Michael J. Sandel, philosopher: ‘I resist the tendency to see technology as an autonomous force that we cannot control’ | Science

At the end of 2001, the American political philosopher Michael J. Sandel — a star professor at Harvard University — received an unexpected invitation. He was asked to join the newly-created President’s Council on Bioethics. While he isn’t an expert in the subject, he was attracted by the idea of reflecting on genetic engineering, cloning and stem cell research — nascent fields that posed colossal moral challenges.

Sandel, 71, continued to develop these topics in his famous classes. One of the issues that most intrigues the Minneapolis-born thinker is genetic improvement and the ethics surrounding it. In 2007, he published a short book on the subject: The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. In just over 120 pages, the celebrated professor displays his intelligence and incisiveness when it comes to unresolved ethical dilemmas. The work offers a glimpse into some of his ideas about justice, democracy, community and meritocracy, which he has developed in other books, such as The Tyranny of Merit (2020).

Sandel’s publications have made him a reference for contemporary political thought. He received EL PAÍS on a sunny Wednesday in a small hotel in Madrid.

Question. Many people are concerned about genetic engineering, but it’s not easy to explain the reasons why. How would you summarize the ethical problem it raises?

Answer. When people try to express the source of their concerns, they most often point to issues of fairness. And it’s certainly a cause for serious concern: will we move closer to a world in which the rich can buy genetic improvements for themselves and for their children? Or, in the case of genetic enhancements for athletes, for example, the concern would be that it’s unfair for some people to use gene doping to improve their performance in the Olympic Games, while others don’t. That’s a fairness argument, but I don’t think that’s the main objection, or the main reason why people feel uncomfortable. I think the deepest source of discomfort has to do with what it means to be human and how we confront our nature.

Let’s take the example of parents, who [may] try to improve their children by making them taller, smarter, or stronger. It’s very tempting, because parents want to do everything they can to help their children. The equity objection would say that wealthy parents will be able to improve their children, while low-income parents won’t. But the deeper objection to improving children is that it would erode the norm of unconditional love. Because we choose our friends based on the qualities we find attractive, yet we don’t choose our children. The unpredictability of our children’s outcomes is an important underlying condition. It’s the source of unconditional love that parents have for their children.

Q. Does genetic engineering put that unconditional love at risk?

A. We would be turning children into consumer goods, instead of human beings to love and appreciate, regardless of their genetic characteristics. When we buy a car, we want to specify the color, style, shape, speed and brand. But bringing that mentality of hyperchoice to parenting would turn parenting into an extension of consumerism. And that’s at odds with unconditional love.

Q. It’s nice what you say about parenting: that it’s a school of humility.

A. Parenting teaches humility, because being a good parent is recognizing that we need to master impulse control. In our careers or in sports competitions, we want to assert dominance and control, as much as possible. But with our children, although we want to teach them and we want to mold them, we also need to learn to accept them. All parents have to do it. Wrestling with the tension between these two impulses to nurture and improve children, to help them grow… but also to accept them, to contemplate them, to love them no matter how strong they are, how smart they are, or how beautiful they are. Humility consists of recognizing the limits of our ability to exert control, whatever our resources may be.

Q. Is that humility an attitude that we can extend to other areas of life?

A. Yes. Because it’s not only by raising children that we learn the humility that comes from recognizing the limits of dominance and control. Parenthood teaches us to accept the unpredictable, to live with the spontaneous. And, in our social lives, I think we must also recognize the limits of consumer choice and the limits of our attempts at dominance. We have to learn to live with what’s different, what’s unexpected, what’s dissonant. Humility limits our tendency as a society to relate only to certain types of people, for example. And it opens us up to a respectful acceptance of variety and diversity. I believe that humility is a civic virtue that’s in short supply.

Q. The moral frontier in genetic engineering would be found in the distinction between curing and improving. But how do you know where exactly one thing ends and the other begins?

A. [Regarding] the use of genetic technologies to cure or prevent a disease, in most cases, we already know what it means. And, at the other extreme, the case is quite clear: [for instance], if we simply want our son to be better at soccer and for him to be able to run faster. But there are cases that fall on the border. For example, cosmetic surgery. With genetic engineering, we could make ourselves stronger, smarter and more handsome. That’s cosmetic surgery in the extreme. So, what would be a border case? I guess orthodontics, the straightening of teeth. It’s not really necessary from a medical point of view, but it’s a type of cosmetic [alteration] that we usually accept.

Q. In The Case Against Perfection, you write about two deaf parents who wanted to design a deaf son.

A. I respect the demands of those in the deaf identity movement who affirm that deafness shouldn’t be considered a disability, but rather a distinctive way of [preserving] one’s own language and sense of community and identity. But it’s one thing to accept deafness and build a life in a culture that recognizes and affirms that way of being and quite another to try to use genetic intervention or, where appropriate, sperm or egg analysis to try to have a deaf child. And the difference can be captured in the following way: suppose [they attempted this] and suppose they still were to end up with a hearing child. Would it be morally justifiable at birth to ask a doctor to perform surgery to remove the child’s ability to hear? It’s quite difficult to say that such a thing is morally permissible. But if that’s not morally permissible, why is it acceptable to try to conceive a deaf child? Therefore, the objection here isn’t to the deaf community’s claim that they have a distinctive way of life with a language worthy of respect — the problem is in trying to intervene to deprive a child of the capacity to hear.

Q. And what about attempts to prolong life?

A. There are many medical discoveries that have the effect of prolonging life. If we become immune to certain diseases, that has the effect of prolonging life. But there’s still a medical purpose, [in that such procedures] try to restore or preserve the normal functioning of the body. Another thing is the prolongation of life as such.

I’m very wary of the Silicon Valley billionaires who are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the extension of life. I think it’s a strange concern, among all the pressing social issues and human needs. Investing in genetic research that can allow people to live healthy lives, that’s clearly on the medicine side. But extending the limits of a normal human life alone… I think there’s some arrogance in their interest in living forever. Maybe this is unfair, but it reflects a certain emptiness or lack of meaning in their lives, because it’s just about adding time. And adding time without any purpose, I think, is morally empty.

Sandel, philosopher and Harvard professor, in Madrid.Jaime Villanueva

Q. You maintain that freedom consists of a permanent negotiation with what we’ve received.

A. We tend to think that freedom means dominating and controlling nature to satisfy our desires. But that idea of freedom is wrong. We’re seeing the weakness of that notion of freedom when we consider the climate crisis, because it arose precisely from centuries of thinking that human freedom consists of using, dominating and directing nature, so that it serves our purposes and desires. That was an enormous source of growth, wealth and prosperity, there’s no doubt about it. But it also led to a failure to respect nature.

As we confront climate change, I believe that the environmental ethics we’re beginning to develop will require a move away from the idea of freedom as unlimited, unfettered dominion over nature. When I write that freedom is negotiating with the given, I truly mean that. Freedom from nature means seeking a way of living in harmony with it, which includes a certain element of acceptance, rather than an unrestricted stance of dominance and control. That doesn’t mean we can never cut down a tree to build a house. But we do have certain debts and obligations with nature. To live in harmony with it, it’s necessary to moderate our impulse to control. That’s negotiation. In a way, it’s parallel to the ethics of respect and acceptance that we just talked about in relation to unconditional love for children. We want to shape and improve and help and direct our children to a certain point, but we also want to accept them for who they are: people who are different from us, who need to have some space.

Q. You wrote The Case Against Perfection before The Tyranny of Merit, but in the first book, you already pointed out aspects that you would develop in the second. If we repeal the genetic lottery, you warned that successful people will tend to think that they’re entirely responsible for their success. But what if, instead, we used genetic engineering to mitigate the disadvantages of the most disadvantaged communities?

A. I find the idea that social and economic arrangements are set in stone to be chilling. We cannot change socioeconomic arrangements and so, therefore, we must rely on technology to adapt people to the world we’ve created for ourselves. In a way, this [way of thinking] is the deepest form of disempowerment.

The social contract — or the form of government, or the form of the economy — is a human agreement, subject to debate, subject to change. Nature is a given… although today, it seems that it can be reversed. We’re in the era of genetic engineering. Now, we consider nature to be, ultimately, manipulable and malleable. But human arrangements, social arrangements, government, economics — these are considered to be beyond human control. I think [this idea] isn’t only paradoxical, but also perverse, because the entire project of moral and political improvement is abandoned. The whole argument of the book is really about trying to redirect human purpose and freedom to critically reflect on the world and the social and economic arrangements that we’ve created. We shouldn’t consider technology to be the way to adapt to the world that we’ve created for everyone.

Q. Do you reject the notion that genetic engineering is too big for ethics? That it transforms nature and, therefore, the notions of what’s good or bad?

A. This is exactly the attitude I’m trying to challenge. I believe that genetic technologies hold great promise for improving our lives, curing diseases and allowing us to live healthier lives. The danger is if these genetic technologies start to be used not for medical purposes, but to modify our children for competitive purposes, or to adapt us to the social dispositions and prejudices that we’ve collectively created. I resist our tendency to view genetic technology — or any other technology — as an autonomous force that we cannot control, direct, or question.

Q. On another note: this year, your country faces a repeat of the election that took place four years ago, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. How do you see the political scene in the United States today?

A. We’re deeply polarized. People on both sides barely know how to talk to each other. So, our civic life isn’t doing very well. The odds are hard to predict, but I have a feeling it’s around 50-50.

If Trump returns to the White House, he’ll be dangerous. Even more so than the first time. Because, during his first presidency, malevolence was [surpassed] by his incompetence. He didn’t know how the government really worked, so he couldn’t implement some of his more extreme ideas. Furthermore, he’s very undisciplined. And he had some people who held back some of his worst impulses. But he’s learned from that experience, if you can call it learning. He now knows more about how the government works and will appoint people who will be less opposed to what he wants. Therefore, we would be facing a more effective version of Trump. He would be very dangerous, because this time, his campaign isn’t really based on ideas. It’s based — as he himself describes it — on retaliation. And that’s not a very promising recipe for a successful presidency from the standpoint of democracy.

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