What’s wrong with perfection?

That’s the self-appointed topic of philosopher Michael Sandel. What if we could genetically engineer ourselves to be far “better” human beings? What would be wrong with that? Here is his answer, writ short:

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. Without this, the successful would become even more likely than they are now to view themselves as self-made and self-sufficient, and hence wholly responsible for their success. Those at the bottom of society would be viewed not as disadvantaged, and thus worthy of a measure of compensation, but as simply unfit, and thus worthy of eugenic repair. The meritocracy, less chastened by chance, would become harder, less forgiving. As perfect genetic knowledge would end the simulacrum of solidarity in insurance markets, so perfect genetic control would erode the actual solidarity that arises when men and women reflect on the contingency of their talents and fortunes.

Here is the longer argument.

In other words, Sandel is saying that if we bring about a world where everything is the result of genes, people will be less caring. Social solidarity will diminish.

I doubt this. If you want to drum up sympathy, hold up a picture of a young child with birth defects.

And at what margin is contingency good for us? Would it also increase social solidarity to have our lives “contingent” upon diarrhea, malaria, and tuberculosis?

Going out on a limb:

The future of solidarity may be up for grabs, but for different reasons than Sandel recognizes. The real question is whether parents will prefer to genetically engineer children with more or less social solidarity. I’ll predict more. The benefits of sexual selection (attracting a quality mate) will outweigh the shorter-run benefits from greater selfishness. Don’t parents already scold their children to have a stronger social conscience? Wouldn’t caring kids also be more…obedient? Now you might try to breed a kid who loves only his spouse and children, and cares about no one else. How good a job will this person get? Remember, this future world may also allow us to test for what genes people have. What better for a job interview than to take a piece of hair and see how much the person is a cooperator? I expect genetic engineering to increase the gains from trade. As for politics, imagine if candidates had to reveal their genetic profiles.

Genetic engineering also will accelerate the pace of evolution. Given that birth control is cheap, the women on the future will love children more than do the women of today.


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