Michael Sandel, a political philosopher from Harvard University, came to Boston College on Tuesday to discuss the intersection of bioethics and morality, with a particular focus on the ethics of scientists genetically modifying embryos to create “designer babies.” Sandel’s public lectures have attracted millions of listeners.
Sandel began with a brief examination of the state of politics in the United States today. He said that modern politics are frustrating to many Americans who feel as if it is full of empty discourse. He argued that the idea of the public good today is wrongly centered on economic concerns, leaving morality by the wayside. He argued that this, along with the fear of controversy and confrontation, leads to the absence in politics of discussions about how to live a good life.
“I think it’s a mistake for two reasons,” Sandel said. “We can’t decide the important questions we need to decide as democratic citizens without asking questions about justice and the common good.
“There’s also a practical reason this is a mistake. The effect of keeping moral argument out of public discourse has been to create a kind of moral hollowness, a moral void that opens the way to narrow, intolerant, authoritarian voices which arise to fill that gap.”
Sandel criticized the rising economic inequality in the United States, saying that, on this issue, populists have a point. He contended that the meritocratic system in the United States is failing and warned that this inequality can lead to false conceptions of how hard one has worked.
“The more we believe that we live in a society where you can make it if you try, the greater the tendency to believe that those who have made it have tried hard and therefore they deserve the benefit that flows from the exercise of those talents and that effort,” he said. “There’s something deeply demoralizing as this attitude of success takes hold across the society—demoralizing for those who haven’t landed on top. … It’s a meritocratic hubris.”
Sandel then transitioned to bioethics and the challenging discourse surrounding the topic.
Sandel began by talking about biotechnology that already exists—the ability of parents to choose the gender of their children. Sandel posed a question to the audience, asking if parents predetermining the sex of their child is morally objectionable. A vast majority of the audience expressed opposition to the practice.
Sandel then asked a few members of the audience for the reasoning behind their decisions. Among the objections to predetermining the sex of a child were the skewing of the gender ratio, the changing notion of unconditional love, and the emergence of designer babies—babies whose appearance is entirely chosen by the preference of the parents—almost like a consumer good.
On the other side of the issue, one audience member argued that letting parents choose specific traits about their child could lead to parents loving that child more than if the child was born naturally. In an unexpected move, Sandel had audience members who fell on each side of the issue address each other, forcing them to defend their views in front of a packed room.
Moving to a hypothetical issue, Sandel asked the audience what they thought about using biotech to predetermine non-physical characteristics, such as intelligence. This time, even more of the audience members raised their hands in opposition to the idea, while only a few people expressed support.
Again, Sandel had members of each side advocate for their position. One person who believed in using biotechnology to enhance the IQ of children argued that it would benefit society to have a more intelligent population. Several who spoke in opposition to the concept expressed worry that it would fundamentally change the relationship between parents and children, a suggestion that Sandel was inclined to agree with.
“What’s at stake in this debate about bioethics and designer children is not mainly the technologies, but the attitudes, and the values, and the norms,” Sandel said. “Giving parents the right to choose erodes the unconditional love of parents for children.”
Sandel noted that a lot of people take issue with using biotechnology to engineer better children but are not able to explain what it is that makes them uncomfortable. He admitted that he did not have an adequate response but attempted to craft an answer nonetheless.
“The problem with these kinds of genetic engineering seems to me is that they represent the triumph and the ultimate expression of a certain project … to enlarge human powers over ourselves and for that matter over nature,” he said. “[This] seems to miss something about what it means to be human and what it misses is an appreciation the gift and character of life.”
Sandel then connected biotechnology with his original point about meritocratic hubris.
“This unbridled reach for control and for mastery of nature and of ourselves creates a kind of hubris because it persuades us … that we are the masters of our fate today, to the extent that our successes are our own doing,” he said. “And the more we believe that, the less we are likely to be open to a sense of solidarity with those less fortunate than ourselves.”