Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering by Michael J. Sandel

Short, to the point, and written in a very accessible style, The Case Against Perfection raises interesting questions about the pursuit of human perfection. Sandel makes his arguments extremely well by suggesting them, identifying possible oppositional arguments and then countering those oppositional arguments in a precise and comprehensive manner. I feel like I can learn from his writing style and adopt this style of argument in my own academic writing. His ability to make a very complex issue accessible is amazing. 

While reading this book, I found myself asking friends random questions like, “If you were pregnant and found out your baby was going to have down syndrome, what would you do?” I find this question and others like this raised by Sandel extremely interesting. Sandel argues that if we go down the road of eliminating apparently ‘imperfect’ people, like those with downs (a path we are well on the way to) we may end up producing a society that is competitive and less forgiving. If we are compelled to ‘get rid’ of imperfections in babies before they are born then people will be judged for not being perfect. Parents will also (and already are) be judged for failing to eliminate the imperfection in their child. Adults who fail to do anything to get braces on their teeth because they don’t really mind having crooked teeth will be regarded as freaks, athletes who reject performance enhancers will be dropped from the team (apparently this already happens in America), deaf parents who choose to have deaf babies will be criticised for not allowing their children a greater chance in life. These are just some examples. 

I came away from this book pretty much agreeing with its fundamental argument. There is something very unsettling about human beings’ pursuit of perfection. It’s hard to articulate logically what that is, but Sandel does it well. Perhaps we like to believe that it is human nature to want to master something (actually I think that’s more like imperialism than human nature…did the Indigenous Australians try to ‘master’ the land?), but something very valuable will be lost if we continue to ‘master’ biology and genetics. That something is human beings’ capacity to understand and appreciate that we are NOT in control of everything and there are bigger things out there at work. This is not necessarily ‘God’. Acknowledging that we cannot necessarily be in control of everything engenders a humility which is good for society. It fosters social solidarity to improve political and social structures. Rather than ‘fixing’ the individual to fit into a flawed society, working together to address social problems should be the priority. While adjusting nature to fit into the social world we have created may seem empowering, in fact, 
'Changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world, and deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. Rather than employ our genetic powers to straighten 'the crooked timber of humanity', we should do what we can to create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings' (p.97). 


  1. Hi Ems, I have never heard of this book, but will now look it up in the library. I think for me choosing not to raise a disabled child is about lack of support. I automatically think of my financial and social support. I think it would be very difficult financially and there is less social and community resources for parents raising disabled children. State funding goes to things like able bodied playgrounds and school systems, etc. In this way the author is correct that our social infrastructures are weeding out imperfections. But then how to explain the rise in 'invisible' issues that seem to be prominent in contemporary childhood - ADD, Autism, etc?

    Great review Ems, keep it up!!

  2. Thanks K. Yes, raising a disabled child would be very hard and I don't know what I'd do if faced with that choice. I think there's a big difference in raising a child who needs 24hr hr care and raising a child with mild disabilities. There is a massive spectrum that comes under the umbrella of downs syndrome but foetal detection can't tell you where your baby lies on the spectrum. This makes it even more difficult.

    Autism is genetic isn't it? I don't think ADD is. These weren't mentioned in the book. Yeah, how do we explain those? I personally think ADD is a pile of poo (oops, did I just say that?). A kid with ADD is just being a (naughty) kid. An adult with ADD is someone who has lots of energy and often fails to take responsibility for their own actions. There - that's my diagnosis for you ;-) I'm sure I've offended half the world.