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.