The President's Council on Bioethics click here to skip navigation


This paper was first presented and discussed at the Council's December 2002 meeting. It was prepared by the author solely to aid discussion and does not represent the official views of the Council or of the United States Government. Copyright © 2002, Michael J. Sandel. All rights reserved.

What's Wrong with Enhancement

Michael J. Sandel

We have considered a number of practices that aim at enhancement-athletes'use of performance-enhancing drugs and genetic interventions; parents' use of sperm-sorting or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to choose the sex of their children; cosmetic psychopharmacology; the search for techniques to improve memory or extend the human lifespan. Each of these practices gives rise to a certain unease that we have struggled to articulate. As we grope to explain what makes at least some of these practices objectionable, we often find ourselves reaching for familiar terms of moral argument. The most familiar is the safety objection: Using steroids to gain an edge in sports, or Ritalin to do better on the SAT, or cloning techniques to produce a designer child, or botox injections to cure a furrowed brow, are troubling because they seek improvements at the cost of incurring medical risk. The safety argument is the least controversial and least interesting objection. It leaves open the question whether these practices are troubling in themselves.

Beyond safety, we sometimes couch our objections in familiar arguments about means: Objections in the name of fairness and non-discrimination are one instance of this reflex; objections in the name of respecting the human embryo are another. Confronted with the chilling ratios of excess boys to girls in China, some worry about the gender discrimination the ratios reflect, and others worry about the discarded female embryos. These objections are weighty and legitimate. But they are not the only reasons that sex selection and other forms of genetic engineering are morally troubling. Some sex selection and much genetic engineering does not involve killing embryos, and many instances of enhancement involve no unfairness or discrimination.

I would like to explore the intuition that enhancement and genetic engineering are objectionable for reasons that go beyond safety, fairness, and embryos. Consider baseball: Imagine that steroids, or some other performance-enhancing drug were safe and available to all players who wished to use them, so that none had an unfair advantage. What, if anything, would be wrong with using them? Or suppose that a version of Prozac was found to pose no long-term health risks, and was cheap enough to be accessible even to those of modest means. Would our worries about the non-therapeutic use of mood-brightening drugs be wholly assuaged? Or imagine that sperm-sorting technologies were perfected to the point where parents could choose the sex of their children without killing any embryos. And imagine that such technologies were employed in a society that did not favor boys over girls, and that wound up with a balanced sex ratio. Would sex selection under those conditions be unobjectionable? What about selecting for height, eye color, and other physical characteristics?

In each of these cases, it seems to me, something morally troubling persists. The trouble resides not only in the means but in the ends being aimed at. It is commonly said that enhancement, cloning, and genetic engineering pose a threat to human dignity, or point us toward a post-human existence. But we still need to know how these practices diminish our humanity. What aspects of human freedom or human flourishing do they threaten?

One aspect of our humanity that might be threatened by enhancement and genetic engineering is our capacity to act freely, for ourselves, by our own efforts, and to consider ourselves responsible--worthy of praise or blame--for the things we do and for the way we are. It is one thing to hit 70 home runs as the result of disciplined training and effort, and something else, something less, to hit them with the help of steroids or genetically-enhanced muscles. Of course the role of effort and enhancement will be a matter of degree. But as the role of the enhancement increases, our admiration for the achievement fades. Or rather, our admiration for the achievement shifts from the player to his pharmacist. This suggests that our moral response to enhancement is a response to the diminished agency of the person whose achievement is enhanced. The more the athlete relies on drugs or genetic fixes, the less his performance represents his achievement. At the extreme, we might imagine a robotic, bionic athlete who, thanks to implanted computer chips that perfect the angle and timing of his swing, hits every pitch in the strike zone for a home run. The bionic athlete would not be an agent at all; "his" achievements would be those of his inventor. According to this account, enhancement threatens our humanity by eroding human agency. Its ultimate expression is a wholly mechanistic understanding of human action at odds with human freedom and moral responsibility.

Though there is much to be said for this account, I do not think that the main problem with enhancement and genetic engineering is that they undermine effort and erode human agency. The deeper danger is that they represent a kind of hyper-agency, a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and may even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements.

To acknowledge the giftedness of life is to recognize that our talents and powers are not wholly our own doing, nor even fully ours, despite the efforts we expend to develop and to exercise them. It is also to recognize that not everything in the world is open to any use we may desire or devise. An appreciation of the giftedness of life constrains the Promethean project and conduces to a certain humility. It is, in part, a religious sensibility. But its resonance reaches beyond religion.

It is difficult to account for what we admire about human activity and achievement without drawing upon some version of this idea. Consider two types of athletic achievement untainted by pharmacological or genetic enhancement: We admire players like Pete Rose, who are not blessed with great natural gifts but who manage, through effort and striving, grit and determination, to excel in their sport. But we also admire players like Joe DiMaggio whose excellence consists in the grace and effortlessness with which they display their natural gifts. Now suppose we learn that both players took performance-enhancing drugs. Whose turn to drugs do we find more deeply disillusioning? Which aspect of the athletic ideal-effort or gift-is more deeply offended? Some might say effort; the problem with the drug is that it provides a short-cut, a way to excel without effort and striving. But effort and striving are not the point of sports; excellence is. The attempt to "improve" athletic performance by pharmacological means is the ultimate expression of the ethic of willfulness, effort, and striving. The ethic of willfulness and the biotechnological powers it now enlists are both arrayed against the claims of giftedness.

The moral problem with enhancement lies less in the perfection it seeks than in the human disposition it expresses and promotes. It might best be described as the hubris objection. Unlike accounts that emphasize the loss of human powers and the erosion of human agency, the hubris objection can explain our moral hesitation to embrace certain genetic alterations of animals. Chickens like to roam, but most egg-laying hens are confined, frustrated, in small battery cages. Suppose we could alter the gene that makes chickens want to run free. The chickens, now content to be confined, would suffer less frustration, and egg production would improve. Or suppose we found a way to dumb down cows to eliminate the fear they experience on their way to the slaughter chute. Or to engineer pigs without hooves, snouts, and tails. Is there anything troubling about altering animals in these ways? Let's assume that by reducing their capacities for our convenience we do not increase the animals' suffering, and may even relieve it. If these animal enhancements give us pause, it cannot be for reasons connected to the erosion of human agency. To the contrary, the genetic improvement of animals represents the ultimate human dominion. If such alterations are troubling, the reason must draw on the idea that life (even animal life) is a gift not subject without limit to our mastery or dominion.

When we discussed reproductive cloning, Bill May described what parents lose or override when they seek to specify the physical traits of their children. He spoke of "the openness to the unbidden." This resonant phrase points to a quality of character and heart closely akin to what I have been calling an appreciation of life as gift. It helps us understand the deepest moral objection to the use of embryo selection and other techniques that parents might employ to create designer children. The problem is not that the parents usurp the autonomy of the child they design. (It is not as if the child could otherwise choose her gender, height, and eye color for herself.) The problem lies in the hubris of the designing parents, in their drive to master the mystery of birth. Even if this disposition does not make parents tyrants to their children, it disfigures the relation of parent and child, and deprives the parent of the humility and enlarged human sympathies that an "openness to the unbidden" can cultivate.

Bill elaborated this insight with a distinction between two aspects of parental love: accepting love and transforming love. Accepting love affirms the being of the child, whereas transforming love seeks the well-being of the child. He observed that, these days, ambitious parents are prone to get carried away with transforming love-promoting and demanding all manner of accomplishments from their children, seeking perfection. "Sometimes," he said, "we act like the ancient Gnostics who despised the given world, who wrote off the very birth of the world as a catastrophe." He drew a parallel between parental love and modern science, which engages us in beholding the world, studying and savoring it, and also in molding the world, transforming and perfecting it.

Bill's distinction between molding and beholding corresponds to the contrast I have drawn between the project of mastery and the sense of gift. I want to suggest that what is troubling about enhancement is that it represents the triumph in our time of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding. If something like this is true, then the philosophical stakes in the debate over enhancement and genetic engineering are higher than we are accustomed to think. Sorting out the ethics of enhancement will force us to reopen questions that have been largely ignored since the 17th century, when the mechanist picture of nature came to prominence in moral and political philosophy. From the start, the project of mastery and the mechanist picture have gone hand in hand. The discovery that nature was not a meaningful order but a morally inert arena for the exercise of human will gave powerful impetus to the project of mastery, and to a vision of human freedom unfettered by the given. We may now have to choose between shaking off our unease with enhancement and finding a way beyond mechanism to the re-enchantment of nature.

  - The President's Council on Bioethics -  
Home Site Map Disclaimers Privacy Notice Accessibility NBAC HHS