In public debate, theology may still have a place

A week ago, before I began my afternoon trek back up Prospect Street and the hill that literally elevates the Divinity School above the rest of the University, I stopped off at the Law School to hear Harvard professor Michael Sandel deliver a lecture on the ethics of human genetic engineering. Sandel’s book on the subject, published last year, is entitled “The Case Against Perfection,” and his position on the issue is hardly surprising. I got some coffee, cheese and a few crackers, sat down and waited to hear some of the eminently reasonable objections to human genetic engineering: that its availability and expense will raise severe challenges of social justice; that something as simple as sex selection has already created problems, and full-fledged genetic engineering can only cause more; that though it will not be government mandated, its widespread use will nevertheless create a tacit form of social coercion; etc.

Such concerns were expectantly raised. What took me by surprise, however, was another line of argument Sandel invoked: an explicitly theological one. Sandel spoke of the “giftedness of life,” making a comparison between this and theologian William May’s concept of “openness to the unbidden.” Children, Sandel believes, ought to be accepted with unconditional love irrespective of their genotype. By enlisting the aid of technology to establish certain characteristics in their offspring, parents will act out of a hubristic desire for mastery, rather than out of an awe-filled acceptance of the mystery of life.

Sandel did not reference William May merely in passing; the two had contact as members of the President’s Council on Bioethics under the Bush administration. Nor was Sandel simply being sloppy; he has taught “Justice,” one of the largest classes at Harvard, for many years. His appeal to a theological idea was not the faux pas of an inexperienced thinker. But how can theological principles hold any water in a reasoned public debate?

I suspect the answer for many is that they cannot. Much of modern public debate, including much of the debate over certain recent occurrences as reported in this paper, relies almost completely on a few utilitarian a priori principles, such as the harm principle and the value of autonomy. Soi-disant rational debate has simply become a euphemism for various incarnations of utilitarianism. After all, if something doesn’t hurt anyone and if it’s not coerced or coercive, need we really give it any further thought?

Perhaps the ascent of utilitarianism, a form of consequentialism, is unsurprising in a pluralistic society. Other ethical frameworks, such as deontology or virtue ethics, necessarily assume a significant number of shared values. Utilitarianism, too, requires at least a few shared values, but it has the putative virtue of being rather minimalistic in this respect. In a society where fewer and fewer assumptions about ethics can be made, it has become a sort of lowest common denominator.

The trouble is, some would have it be the only common denominator. Ethical principles that cannot be expressed in utilitarian language are largely marginalized in public debate, swept aside as irrational or even prejudicial. Those who subscribe to other ethical frameworks are asked to play by a set of rules not their own. Is it any wonder then that they sometimes stutter, like a non-native speaker stumbling through a foreign tongue? Furthermore, the assumption of utilitarianism dangerously detracts from an examination of our a priori ethical principles. One gets the feeling that our public debates are sometimes tantamount to adding epicycle upon epicycle when perhaps the whole system needs another look.

In any case, it is refreshing to hear noted figures like Sandel move beyond merely utilitarian arguments and cut to the heart of the issue. What do we believe about the nature of the parent-child relationship? In a question reminiscent of the Apostle Paul, we ought to ask if the mastery and control that parents will exert over their offspring through genetic engineering are not merely permissible, but also desirable. I fear that appeals to autonomy and the harm principle, though important, are strangely lacking in the humanity required to fully answer such questions. Perhaps there still is a place for theology in public debate.

Gabriel Michael is a student at the Yale Divinity School. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.


  • Anonymous

    Gabriel, I generally enjoy your columns, and this one is no exception. I have also noticed that we seem to have become something of rivals or opponents with respect to how we approach given issues, as has been evident in the comments on the articles regarding this year's various scandals. Considering that this year is drawing to a close, I'd like to commend you on a job well done being faithful to your value-set and reasonable, respectful discussion. I look forward to more of it next year.

    Niceties aside, the problem with such euphemistic theological appeals as those made by Sandel is, as you point out, not everyone shares them. In this particular case--that is genetic engineering in general--I actually think there are a lot of people, myself included, who don't see a problem with genetic engineering. This is directly related to my problem with your criticism of utilitarian ethics: it's not just that we need to respect more value systems and so must degenerate to a subhuman lowest common denominator. Rather, there are certain values and beliefs that honestly aren't sacred or meaningful to many people. To use myself as an example, even when I was Christian, I was all for genetic engineering (although anti-abortion because the Church seemed to be thus). Now that I'm not, I'm still all for genetic engineering and pro-choice (because I don't and have never really been convinced that zygotes are persons), and the theological arguments, euphemistic or otherwise, simply don't pull at me, don't mean anything to me. Some may say this is an example of my lacking or losing part of my humanity. I would say otherwise. Obviously, they would be unable to convince me of their side, and I have no need to convince them of mine, as mine is the default and doesn't require their assent in the first place (insofar as I'm not beholden spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise to their ethical framework). There are, of course, useful utilitarian conceptions of humanity that go to the least common denominator that some people will never like. The thing is, this so-called l.c.d. is actually how many people conceive of humanity and not merely some bizarre compromise between different, somehow opposing belief sets.

    However, utilitarian ethics does not forbid theological arguments from justifying moral actions; rather, it does, in fact, forbid such arguments--which simply won't mean anything to many people--from being a grounds for legislating people's actions. It's actually a very conservative principal when you think about it. Utilitarianism assumes that government exists for its people and every restriction it places on them must be justified rationally and cannot (or ought not) be allowed if it can not be so done, regardless of what the majority wants (against tyranny of the mob). Theological arguments may have a lot of sway, but only for people who buy into them. If there is no emotional or spiritual response to such arguments, then it seems fair to say they have no power over those not swayed and ought not to bind them legislatively. So, this utilitarian (and I'm sure there are others who would agree) is not denouncing you, Sandel, or any others who attempt to implore reasonable theology in public discourse bigots or prejudiced or backwards. Rather, we are merely pointing out that we don't agree, see no reason to agree, and policy ought to default to autonomy rather than oppression, as the government ought never to be (based on the few shared principals of utilitarian ethics) the tool of non-universal or at least fundamentally non-rational (as opposed to irrational with its negative connotations) morality. For many, appeals to autonomy and the harm principal actually do say enough, whether the masses and/or the theologians like it or not.

  • Anonymous

    >> Utilitarianism assumes that government exists for its people and every restriction it places on them must be justified rationally and cannot (or ought not) be allowed if it can not be so done, regardless of what the majority wants (against tyranny of the mob).<<

    By what sort of l.c.d rationality are restrictions justified ?

  • Anonymous

    You nailed it.