Sandel an opportunity to rag on hyperparenting, a trend he sees as a similar expression of parents' desire for dominion.). In addition, if we all possess varying gifts and talents, then as part of our solidarity with others in our society we should share our gifts with those who lack comparable ones. Although Sandel's book treads over heavily traveled territory, it turns in a different direction from the standard arguments that the problem with bioengineering is that it deprives individuals of autonomy. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Why does improving our physical and mental capabilities through genetic engineering give us pause? Sandel acknowledges religious positions on that question but, striving for universality, sticks to secular philosophy to answer it. He bases his argument on the principle that life is a gift, which cannot be scientifically proven but which very nearly all people understand and appreciate. It isn't difficult to accept genetic engineering to heal the effects of disease and disability, but enhancing the capabilities of healthy persons or of children even before conception comes to seem increasingly iffy as Sandel expands on the problems of the souped-up athlete and the so-called designer child. Against the argument that individuals and responsible parents have the right to seek maximal capability for themselves and their offspring, Sandel poses the specter of overweening mastery of nature, which historically has led to such ill effects as environmental degradation and genocide. An illuminating ethical analysis of stem-cell research concludes this stellar work of public philosophy. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 1 edition (May 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067401927X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674019270
  • Product Dimensions: 7.3 x 4.8 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #839,800 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at the University of Harvard. Sandel's legendary 'Justice' course is one of the most popular and influential at Harvard. In 2007, Harvard made Sandel's course available to alumni around the world through webstreaming and podcasting. Over 5,000 participants signed up, and Harvard Clubs from Mexico to Australia organized local discussion groups in connection with the course. In May 2007, Sandel delivered a series of lectures at major universities in China and he has been a visiting professor at the Sorbonne, Paris. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Council on Foreign Relations. Sandel is the author of many books and has previously written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic and the New York Times. He was the 2009 BBC Reith Lecturer.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
37 of 43 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Short Atlantic Monthly article way better June 11, 2007
I bought this book because I really enjoyed the Atlantic Monthly article that preceded this effort. Unfortunately, this book didn't include any additional substance but a lot more fluff. I was totally bored with the effort and pretty disappointed. I would not recommend spending $20 on this book, but rather dig up a pdf of the article and enjoy it instead.
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59 of 72 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A very imperfect case May 3, 2008
By Danno
Sandel is a gifted, lucid writer, which is why I wish I could give this book more stars. But if I restrict myself just to its substance, I have to confess that more than once I felt like throwing this book across the room or shoving it into my garbage disposal. What an irritating and profoundly misguided book!

Sandel seems to think that using biotechnology, especially genetic engineering, to enhance human life inevitably means encroaching on, and perhaps even destroying, our ability to appreciate the "gifted" character of life itself. The assumption is that appreciating what is "given" (whether by God or nature) requires holding back from enhancing our offspring and ourselves and accepting as normative the abilities and limitations of modern human beings. If we do proceed with genetic enhancements, then, according to Sandel, we are corrupted by a hubristic ethic of "mastery" over what is naturally given. This is wrongheaded--and for two main reasons.

First, Sandel offers very little by way of defense of the normativity of the natural. Although he concedes that not everything that is natural is good (and rightly gives cancer as an example), he tells us almost nothing in this book, beyond appealing to a naïve, static, Aristotelian-style natural law theory, about why the fact that something is naturally given is in any way even relevant to its goodness, let alone why it ought not be improved. If he is going to be any kind of naturalist, he needs to go back and rethink the implications of Darwinian evolution for attempts to identify and enshrine an immutable human essence. (The prospects aren't good.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect Debate July 16, 2008
A Case Against Perfection, which I read in two sittings over 5 hours in one afternoon. I simply could not put the book down, Sandel proposes both sides in the debate of Cloning/Perfomance Enhancement/Gene Therapy etc... Sandel makes you guess and second guess, then triple guess your own beliefs on these issues. In the end, I felt well informed and satisfied with this book. I strongly recommend this book. Not lengthy, fast read, well written.

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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, not as insightful as others March 19, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book was an interesting read, but frustrating. There was a genetic determinism about the discussion that made the author's stand feel naive. Clearly the variation in many human features are constrained to a particular range by genetics, but this does not mean that any individual can be engineered to guarantee the development a particular trait. Even extremely pro-genes books like The Nurture Assumption leave an important role for environment in human development (Harris just doesn't think parents are a particularly influential part of that environment).

The gift argument is repeated throughout, but not supported very well. Sandel also discusses genetic modifications as arms races, but misses the fact that the "improvement" of human characteristics need not entail an arms race or a zero sum game. There are traits that have a value that is non-competitive. If research has found that people with a happiness score of 8-9 on a scale of 1-10 succeed most in life, it is correct to note that success in many fields is competitive. Yet, the feeling of happiness and enjoyment of life is not a zero sum game. Every human can enjoy this at the same time. If genetic engineering made us all 8-9 on the happiness scale, we would all benefit individually in our quality of life, though we would only be keeping pace with regards to competitive advantage. Again, Sandel misses this nuance and his discussions suffer from it.

The part of the book I felt was worth reading was the section regarding hyper-parenting. This was a point neglected in other books I have read on the subject, such as Agar's and Glover's. Nevertheless, the other books are far superior discussions of the subject with more exhaustive and nuanced discussions of genetic engineering.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new moral vision begins to take shape... June 6, 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a small but very impressive book: timely, interesting, original, extremely well informed, very clearly written, organized, and argued, and largely persuasive. Reading it (in two sittings) was like listening to the two best applied ethics lectures I've ever heard (and I've heard lots). I strongly recommend this book.

It seemed to me, nonetheless, that one of the main moral criteria Sandel relies on got a bit blurred by the end. The distinction between manipulative molding (bad) and respectful beholding (good) seems to me to draw the line of moral permissibility too far into passivity territory. It'd be better to recognize, as Sandel does in the nice appendix on the stem cell debate, that there are molding beholdings or respectful manipulations, i.e., active interventions that respect and help develop the intrinsic capacitites at issue. But if the mold/behold dichotomy blurs that way, it would seem to undermine the hard and original line Sandel takes against bioengineering in the main part of the book. It would suggest, instead, that we could indeed allow some forms of genetic enhancement so long as they respect the intrinsic excellences we decide matter most. (How we are to decide that is a tricky issue broached but not delved into in this book.) If this is right, however, it would put Sandel much closer to the liberal eugenicists he criticizes.

In the end, I think Sandel's book is great: insightful, thought-provoking, and largely persuasive. Sandel articulates an original and deeply humane vision that ethicists, politicians, and other thinking citizens very much need to hear -- and then develop further. (Interestingly, Sandel's ethical vision seems surprisingly close to the later Heidegger in several crucial respects; the book suggests that he was influenced by a Heideggerian theologian and some brilliant undergraduate at Harvard, but I'd guess there's more to it than that.)
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars What's natural
This book makes you think about what's natural about us and other living organisms. Much is based simply on what you believe is best and therefore it comes closer to religion. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Alois Clemens
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book
At times, this book reads like a prolegomena to Sandel's "Justice: What's the Right Ting to Do" in terms of argument and some of the examples he gives to illustrate his... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Konstantin Tretyakov
2.0 out of 5 stars Unclear book!
I bought this book for one of my university courses. It is very unclear and ambigous. It just addresses problems exist in the field of biotech and gen engineering. Read more
Published 12 months ago by FT
4.0 out of 5 stars Good summary of the issue
I bought this book for my essay about the topic and i found it very helpful. It reveals almost every aspect of the topic in an entertaining style.
Published 14 months ago by Gergely Horváth
4.0 out of 5 stars Short essays, but pretty convincing
Short essays with interesting hypothetical situations of treating embryos, I found it insightful to read this book, like an extension of the first few chapters of Justice, I found... Read more
Published 24 months ago by Pazu Kong
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting......but poorly argued
The best qualities about the book is readable; nice writing that flows and interesting cases and stories. Read more
Published on December 27, 2011 by Lemaro Thompson
3.0 out of 5 stars short read
Took this book for a class in Political Science, and happen to be a fan of Sandel after reading other work by him. Read more
Published on December 3, 2011 by TheComic
4.0 out of 5 stars A Sobering Perspective on Genetic Engineering
With this book. Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard has written both a compelling and controversial assessment of bioethics that examines our increasing ability as humans to... Read more
Published on January 27, 2011 by Ian Gordon Malcomson
1.0 out of 5 stars Profoundly elitist; seeks to maintain the meritocratic status quo
Sandel tries to make the case for limiting individual reproductive choice. His none-too-subtle agenda is to maintain the advantages of the genetic elites, such as himself, at the... Read more
Published on April 22, 2010 by R.E.Miller
4.0 out of 5 stars Very impressive
I was very impressed with the thinking of Professor Sandel in this book. The best part was the last chapter, where in about thirty pages, he makes an eloquent case for embryonic... Read more
Published on December 19, 2009 by J. Davis
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