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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

I've come across an interesting book, of interest to anyone with an interest in genetic engineering; I haven't read it yet, but I have read reviews of it from two respectable sources.

The book, The Case Against Perfection, is a brief little thing -- a little over 160 pages long -- written by Michael J. Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard. Sandel first laid out the principles of the book in in an even shorter essay for The Atlantic Monthly in 2004, an essay of the same title:
Breakthroughs in genetics present us with a promise and a predicament. The promise is that we may soon be able to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases. The predicament is that our newfound genetic knowledge may also enable us to manipulate our own nature—to enhance our muscles, memories, and moods; to choose the sex, height, and other genetic traits of our children; to make ourselves "better than well." When science moves faster than moral understanding, as it does today, men and women struggle to articulate their unease. In liberal societies they reach first for the language of autonomy, fairness, and individual rights. But this part of our moral vocabulary is ill equipped to address the hardest questions posed by genetic engineering. The genomic revolution has induced a kind of moral vertigo.
It is often assumed that the powers of enhancement we now possess arose as an inadvertent by-product of biomedical progress—the genetic revolution came, so to speak, to cure disease, and stayed to tempt us with the prospect of enhancing our performance, designing our children, and perfecting our nature. That may have the story backwards. It is more plausible to view genetic engineering as the ultimate expression of our resolve to see ourselves astride the world, the masters of our nature. But that promise of mastery is flawed. It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.
The two reviews have different characters, as befits their different sources. In July, William Saletan reviewed it for the New York Times, under the headline "Tinkering With Humans," and takes issue with it:
...Sandel’s egalitarian fatalism already feels a bit 20th-century. The older half of me shares his dismay that some parents feel blamed for carrying babies with Down syndrome to term. But my younger half cringes at his flight from the “burden of decision” and “explosion of responsibility” that come with our expanding genetic power. Given a choice between a world of fate and blamelessness and a world of freedom and responsibility, I’ll take the latter. Such a world may be, as Sandel says, too daunting for the humans of today. But not for the humans of tomorrow.
(Saletan, who writes the "Human Nature" column for Slate, was the stimulus of another recent post here on the Beginning of Human Life blog.)

For a more recent and more dispassionate review, see Marc Baer's entry in the October 16th issue of Metapsychology Online Reviews:
This engaging book, with its rich use of current examples and direct argumentation, is more suited to those who are not specialists in ethics than those who are, but the professional, too, can learn much from it. And though it is slim in size, one should not be led into thinking that the argumentation is superficial. Quite the contrary. Although Sandel is not always persuasive and his defense of the principles of giftedness stops where one wishes more would be said, e.g., with the claim that individuals do not fully own their talents, he nevertheless presents his view and that of his opponents clearly, addresses a number of objections to his proposals, and carries many of the arguments out multiple steps. In so doing, Sandel provides a well-articulated perspective on the debate that may do much to stem the perfectionist tide. In his capable hands, this is done without what might otherwise be the implication that this opposition must result from intellectual naivete.
I'm not sure where I stand on these questions, and hope to do another post on them after I've thought some more. But I'm very glad someone is asking them.

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