Sandel against enhancement Notes for October 3

Main points

The handout identifies two theses and what I took to be Sandel’s strategy for supporting the first thesis. That’s what we talked about.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us thought that the arguments about equality were much more important than Sandel did. That is to say, what grabbed us was not the thought that genetic enhancements might be intrinsically wrong. Rather, we were more concerned with how they would work in an otherwise unequal society. Sandel, by contrast, tried to articulate reasons why genetic enhancements are intrinsically bad, even in an otherwise equal society.

Relative vs. absolute gains … and class too

I said that I thought it would be helpful if we distinguished between competitive motivations for enhancements and more direct motivations for them.

My idea was that Sandel’s arguments seem to be driven by either the wastefulness or distastefulness of enhancement for competitive purposes. The competition would be wasteful in the way an arms race is. The competitors spend a lot but fail to change their positions relative to one another. Since all they care about is their relative position, they wasted their resources on the race. Competitiveness is also distasteful if carried to extremes. I don’t think I need to give you examples.

It seems to me that there are good reasons for regulating merely competitive enhancements. So, for instance, we could prohibit prescribing growth hormones for children who are already of average size in order to squash a competition for taller than average children. We don’t need anything special about the giftedness of life to see the rationale for this. It heads off a wasteful and fruitless competition and that’s something that everyone should be in favor of.

At the same time, this rationale for regulating gene therapies says nothing about whether it makes sense to allow enhancements that are desired for their own sake.

Sandel thinks there’s a problem with desiring enhancements for their own sake and that the pursuit of these enhancements would lead to the three negative social effects that I listed in the handout.

But I wonder whether the case would be as strong if we neutralized the examples involving excessive competitiveness. That would happen if we were comparing my anti-competition proposal with his broader restrictions on genetic therapies. Both proposals would limit competition through genetic therapy, so what would be at issue would just be whether to permit the intrinsically valued enhancements or not.

Having thought about it on the way home, it seems to me that Professor Brown came to a similar position from the other direction.** I added this at about 7 pm. She proposed limiting enhancements to those on the left side of the distribution of natural abilities. The effect of that would be to make the distribution taller and narrower, especially on the left side. Or, in English, it would reduce the inequality in the distribution of whatever is being enhanced, especially the inequality between the bottom end and middle of the distribution.

It would also, presumably, have the salutary effect of boosting the economic fortunes of those at the bottom, presuming that those who have the poorest natural endowments are, for that reason, also at the bottom of the economic heap.

Whether that’s true or not, focusing on the bottom would not obviously lead to undesirable competitiveness either. It certainly isn’t the same problem as the supposed “trend toward hyperparenting”, exemplified by “sports-crazed parents bent on making champions of their children” and “the frenzied dive of overbearing parents to mold and manage their children’s academic careers.”

Say, just how widespread is this “trend toward hyperparenting”?†† Despite appearances, I cribbed this from Prof. B too. If we did a survey of LA, where do you think we would find people either displaying these behaviors or complaining about them in their neighbors? Where do you think we would not? I have my guesses.

Enhancements vs. treatments

Sandel’s case rests on the possibility of distinguishing genetic enhancements from genetic treatments and on the moral difference between them. The material I passed out from John Harris’s book Enhancing Evolution (Princeton UP, 2007) claims that the distinction can’t be drawn for a wide range of cases. Still, there are questions even when the distinction can be drawn.

It’s worth mentioning again that many of the phenomena that his arguments turn on seem relevant to treatments as well. Getting sick is humbling, the availability of treatments makes us responsible for whether we’re sick or not, and the availability of treatments makes our health more a matter of our own choices rather than fortune.

If those are reasons against enhancement, they should also be reasons against treatment, as far as I can tell. We didn’t talk about that, but it’s crucial to his case.

Empirical tests

I did a lousy job of articulating the idea that I had in mind and I was rightly called out for that. Fortunately, I have the internet to give me a third shot!

My idea was that there are lots of ways that we enhance ourselves, both individually and collectively. So if there were effects on our humility, burdensome responsibilities, and solidarity, we could observe them.

For instance, we might compare people who have cosmetic medical procedures with otherwise similar people who don’t. Do parents who get braces for their children’s teeth differ from parents who don’t, other things about them being pretty much the same? What about people who get plastic surgery? Are they more contemptuous of the homely who did not choose to go under the knife? What about people who pursue higher education? How do they regard those who do not do so?

Or we could look at broader phenomena. What about mass vaccination? Or education? Have we become less sympathetic with those who fail as we have gained more control over our destinies? Have we become less humble or more burdened?

We could test these things. Look at the behavior of a society before and after mass vaccinations or universal public education. How do its members behave towards the poor in their own society? How do they regard societies that have not adopted vaccines or universal education? Are they less sympathetic?

Here’s my guess about what we would find. First, I doubt we would find much of an effect across these examples on the individual level. Second, I suspect that whatever effect we could isolate in the individual cases is swamped by confounding factors in the social cases. For instance, we have enhanced our immune systems with vaccines and instituted welfare states at pretty much the same time. Any tendency of the one to support or undermine the other would have been washed out by the other pressures favoring both. If so, the effect may not be significant enough to matter in making social policy regarding genetic enhancements.

This page was written by Eleanor Brown and Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being, PPE 160, Fall 2007.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being