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The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering 1st Edition

3.5 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674019270
ISBN-10: 067401927X
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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: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #554,781 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

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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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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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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