Sandel: The Argument of Perfection

In Holland’s­­ Arguing About Bioethics, within chapter 8 The Case Against Perfection, Sandel discusses the double-edged sword associated with cloning: where, or rather if, to draw a line between medical restoration and genetic enhancement in other situations. Specifically, he focuses on enhancement of muscles, memory, height, and selecting the sex of a child.

To begin with, Sandel reviews genetic therapy involving the restoration and strengthening of muscles. While the idea may have initially stemmed from the need to prevent natural and disease caused muscle deterioration, it is easy to see the potential misuse of the gene therapy in professional sports, giving some athletes and unfair advantage over others without the enhancement by playing God. Huard, an M.S./Ph.D, reasons that while muscle enhancement could be seen as an unfair advantage in a competitive field, muscle and bone enhancement through gene therapy “the potential clinical applications of this technology” lends itself to a multitude usages in the medical field (  There are, however, some drawbacks to such an enhancement, leading to a deceased functioning of some hormone glands associated with muscle growth in offspring, seen in mice.

Similar to muscles, memory also focuses on the idea of an unfair advantage sought, whether it be before an exam in school or any other academic situation. Sandel again brings up the idea of an unfair advantage, but instead of focusing on how to level the playing field and enhancing everyone, he asks the reader whether the dehumanizing of mankind should be aspired to. Englbart, however, argues that the “augmenting of human intelligence” is not dehumanizing, but rather a leap along the path of evolution, not dissimilar to humans discovering fire or creating weapons to hunt ( Through the several articles incorporated, as of yet, there are no known drawbacks or side effects of the memory enhancement therapy, other than playing God.

The argument for height, unlike muscles and memory, has been ongoing for several decades, as the Human Growth Hormone (HGH) has been in use for over half a century. While initially used to aid the growth of children deficient in the hormone, some parents average or even taller children, have requested this hormone pharmaceutically for the extra few inches. Sandel questions why we are building a society in which parents feel “compelled to spend a fortune to make perfectly healthy kids a few inches taller” (Holland 96).  Dr. Gill cites endocrine, ethical, economic, and equity reasoning as to why GH should not be used, explaining that the hormone can lead to diabetes (less than a 2% chance), involves “playing God”, is extremely expensive, and that there are more notable causes to focus on rather than height ( Overall, if one can privately afford GH treatments, there are no significant repercussions and the needs for cloning to obtain tall offspring is not needed.

Finally, Sandel examines the ethicality of determining a child’s sex through the use of cloning. The arguments surrounding this claim fall parallel to the claims that encompass the abortion debate, should we have the ability to play God and decide who gets to live and who gets aborted?

Throughout Sandel’s various arguments in regards transhumanism, the only point that lacks an infallible counterargument, thus far, is the concept of “playing God” by reworking certain aspects of the human genome on a large scale.

There are several premises associated with playing God.  First, God exists. Second, God is all-powerful and all knowing. Third, humans should not attempt to play God. However, a certain loophole exists within the second premise. If God is indeed all knowing, wouldn’t He know of mankind’s attempt to clone, and then, wouldn’t He prevent this from occurring if it was bad?

Of course there are counter-counterarguments, such as cloning being a test from God, etc. And then another can of worms is opened.

12 thoughts on “Sandel: The Argument of Perfection

  1. Reading your post made me think into about the morality of using the growth hormone, determining genetic traits in a fetus, and also the use of cloning in general.
    In the use of the growth hormone, I feel that parents are telling their children that they aren’t good enough for society; especially when the hormone is utilized when the child does not have any disease or illness. In my opinion, it is immoral to tell children they are not adequate for a successful life in society, and providing someone with a growth hormone changes their appearance or inner balance, and providing someone with growth hormones indicates that they are not satisfactory.
    In determining genetic traits in a fetus, I am afraid that the numbers of abortions will rise at an exponential rate. As I believe that abortion is acceptable in certain situations, rape, terminal fetus, etc., I believe that by investigating genetic traits will “make abortion okay”. People that decide to have an abortion will have an excuse “I need a boy not a girl,” “This fetus will have Down-Syndrome,”. I believe that though these are viable reasons, in my opinion, they are not strong enough to warrant the death of a fetus. Some people may say that it is a great idea to be able to fly to the planet Saturn; but living there is a whole new, more complex story. When thinking of genetic screening, I also tend to heavily consider the miracle and excitement (for some) that comes from having a baby. The miracle of childbirth would be tainted if the parents knew everything about the growing baby. And yes, while genetic screening will allow the parents to ensure their child is healthy, it will prevent the other eggs and sperms from having a chance at real life. There are many instances where parents have been blessed with a child with a disability. (
    I also tend to think of the morality of the many things that we have developed, and whether God would approve or not. Just like the statement you said in your blog, I always wonder “WHY” does God let things happen sometimes, if the Bible (or other religious text) considers that immoral or wrong. Cloning, can undoubtedly interfere with God’s plans for the world and His power, but then why doesn’t he stop it? Or is this part of His plan?

  2. The idea of genetic enhancement to create a “perfect” human is interesting because perfection is something that is subjective and depends on the person. However, if we were to genetically enhance some people and not others, many people feel this is unethical because not everyone has a chance at being genetically “perfected.” This is a right only for the wealthy. Although, what if everyone had access to these enhanced abilities, and everyone opted for these enhancements? Then the entire society would be enhanced, and if everyone is enhanced, then no one truly has any special advantage. Essentially, this scenario would defeat the purpose of enhancements. Everyone could be equal as far as genetic enhancements go. I wonder if genetic enhancements would be considered more ethical now in this hypothetical situation.

  3. I think many of the arguments comparing cloning advantages to that of muscles, memory, height, etc., fail to consider one key feature: intention. The morality of an action can often be judged according to the intention behind that action. This deontolgoical perspective can be applied to the aforementioned arguments. For example, regarding “memory” enhancers, one would not deem an individual with ADHD taking a daily dosage of ritalin as immoral. However, one may deem an individual absent of this condition taking a daily dosage of ritalin as immoral or unfair. Therefore, it is very important to take both circumstances and intentions into consideration when judging the morality of a specific action. Regarding cloning, I do not think a blanket argument needs to be made, stating that cloning is or is not moral. It is more beneficial to adapt the framework that cloning may or may not be moral, depending on the circumstances, or the intentions behind the cloner.

  4. I think that the Playing God argument is one that has too many loopholes that can be found. The very first premise you mentioned “God exists” is one that could keep people occupied in discussion for a long time. It seems as though there are enough other interesting arguments that Playing God should never be a main argument for the cause. The issues of HGG and gene therapy are interesting. There is still much disagreement on these issues. How can you tell a child who is predetermined to face challenges throughout life because of height that there is a cure, but they can’t have it for moral reasons. Or, a woman in her 40s who has already started to show signs of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, that there is a way to help her memory but gene therapy cure has been found to be immoral. However, if enhancements are offered to these people, is that an unfair advantage? Should they be offered to others as well? Treating people who suffer from conditions should be considered moral because it alleviates their suffering. However, for many diseases there is a broad range of affliction, so where should the line be drawn? Is it an all or nothing situation, or should there be standards/qualifications?

  5. There is no doubt that genetic enhancement could create separate classes in the society between those who are unenhanced and the ones who are enhanced. My argument or rather a question here is that how would human improvement through social change rather than technical fix be different in performance, and how would it be looked at and accepted by the society? For example, if an athlete who is genetically modified vs. an athlete, who has worked towards his performance goals, are both at the same level, who would society appreciate more? I believe that majority in the society would favor fair play vs. celebrating genetically advanced greatest performances. A good example of this has been witnessed in the recent years with Neil Armstrong’s whose doping was seen as a moral and legal offense and was opposed by the society despite his many goods. While condemning Armstrong’s actions, society affirmed the values that distinguish between means and ends. I think Sandel is right in emphasizing more on the argument that we should not follow the drive to enhancement because by doing so we lose “an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements”. I also think that he is not worried about the ‘fair and equal access to enhancement’ because the enhancement resulting in social stratification is a farfetched issue. For instance, all those who have access to enhancement may not take the advantage of its accessibility on moral grounds or because they believe that electing traits may not be beneficial for their children in the future. A good example of this scenario is seen with cosmetic surgeries. Many who can afford to enhance their physical appearance choose not to because they don’t believe in the idea of enhancement through artificial means. Hence, Sandel is trying to show that genetic enhancements are basically wrong, even in an “equal available opportunity” situation.

  6. I think there is an extremely fine line separating the use of cloning for medical restoration and genetic enhancement. This is clearly demonstrated by performance enhancing drugs. The reason these drugs were initially created was not to help athletes break world records but to help people with illnesses. However, it is easy to see how in the past these became widely misused.
    I also agree with Sandel that genetic enhancement is dehumanizing to man kind. We are straying away from the gifts that we are born with, and making talents something that can be bought. I think this has a larger negative affect on the population that just the playing God argument. We are telling future generations that they are not good enough the way they are and that they require enhancement. I think this has the potential to cause a lot of issues in the future that are not worth the couple of extra inches or better memory that could possibly come from genetic enhancement.

  7. In the second to the last paragraph, you mention about playing God and that God exists. This statement definitely will raise a lot of questions. However, I don’t want to talk about any religion in here, instead this makes me think about all the biomedical techniques that we are using today. For example, unnaturally created hormones are use in both medical restoration and enhancement. People may use those hormones to make then taller, younger or even help cure some diseases or lower the risks of them. Human growth hormones can be use to help Turner’s syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, and height growth. Therefore, if we allow those hormones for medical uses, do you still consider this process as playing God? And if you don’t consider them as playing God, is it still immoral to use them for enhancement, since those hormones can have various benefits? Throughout history, there are many development for medical uses and enhancement that we now widely accept and no longer think about the issue on playing God.

  8. The use of and debate about medical enhancement is arising at a interesting time in our society, paralleling the medicalization of many natural phenomenon. For example, baldness is now categorized as a bodily malfunction that is amenable to treatment, such as Rogaine. Or, low testosterone has become a diagnostic medical condition requiring hormone therapy, yet, the medical evidence backing up the condition of “Low T” is lacking. Definitions of medical conditions are also expanding, as seen the in history of ADHD. Originally, ADHD was limited to children; now ADHD is defined by age. (Source: “The Medicalization of Society” Chapter 2: Men and the Medicalization of Andropause, Baldness, and Erectile Dysfunction by Peter Conrad)

    Thinking about genetic enhancement and cloning in context to medicalization makes me wonder why such trends are occurring. In relation to medicine, is it the increasing control of PhRMA telling us we need treatment? Are societal ideals of perfection so strong that are driving the desire for genetic enhancement? Or, I wonder if the motivation is more personal, and that the hard, distressing, and difficult aspects of life make people seek to explain there problems. The easy answering being the need for a diagnosis or claim of imperfection.

    Medicalization has a dangerous way of making healthy people feel sick, and in the same manner, genetic enhancement has a way of making normal people feel inadequate. Mckenzie in her post touches on this in her post when she mentions the considerations about future generations. Making enhancement the norm to “fix” so-called “problems” of height, memory, etc. could lead to a society that is un-accepting of human variability. This variability that is natural and has evolutionary origins, and on a deeper level, this variability makes humans unique and talented, in a vast number of ways. Our society faces a need to de-medicalize society, in order to restore both health and human dignity, and maybe, de-medicalization will parallel a decrease in genetic enhancements.

  9. You mention that there aren’t any known side effects when it comes to using growth hormones or memory enhancement; although this is medically true, I definitely think there could be societal repercussions of using these techniques. Obviously not everyone is clamoring to get their children growth hormone treatments or enhance their memory, but I think that as more information is released on these topics, these types of treatment might become more prevalent simply because of the notion of other people doing the same thing. It will become a game of trying to keep up with the Joneses. Sandel tries to level the playing field by removing the equal access aspect, but I think this is a highly unrealistic expectation. In fact, I think that the reason so many people are at an unease when they think about genetic enhancements is for this particular reason. So why should we imagine it not mattering, if it is highly likely that it will? Is this a particularly moral concern? Perhaps, perhaps not. Also, we can still be at unease if we were to imagine everyone would have equal access because notions such as tall and smart might cease to exist. The reason these terms exist is because they are relative; if everyone is tall then no one is tall, if everyone is smart then no one is, and I think this is a notion that people find frightening as well because a society of difference is all we have ever known.

  10. I admire the direction you took the end of your post in. At first I thought it was bold to make the claims of the existence of God as support for your larger argument, but quickly I saw that you developed a critical thinking pattern to dissect that argument itself. Particularly, it is crucial that readers consider counterexamples (reading any text) just as you have. This demonstrates why there is a consensus at least among our group that the argument is weak. Just as you hint at, statements that support should not provoke even longer questions.

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