Ethics caught in the thicket of nature and creation: Sandel part II

Michael Sandel by Stephanie Mitchell at Wikimedia Commons.

After a previous post presented Michael Sandel’s Case against Perfection, an overall evaluation is still due. At first glance, I personally found Sandel’s argument against an ever-wider extension of human power appealing. But does it hold up to critical scrutiny?

How not to criticise Sandel

Sandel’s book is certainly not lacking critics. My previous post took issue with how critics misunderstand Sandel’s notion of gift. Further, philosopher Allen Buchanan lambasts Sandel for his assumption that adherents of genetic enhancements actively, self-consciously pursue maximum control over various areas of life.

Yet a prominent transhumanist like John Harris does indeed promote such an attitude (“The Holy Grail of enhancement is immortality”). The enhancement enterprise is inherently driven by a maximization logic, which is due to the utilitarian principle to maximize things that people value. Sandel quotes Savulescu’s conviction that enhancing is the moral thing to do – so why would you do it less rather than more? Buchanan himself argues that the state can take a legitimate interest in increasing productivity through biomedical enhancements, since that allows society to pursue even more of the goods that it values. That point will need to be addressed in a later post on the eugenics question. In the current context, Buchanan’s polemical attention to motivation specifically is besides the point to begin with. Sandel asserts that artificial mastery takes us further away from a fulfilled life, and if that is true, then enhancements are bad, not matter if they come about by conscious striving or by chance and accident, to a large extent or just a small amount.

Quit smoking by Henrik Jensen at flickr.

Another argument against Sandel deals with the extent to which enhancement reduces those aspects in life that are unforeseeable and contingent. Sandel claims that enhancements will have a very significant impact in maximising human agency and reducing contingency. Buchanan, by contrast, argues that even after enhancement, our lives would still be subject to contingent, unforeseeable factors to a very large extent. This of course presupposes Buchanan’s notion that people would seek enhancements only in a moderate, piecemeal fashion, while a significant part of transhumanist literature makes a case for enhancing human life to a maximum extent. Further, assume for the moment that societz treats enhancements as question of character and habit more than as a question of absolute right and wrong (as Buchanan’s quantitative case suggests).  So we would be talking about finding the right measure in drawing on enhancements, and the question would not be if we enhance but to what extent. But then Buchanan’s quantitative argument that after enhancement there would still be enough contingency left resembles the idea that there will always be plenty of days left during which I can still stop smoking. Why worry now?

By the way, the question about how much contingency might still be left after we’ve chosen enhancements might miss the point entirely. Peter James’ thriller, Perfect People, imagines what might happen if people choose to enhance their children. And voilà: contingency is not reduced, but increased. But not necessarily in a helpful way…

On Nature and Culture

Jeffrey Beall, own work at

One point where critics are on target, by contrast, is in highlighting Sandel’s opinion that genetic enhancements in sports replace genuine human effort. For example, Sandel observes an increasing trend in American football towards a bulkier physique of the players. The means that help a player maximise sheer physical impact have little to do with the point of the sport, and so they are illegitimate, just like genetic enhancements would be.

“A retired NFL Hall of Fame lineman laments that the overgrown linemen of today, too big to run sweeps and screens, are capable only of high impact ‘belly-bumping’: ‘That’s all they’re doing out there. They are not as athletic, not as quick. They don’t use their feet.’ Enhancing performance by mainlining cheeseburgers does not cultivate athletic excellence but overrides it in favor of a bone-crushing spectacle.” (35)

When athletes seek excellence through eating cheeseburgers instead of running, something has gone wrong. By analogy, Sandel submits, are genetic enhancements illegitimate.

The theological ethicist Gerald McKenny, however, points to an analogous question about new technologies: do they take away from genuinely human activities? In his example of virtual personae in online platforms, new technologies may seem strange, but they serve personal ends, rather than replacing the human. [1] Along these lines, Buchanan maintains that athletic enhancements do not replace sports training, but even allow athletes to train harder.

It may seem, then, that in the case of sports enhancements, technology and human effort may be complementary. Nature and culture seem to enhance each other. But this is something Sandel would not allow for. Indeed, he commends the “display of natural talents”, highlighting “natural gifts” and “natural talents”. He asks for the “line between cultivating natural gifts and corrupting them with artifice”. This is a very difficult part of Sandel’s proposal, for where does nature end and where does culture begin?

What do we mean by Nature?

A report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on the notion of “naturalness”distinguishes between five different senses in which we use the word “natural”. At first sight, many of them seem to contribute to an ethical appreciation of the natural, but none is fully persuasive.

Catkin at pixabay
  • According to the sceptical position, the distinction between nature and culture is elusive. This is an irony inherent in popular complaints about “all these chemicals”. After all, there is no inherent, molecular difference between carbon dioxide occurring in “nature” (breathing animals, etc.) and carbon dioxide coming out of an exhaust pipe. Buchanan makes a similar point in saying that in human evolution, nature is inherently cultural and vice versa. We may even see an interdependence of nature and culture in animal behaviour. Wild chimpanzees in Nigeria self-medicate by seeking out particular leafs with therapeutic qualities. In Ivory Coast, chimpanzees use stones as hammer and anvil to crack open palm nuts with great perseverance, even selecting stones specifically for the right weight.
  • The “wisdom of nature” view supposes that procedures and substances that have evolved over long stretches of time are best not manipulated. Of course in evolution, morally unsavoury things can happen. A high number of women and babies die in the process of child-birth if left unaided by modern medicine. On the other hand, there may even be arguments in favour of the “wisdom of nature” view. For the best way to ruin an ecosystem has typically been the attempt to improve it.
  • Until the scientific revolution starting in the 17th century, the teleological idea that organisms have a “natural purpose” had been a common assumption in the West, but it is often encountered today as well. Of course we know that the “purpose” of chickens is not really to lay eggs for humans. On the other hand, animals are often distressed when not kept in ways appropriate to the species, say in battery farming or in low-budget zoos and circuses. So evolution seems to have inscribed into their very bodies conditions under which they do well, which could be called their very own purpose. Further, philosopher Mary Midgley made the case that it is part of human nature to have a private sphere, which in certain cases requires the protection of private property, and basic freedoms.
  • The notion of naturalness is also implicit in feelings of revulsion. Traditionally, newspapers could be sure to achieve a solid echo when they attached the prefix “Franken-” to entities altered in unconventional ways. Of course, “yuck” is not an ethical argument, but it is an intuition out of which we may (or may not) tease a rational argument.
  • The religious view is often used to add moral oomph to traditional procedures. “Nature” is best left the way it has been, people may argue, for God has created it this way. Of course the way things are in nature evolves. In nature, any point in time is one snapshot in a more or less constant flux. If we assume that Darwinian
    Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam. Wikimedia Commons

    evolution is right, it is still rational to believe in a creator God, but it becomes much more difficult to discern which one of the changing states of affairs in nature might be highlighted as normative. Further, Biblical notions of creation also encompass aspects of destruction or chaos. In the Biblical book of Job, God is portrayed as asking, “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?” (Job 38) We’re given to understand that God as the creator is the one who hunts for food for the lion – and note that lions may even have an appetite for people. Additionally, the language of how God would want natural things to remain natural does not always serve traditional morality. A nude model may assert that God has created her as a beautiful person, and who should be ashamed of God’s gifts?

Sandel and the theology of creation

The idea that the natural is normative ethically is especially relevant here as Sandel makes an explicit theological argument: “To believe that our talents and powers are wholly our own doing [and hence to affirm enhancement] is to misunderstand our place in creation, to confuse our role with God’s” (85).

For example, some hold with the ancients that nature is sacred in the sense of being enchanted, or inscribed with inherent meaning, or animated by divine purpose; others, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, view the sanctity of nature as deriving from God’s creation of the universe; and still others believe that nature is sacred simply in the sense that it is not a mere object at our disposal, open to any use we may desire.” (93 f.)

Sandel himself is a practising Jew. So it is interesting that he first makes a religious claim, then goes on to explicate it in secular terms (“gift” as elusive “talent”), but does not analyse it theologically.

From a theological perspective, to what extent does God’s creative activity exclude creaturely activity? In the first Biblical creation account, Genesis 1, the waters bring forth animals at God’s command, just as later on, the earth brings forth plants as well as animals. Another Biblical creation tradition alludes to the “mother earth” image, implying again that God’s creative activity makes nature bring forth nature: “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 139:15)

To be sure, the Bible does not reduce divine creation to nature bringing forth nature. For example, Genesis 1 carefully reserves one notable Hebrew verb ‘to create’ exclusively for God, as does the Hebrew Bible on the whole, while in other instances God is portrayed much like a human engineer at work. It seems that there is a fascinating tension in this text that may well be intended to make us grapple precisely with the question of the human role in creation.

At this point Sandel asserts that genetic enhancement is an encroachment on an activity that is reserved for God alone, for genetic enhancements would reduce talent to “wholly our own doing”. So a theological reflection raises the question if we can tease apart the divine role from the creaturely role in creation. This view implies difficulties that Sandel does not address. Transhumanists typically marshal examples in which human activity has contributed significantly to the human make-up. Usually these are unforeseen effects of a collective, cultural activity that emerge over long periods of time.

London Taxi by City.and.Color at flickr

Academic education, literacy and numeracy are prominent examples of cultural techniques that not only shape how we think (a point Buchanan makes), but even how our brain is structured. For example, even in the age of sat navs, London taxi drivers are still required to memorise 25,000 streets and roughly 20,000 landmarks to earn their licence. Neuroscientists have discovered that London taxi drivers have a modified brain structure, with a larger hippocampus than average – but there is nothing immoral to becoming a taxi driver in London.

Since the dawn of humanity, the capacity to communicate symbolically has given humans an evolutionary advantage. To structure symbols by way of grammar even increases this benefit. At some point in the human past, individuals with slightly larger brains would have been able to use language more effectively than their peers with smaller brains, if only they practised that skill. Hence, genes correlated with more neurons would have meant an advantage over against people with the regular number of neurons. Across the millennia, people with large brains who used grammar replaced people who did not. This is a co-evolution of brain and culture. Two distinct phenomena – larger brains due to random genetic mutations and the emergence of symbolic culture – stabilised each other and set forth a continuing dynamic. Together these two factors contributed to the characteristic human brain size.

3rdeyedezine0 at pixabay

Larger brains also imply potential difficulties in giving birth, as the baby’s head would pass through the mother’s birth canal during birth. This had at least one very important consequence for human “talents and powers”.

Humans tend to be born at an early stage in development, as their heads would no longer fit through the mother’s birth canal significantly later than nine months after conception. This means that the “unfinished” brain of the born infant is fundamentally open to various cultural influences after birth, such as personal bonding and further sights and sounds they would not experience inside the womb. This plays a crucial role in the way humans react to facial expressions, for example. The early influence of these factors on our brain development contributes significantly to who we are, but it had not always been that way among primates.

So moral appeals to creation are powerful at first sight, but not always easy to sustain in argument. Cultural analyst and theologian Friedrich Wilhelm Graf is right in saying: “Whoever succeeds in claiming the semantics of creation and establishes their view of creation in public, has acquired religious and political power that is wielded in public interpretation”.

Sandel’s case for perfection

Sandel draws the line between natural and unnatural at the point where we manipulate genes intentionally. But if there is something wrong with perfection, is there not something ironic in the fact that it is a Harvard professor who makes this case? So why is the modification of genes the point at which he draws the red line?

The intentional manipulation of genes can also serve therapeutic ends, rather than extending the capabilities of a healthy person. For Sandel, extracting stem cells from very young embryos for therapeutic purposes is legitimate. This procedure is controversial among those who share his fundamental critique of enhancements, however, and it is not among utilitarians and transhumanists.

Michelangelo, The muscles of the human leg. Wellcome Images, operated by the Wellcome Trust. Creative Commons

Further, when open heart surgery and brain surgery became available for the first time, critics were wary of something fundamentally unnatural. Indeed, when Michelangelo studied the human anatomy through autopsy, secrecy was required as he was committing a sacrilege in the eyes of the authorities. Would such procedures establish an objectifying attitude towards people? Aren’t we confounding the distinction between culture and nature – aren’t we treating a person like an artefact, although she is by nature irreducible to technology and human cunning?

Rembrandt, The Anatomy of Dr Tulp, Wikimedia Commons

Sandel replies: “Healing a sick or injured child does not override her natural capacities but permits them to flourish.” With the concept of “flourishing”, Sandel alludes to Aristotle’s notion that we derive profound satisfaction from the cultivation of the virtuous life. We can – and must – lead fulfilled lives without enhancements, Sandel suggests, but therapy may indeed be required for the good life, and hence it is moral. But then again, wouldn’t it be more precise to say, ‘healing someone by bypass surgery permits the patient to flourish – precisely by overriding this patient’s natural capacities’? [2]

So why can we disregard nature in modifying one particular patient’s natural physique? Is the reason that flourishing, a fulfilled life, is possible only within the boundaries that are typical of the human species in general, but not necessarily if disease stunts my bodily existence? Can we disregard this one individual patient’s natural physique to make it function in the way of a generally human physique? This would be an egalitarian concept that could legitimise therapeutic interventions, for therapy would restore normal species functioning.

Discus-thrower by Lawrence OP at flickr

This concept is not Sandel’s, however. At its heart, the moral vision Sandel fleshes out in The Case against Perfection is at variance with egalitarian or democratic ideals. Sandel says so in his discussion of athletic enhancements. With enhancements, practically anybody of the right age and average talent could become an accomplished athlete, he assumes. And precisely by that our “athletic ideal” would be “offended”. For then enhancements reduce athletics to dogged slogging, they would reduce brilliance to mere tenacity, mysterious magic to “trying again, harder”. By contrast, what we’re left with in the absence of enhancements is a certain caprice of nature: only the rare individual has the “magic touch”, and all that the rest of us can do is to marvel at it.

“And excellence consists at least partly in the display of natural talents and gifts that are no doing of the athlete who possesses them. This is an uncomfortable fact for democratic societies. We want to believe that success, in sports and in life, is something we earn, not something we inherit. Natural gifts, and the admiration they inspire, embarrass the meritocratic faith; they cast doubt on the conviction that praise and rewards flow from effort alone. In the face of this embarrassment, we inflate the moral significance of effort and striving, and depreciate giftedness.” (28)

Face the facts, Sandel concludes: life just isn’t about equal opportunity. If everybody in little league gets a trophy, then nobody gets a trophy! There is an aristocratic, Olympic ideal inherent in our very biology, Sandel suggests, that could make those close enough to the top of the pile scoff at the pathetic efforts to give everybody a fair chance. Ironically, this ethos of the superior individual that has traditionally been labelled perfectionism. In making a case against one sort of perfection, Sandel makes a case for another sort. According to the perfectionist stance, a high-end, elite training available only to those few who have already demonstrated extraordinary talent is morally preferable to efforts to raise the educational standard of the large numbers only slightly, and there are no shortcuts to excellence.


According to Sandel, nature or creation is of such a kind that only a small number of people are capable of extraordinary brilliance. There is mystery in that, and we should keep it that way. But this raises the question why he makes a case for meddling with nature in therapy. If we surround nature with the aura of the sacred, then it’s more straightforward to reject all interfering with nature, and Sandel does not make a case why we should affirm therapy. If, by contrast, therapy is legitimate and enhancement is not – which in my opinion makes at least intuitive sense – then the reasons must be different from the ones Sandel is advancing.

Further reading

[1] Gerald P. McKenny, “Technology”, in: The Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics, ed. William Schweiker. Malden: Blackwell, 2005, 459468.

[2] My previous post on Sandel critiqued Lewens’s use of a similar idea in his critique of Sandel, while I am here using the “slippery” distinction against Sandel myself. How does my position differ from Lewens’? Lewens suggests a less clear-cut boundary between therapy and enhancement, thus arguing against reliance on this distinction in the first place. My critique of Lewens, in turn, is that Sandel does not base his distinction between therapy and enhancement solely on the distinction between “overriding natural” properties and helping a person in their natural state to flourish. In addition, Sandel highlights that therapy is a bounded activity. By contrast, when I am criticising Sandel here, I am not subverting the distinction between therapy and enhancement, but I am asking why Sandel allows for therapy in the first place, even if it is distinct from enhancement.