Michael Sandel Reith Lectures Genetics and Morality

(Primacy version of this post, with picture of Sandel! is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog)

Sadly I have to say, an argument for restricting individual freedom, and a worrying tendency to confuse eloquence in explaining why Sandel does not like something at the level of subjective preference with circumstances which would justify legal restrictions.

I’ve just listened to Michael Sandel’s third Reith lecture with this link which is only available for another week. Hopefully the BBC will archive this link and those for Sandel’s other Reith lectures.

Sandel begins by explaining his role in a committee advising George W. Bush on stem cell research. Sandel was in a minority in the committee which favoured allowing federal funds for such research. Objections to stem cell research refer to the need to create and then destroy a human embryo, while carrying out medical research into possible therapies using such cells. The follow up to Sandel’s permissive position on stem cell research is his restrictive position on genetic enhancement.

Sandel’s position is that genetic manipulation is permissible for medical curative purposes, but not for enhancement. Forms of manipulation he thinks should be banned include parents choosing genetic modification with regard to: sex of a child, height of child, beauty of child, sporting abilities of child, intellectual capacities of child.

It only becomes clear at the end of the talk in the question and answer section that Sandel favours banning these things. That might be considered implicit in the main body of his talks where he is very eloquent on why he does not like these things. However, there is a big difference between an eloquent explanation of why you do not like something and giving reasons for making it a criminal offence. It worries me that Sandel did not follow that distinction, and unfortunately could probably rely on his audience to perceive that he was arguing for bans, not merely explaining a preference. It worries me that so many people many not see a big jump between saying you don’t like something so that you would prefer it not to happen and saying that the coercive power of the state should be used to stop something ever happening,

Sandel’s general argument for opposing ‘non-medical’ genetic modification is that it undermines our humility in relation to nature. It undermines the sense of the ‘unbidden’ that parents have towards their children as something they cannot control. In general it leads to a Promethean sense of hubris. When Sandel refers to the Promethean, he is referring to Ancient Greek myth of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods so that humans could have it. ‘Hubris’ has a modern meaning of pride and excess, but I’m sure Sandel was thinking of its origins in Ancient Geek morality, and the belief that humans should stay within bounds. I’ve always regarded Prometheus as admirable and I believe many people always have. Why does Sandel think the human restlessness and desire to improve the human condition, symbolised by Prometheus, is such a bad thing? Big changes in human society, going back to the primeval use of fire are good things, unless you believe that we should live like pre-literate pre-historical, pre agricultural humans in bands of hunter gatherers. The first use of fire, the invention of agriculture, the construction of towns, the invention of writing are all crossings of boundaries as are all the cultural, political and technological developments since we value.

Of course Sandel is not arguing for some kind of obscurantist primitivist return to the the earliest kinds of human life, but then why use terms which taken seriously might lead in such a direction. If that’s what Sandel has got to throw against genetic modification then he has not got much at all.

I suppose Sandel is distrurbed by the way technology can ‘interfere’ with our ‘natural’ genetic make up, but the whole history of human development is that of changing nature in ourselves and in our environment. That can have harmful aspects, as in pollution of the environment, but that in itself is not an argument against using genetic engineering to get more of things we think are valuable: beauty, athletic ability and intelligence.

On the specific issue of choosing the sex of babies, Sandel could have a point, presuming that parents are too inclined to prefer one gender over another. The consequences of a big imbalance between men and women in the population are very negative, certainly for heterosexuals in the bigger gender group, and I think it’s reasonable to restrict this possibility through the law. However, Sandel clearly goes beyond this. He just finds it intrinsically repulsive, i.e. Promethean and hubristic, to choose the sex of children. That’s a good reason why he might choose not to participate in the practice and might argue for that preference with others, but how is it a basis for coercing others unless there is a demonstrable negative consequence. That is a negative consequence beyond Sandel own feeling of reverence for creation and nature, which strikes me as a remarkably poor basis for coercing others.

Sandel thinks that potential parents are showing less love for their future children if they choose genetic modifications which make them more beautiful, athletic, or intelligent. I find it peculiar to say there is a lack of love where parents seek an advantage for their future children. Sandel thinks this shows a lack of love for any children they might have who are not beautiful, or athletic or intelligent. This simply does not follow. If parents make every effort to get a good school for their children, but their children are in the end very weak in academic achievements would that mean that the parents would have to love them less? Certainly not.

An eloquent talk by Sandel but overall a frightening tendency to believe that the state should coerce other people to follow certain standards of his own about not being Promethean. What’s wrong with being Promethean? Many people have considered Prometheus a hero. I certainly do.

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