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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.) Beyond that, he needs a response to a long line of critics of Aristotelian naturalism, from Hume to Moore, who with good reason have attacked the idea that one could straightforwardly infer what "ought" to be from what "is." Sandel's Aristotelian naturalism is highly doubtful, and since the rest of his evaluations seem to depend upon it, they would appear to be highly doubtful as well.
Second, Sandel treats the sense of reverence, awe, and mystery that we feel towards nature, including our own current way of being, as if it were a kind of non-renewable resource--as if it were like, say, a finite, exhaustible quantity of petroleum lying under the earth's surface. This is ludicrous. It is much more probable that no matter how much human beings enhance themselves--no matter how tall they can grow themselves, how big they make their muscles, how much more powerful they make their memories, or how much they can genetically enhance the powers of their offspring--they will always be limited both by their environment and by their competition with each other (and possibly other beings). As a result, we will never reach the sort of smug self-satisfaction to which Sandel refers near the end of his book: we will never entirely "banish our appreciation of life as a gift" nor ever find ourselves with "nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will" (p. 100). No doubt there are people (and have for a long time been people) who failed to appreciate what is given them, but this has to do with the lack of a certain kind of sensibility, a kind of imaginative obtuseness. It has nothing directly to do with whether we can make ourselves live somewhat longer, grow somewhat taller, remember more, think somewhat more quickly, and the like. No matter how much we enhance ourselves, there will always be what is "given" relative to that stage of advancement and over which we have no control. We will never become masters of the universe, and, if we really do have enhanced mental abilities, we will not fall into the delusion of thinking that we are.
On the other hand, suppose Sandel is right, and suppose that we actually do have the power to erase the "given" and make ourselves true masters of the universe. I for one have trouble even understanding this possibility. But suppose (probably per impossibile) that it makes sense. Well, in that case, we would have become gods. And, if we really were gods, the accusation against us of hubris would be quite misplaced, wouldn't it?
An earlier reviewer mentioned a similarity between Sandel and Heidegger. Despite my more negative assessment of Sandel's book, that comment seemed to me to be close to the mark, since Heidegger too was a thinker who tended to mistake his own subjective preferences and concerns for deep ontological structures. Sandel doesn't like genetic manipulation and enhancement, and he projects this dislike, ironically in a rather hubristic manner, on a cosmic screen, as if it were deeply revealing of the nature of reality, life, and humanity. But it isn't. If my criticisms are correct, then an ethic of "giftedness," in which we appreciate the naturally given, can coexist with a determination to enhance our abilities and those of our children so as to make all of our lives as good (in our own eyes) as possible.
Don't worry. The universe will take care of reminding us that we have limits.