The role of equal access in genetic enhancement: A contradiction.

In “The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong with Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, and Genetic Engineering”, Michael J. Sandel asks us as readers to consider the inherently present repercussions of allowing genetic enhancement to run rampant in our society. While many of his arguments and counterarguments are sound, I found there to be a glaring inconsistency that arose in Sandel’s contemplation of the relevancy of social structure and class in genetic enhancement.

In his section on memory enhancement, Sandel brings up the point that many people worry about the danger of cognitive enhancement leading to two different classes of human beings: those with access to these enhancements, and those without. He even goes so far as to posit that this unfair distribution might, if the cognitive enhancement were to become evolutionary, lead to the division of humanity into two subspecies – enhanced versus natural. This argument is quite an interesting one, as it asks us to picture a futuristic world far removed from our own. Sandel asks “is the scenario troubling because the unenhanced poor would be denied the benefits of bioengineering, or because the enhanced affluent would somehow be dehumanized?” (Holland loc. 2999). He illegitimizes this as a core argument for the immorality of genetic engineering by saying that “the fundamental question is not how to ensure equal access to enhancement but whether we should aspire to it in the first place.” (Holland loc. 2999).

Later in the essay, in his argument on our societal meritocracy, Sandel argues that genetic enhancement would ruin our perception of giftedness as just that – a gift that we are fortunate to have, and would instead encourage the mindset that our new genetically-enhanced abilities are entirely our own, leading us to feel no sense of gratitude for our abilities or sympathy toward those people without our abilities. The contradiction upon which this post is centered stems from Sandel’s claim here that “A lively sense of the contingency of our gifts – a consciousness that none of us is wholly responsible for his or her success – saves a meritocratic society from sliding into the smug assumption that the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor.” (Holland loc. 3241). The rather obvious implication here is that genetic engineering would lead to a stratification of society based on the “haves” and the “have-nots”. This dualist idea of “the rich and the poor”, those who can afford genetic enhancement and those who cannot, is strikingly similar to the argument he presented earlier and promptly dismissed.

While both of these arguments speak to the importance of class consideration in the development of an educated opinion about the ethicality of genetic enhancement, I am troubled by Sandel’s dismissal of the first point while taking seriously the second, as the two are very closely related: he uses the same foundation of argument, that genetic enhancement polarizes social structure, to make each point. Why is there a discrepancy in his consideration of these two points? He struck the first point from his core argument because the question on which he was focusing was not “how to ensure equal access” (loc. 2999), but in the second point, which is mentioned near the very end of the article, he points to inequality of access as a serious ethical consideration. It seems to me that, for the sake of consistency, Sandel needs to reconsider his view on the importance of ensuring equal access to genetic enhancement. Is provision of equal access a part of the fundamental question of the morality of genetic enhancement?


Sandel, Michael J. “The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong with Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, and Genetic Engineering.” Arguing About Bioethics. Ed. Stephen Holland. London: Routledge, 2012. Loc. 2935-3263. Kindle Edition.