The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering


Sandel Michael J. 2007. The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. Cambrige: Harvard University Press.
The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering


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.

“In the future, genetic manipulation of embryos is expected to have the potential to go beyond the treatment of diseases to improvements: children who are taller, more athletic, and have higher IQs… In The Case against Perfection, Michael Sandel argues that the unease many people feel about such manipulations have a basis in reason… This beautifully crafted little book…quickly and clearly lays out the key issues at stake.”—Gregory M. Lamb, The Christian Science Monitor

“Sandel worries that more genetic choice will undermine our appreciation of the gifted character of human life—our sense that the way we are is not solely the product of our own doing…. Many of us feel uneasy about such a future, without being quite able to say why.  Michael Sandel’s graceful and intelligent new book, The Case against Perfection, is an extended effort to diagnose that unease.”—Carl Elliott, The New England Journal of Medicine

The Case against Perfection by Michael Sandel is a brief, concise, and dazzling argument by one of America’s foremost moral and political thinkers that brings you up to speed on the core ethical issues informing current debates about genetic engineering and stem cell research.”—Gabriel Gbadamosi, BBC Radio

“Given the vast gulf between progressive and conservative thinking, the time is ripe for a philosopher to take on the issues of biotechnology. And in The Case against Perfection Harvard’s Michael Sandel does just that, attempting to develop a new position on biotechnology, one that, like Sandel himself, is not easily identified as either left or right. A former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Sandel is uniquely well suited for this task, and to challenge the left to get its bearings on the brave new biology… Sandel poses an important challenge to contemporary progressives who have failed to grasp the importance of the emerging biopolitics.”—Jonathan Moreno, Democracy

“Just what exactly is wrong with an athlete tweaking his genes to perform better, if all the other athletes are doing it? And why shouldn't parents with the means to do so shape the genes of their future children? Many of us find these ideas disturbing, but it's difficult to articulate why. In The Case Against Perfection, political philosopher Michael Sandel, presents a moral explanation for this unease…. He makes the compelling case that genetic engineering to gain advantage for ourselves and our children is deeply disempowering, because it turns us away from the communal good, toward self-centered striving.”—Anne Harding, The Lancet

A “marvelous little book about the moral issues raised by genetic engineering and other forms of biotechnology…. The care with which Sandel examines arguments for and against various forms of biotechnology makes this an excellent primer on how to formulate and assess moral arguments…. The greatest strength of this book is Sandel’s understanding of how the Promethean aspiration to mastery erodes a sense of what he calls the ‘giftedness of life,’ and how the eclipse of this sense diminishes our humanity.” –Paul Lauritzen, Commonweal

“Sandel’s arguments ultimately speak to our gut-level qualms about enhancement; and his aim in fact is to give these qualms a coherent moral basis… His book in the end is more a lyrical plea for reverence and humility than a lawyer’s watertight ‘case against.’ …The ethicist Michael Sandel wants us…to think about where, in a hyper-competitive world, re-engineering our natures will ultimately lead.”—Michele Pridmore-Brown, The Times Literary Supplement

“Michael Sandel‘s dive into the sea of genetic engineering provides a great tasty gulp of contemporary ethical controversy. Quickly read, The Case Against Perfection is nonetheless dense with challenging quandaries, loaded with moral puzzles and filled with facts. An inveterate highlighter, I underlined half the book.”—John F. Kavanaugh, America

 “Anyone who thinks our culture is too competitive and consumer-driven should find that Sandel’s diagnosis resonates. He provides not only a warning about the shape of the future, but equally an indictment of—or at least a call to examine—our individual moral lives and our contemporary social values. Those who support the practice of genetic enhancement argue that the technology is not substantially different from other forms of ‘enhancement’ we use to improve our lives and the lives of our children. Sandel agrees, but he does not base his argument on any particular distinction about the means of enhancement; rather he is deeply concerned about the underlying impetus of mastery and dominion.”—Debra Greenfield, Bioethics Forum

 “For many years I have been ambivalent about reproductive innovations, from surrogate gestation to preimplantation screening for gender selection. After reading Sandel’s exceedingly elegant little book, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, I could finally put satisfactory names to core values implicit in my hesitation: acceptance and solidarity. I encountered Sandel’s book as a participant in the intellectual discourse about parenting. But the book’s greatest value to me was its validation of the commitments of solidarity expressed in my volunteer work on behalf of poor mothers and of acceptance implicit in my determination to mother a child with catastrophic mental illness.”—Anita L. Allen, The Chronicle of Higher Education

“In this short and provocative treatise, Sandel, who is professor of government at Harvard and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, takes on the question of why certain kinds of newly available genetic technologies make us uneasy…[his] book reminds us that the proper starting point for bioethics is not, ‘what should we do?’ but rather, ‘what kind of society do we want?’ And ‘what kind of people are we?’”—Faith McLellan, The Scientist

“In a highly readable, wise and little book titled The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, Michael Sandel argues that parents’ quest to create the ideal child reflects a drive for mastery and domination over life.”—Douglas Todd, The Vancouver Sun

“An illuminating ethical analysis of stem-cell research concludes this stellar work of public philosophy.”—Ray Olson, Booklist

“Sandel explores a paramount question of our era: how to extend the power and promise of biomedical science to overcome debility without compromising our humanity. His arguments are acute and penetrating, melding sound logic with compassion. We emerge from this book feeling edified and inspired.”—Jerome Groopman, Harvard Medical School, author of How Doctors Think

“We live in a world, says Michael Sandel, where ‘science moves faster than moral understanding.’ But thanks to Sandel, moral understanding is catching up. Cloning, stem cell research, performance-enhancing drugs, pills that make you stronger or taller: if some scientific development bothers you, but you can’t explain why, Michael Sandel will help you to figure out why you’re troubled. And then he’ll tell you whether you should be.”—Michael Kinsley

“Michael Sandel has engaged in a bioethical debate that has produced similar front lines in Germany and in the USA…. [He] is after a philosophically illuminating explanation of the injunction not to convert all that is technically do-able into marketable technologies…. [His] eloquently presented…opinion on the question of the desirability and permissibility of eugenic changes in the human organism rests on a well thought-out neo-Aristotelian position.  This argumentative background gives the book a philosophical interest quite independent of the for-and-against of particular political decisions…. His analysis draws on the idea that eugenic practices undermine a ‘sense of giftedness’ that is indispensable for a civilized common life.” –Jürgen Habermas, preface to the German edition

Last updated on 08/16/2016