Michael Sandel on genetics, morality, and a new politics of the common good

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky September 11, 2009
Biopolitical Times

Earlier this year, political philosopher and Harvard University professor Michael Sandel delivered the prestigious Reith Lectures, an annual series of BBC-sponsored radio addresses "on significant contemporary issues, delivered by leading figures from the relevant fields."

Sandel's central topic for the four-lecture series was A New Citizenship, addressing "the prospects of a new politics of the common good." In the words of a Guardian editorial, his "chief concern is to expose the ethical and other assumptions that are inevitably smuggled into the neoliberal's seemingly steely logic" and to counter this market monopoly by putting "morality back into politics."

Sandel's third lecture, Genetics and Morality, addressed the developing technologies that could be used to redesign future children and generations, and the need to bring moral values and a "common good" framework to bear on them. Sandel previously tackled these issues in The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. In 2007, he spoke about them to an overflow audience at a CGS-sponsored event in Berkeley, California.

Transcripts, podcasts, and other resources are available on the BBC's Reith Lectures website. Excerpts from Genetics and Morality are below.

Yes, the Nazis gave eugenics a bad name. But eugenics is repugnant even when it's not genocidal and coercive….Even where no outright coercion is involved, there remains something troubling with the ambition to control the genetic characteristics of the next generation. These days, this ambition is less likely to be found in state-sponsored eugenics policies than in procreative practices that enable parents to pick and choose the kind of children they will have….

Paradoxically, the explosion of responsibility for our own fate, and that of our children, may diminish our sense of responsibility with those less fortunate than ourselves. The more alive we are to the chanced nature of our lot, the more reason we have to share our fate with others….

If genetic engineering enabled us to override the results of the genetic lottery, to replace chance with choice, the gifted character of human powers and achievements would recede and, with it, perhaps, our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. The successful would become even more likely than they are now to view themselves as self-made and self-sufficient. The meritocracy, less chastened by chance, would become harder, less forgiving.

It is tempting to think that bioengineering our children and ourselves for success in a competitive society is an exercise of freedom. But 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. It deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. So I say rather than bioengineer our children and ourselves to fit the world, let's instead create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and the limitations of the imperfect human beings that we are.