Biotechnology is opening up many possibilities. Athletes will soon be able to choose to inject substances that will produce genetic modifications that will dramatically improve their performance; parents will be able to specify many genetically controlled qualities for their offspring. This is not the world our parents and grandparents inhabited. How should we treat these developments?
In his short, highly-readable book The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, Michael Sandel comes out firmly against the pursuit of perfection by genetic enhancement. He, of course, defends biotechnical solutions to medical problems. It is when we attempt to ehance ourselves and others genetically that he objects.
Much of his argument turns on his notion of 'giftedness'. An athlete, for example, has a natural genetic endowment. According to Sandel, to go beyond this 'gift' is a kind of hubris on our part, a Promethean project that involves playing God. This sounds like a theological position. But Sandel believes his reasoning should have force with secularists too.
For Sandel there are three features of our moral landscape that will be transformed if we succumb to this desire to play God:
1. Humility. We will lose the sense of reverence that is appropriate to our fate. Instead we will end up acting with hubris towards our nature.
2. Responsibility. With increases in choice about what we are, responsibility explodes. The consequence will be burdensome.
3. Perhaps most important, though, is solidarity. Sandel believes that the price of enhancement would be a loss of human solidarity. Once we lose the sense that we are subject to contingencies of fate, the successful will, even more than now, see themselves as self-made.
Sandel's message is clear:
Rather than employ our new genetic powers to straighten 'the crooked timber of humanity,' we should do what we can to create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings (p. 97)
Much of Sandel's argument will appeal to religious believers, particularly those who seek humility before God's will. But for atheists and agnostics, this may be harder to stomach. Why not improve ourselves if we can? Think of how wonderful it would be if we could increase the number of geniuses per capita, particularly if we could give them a compassion gene and a desire to improve the lot of humanity...In the area of sport much of Sandel's argument turns on his belief that watching bionic athletes slugging it out would become mere spectacle, and that part of what we value in sport is the limitations of the athletes. I'm not so sure about this. I'd like to watch a football match in which every player achieved the skill level of George Best or Maradonna. And watching the top marathon runners today is already like watching bionic athletes, but no less absorbing for us mere mortals.
Whether or not Sandel is right about these issues, this is a clear, entertaining and stimulating book about a topic that matters. Underlying it are major questions about what we value and why that any thinking person will want to address.
What am I doing reviewing a book that was originally published in 1978? The Grasshopper was reissued with an introduction by Thomas Hurka in 2005. The mystery to me is that it is hardly known in the UK, despite a fulsome puff from SImon Blackburn. My excuse for writing this now is that this book was a pleasant discovery and I want other people to know about it. I was put on to it by Jerry Cohen who mentioned it when we were recording a forthcoming episode of Philosophy Bites.
Bernard Suits combines witty parody of Platonic dialogues with serious philosophy about the nature of games (and by implication Wittgenstein's pronouncements on family resemblance terms and the attempt
to define concepts). To Wittgenstein's assertion that 'game' can't be defined by means of listing necessary and sufficient conditions for something's being a game, Suits responds:
'playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles' [p.55]
Or, in a tighter version:
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].' [p.54-5]
If you want to get a golf ball into a hole, then the easiest thing is to put it there yourself by hand. But that prelusory goal of getting the ball in the hole can only be achieved in golf within the rules by hitting it with a club (the lusory means). If you started rolling the golf ball with your hand you would undermine the lusory attitude that makes this activity golf.
Suits goes on to suggest that in Utopia, because we could easily achieve everything we would want, it is plausible that setting up unnecessary obstacles in this way would be the best way to spend our time...
Clever and deep. How refreshing that even within the rather arid university tradition of philosophy such a book could have been written; yet how depressing that it hasn't reached a wider audience.
It has been a good year for books about the final years of great thinkers. I've already reviewed and recommended Emily Wilson's excellent The Death of Socrates(you can read my review here). Mark Edmundson's book about Freud's last few years, The Death of Sigmund Freud, is very different in approach, but equally absorbing.
For quite large parts this is a double biography, the subjects being Hitler and Freud. Hitler was the immediate cause of Freud's reluctant decamping from Vienna to Hampstead as an old and very ill man (he was dying of cancer of the mouth, though that didn't stop him forcing what was left of his jaw open to insert a cigar whenever he could). Edmundson demonstrates how Freud's ideas explain the German and particularly the Austrian sympathy for Hitler's ideas in the late 1930s. Freud recognised that 'even the most apparently civilized people nurse fantasies of violence, rape and plunder', and Edmundson summarises themes from Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) in which Freud presciently explains the particular allure of the powerful and uncompromising leader.
Emondson, a literature professor, has a light touch. This book is fascinating, well-plotted, and includes superb summaries of key works by Freud, neatly contextualised. There are also several well-described encounters, such as Salvador Dali's visit where the Surrealist is surprised to be put down with Freud's:
'In classic paintings I look for the subconscious - in surrealist painting for the conscious.'
a neat epigram, this, which pinpoints a problem at the heart of Freudian-influenced surrealism namely that deliberately attempting to represent ideas from the unconscious is self-defeating.
My only reservation about the book is its ending: the slightly melodramatic treatment of Freud's final hours and words.
Freud emerges here as a dog-loving, cigar-chewing, stubborn, witty genius, a kind of sage, as much a philosopher as a psychologist in his final years,and a patriarch who wanted to undermine all patriarchy. His best line was perhaps the bravest that he wrote. Before being allowed to board the train leaving Vienna the Gestapo insisted that he sign a document that he had been well treated by the Nazis and that he had no ground for complaint. He signed this, adding the brilliantly ironic comment (a comment that on a bad day, read by a less gullible officer, could have seen him put on a train to Auschwitz rather than freedom):
'I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.'
Emily Wilson The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint (Profile Books, 2007)
This is a superb book. I picked it up by chance and have been gripped. Socrates, 'the Jesus Christ of Greece' as Shelley dubbed him, comes to most philosophers via Plato. Emily Wilson, a classicist, provides a lively overview of the numerous Socrates that have existed for different thinkers at different times. These include the hen-pecked master of self-help platitudes described by his pupil Xenophon, the absurd figure that appears in Aristophanes' The Clouds, the tyrant-loving chatterbox despised by Plutarch, the man of integrity admired by Voltaire and Diderot, the drunken reveller in the Monty Python song who was 'a bugger when he's pissed,' and the unthreatening and decidedly un-socratic Socrates of Phillip's Socrates' Café (less gadfly, more nice bloke - see my previous post on this). Along the way she makes astute interpretations of images of Socrates' death including the famous painting by David and even analyses the medical effects of different types of hemlock to determine whether Plato's description of Socrates' progressive loss of feeling in the Phaedo is a santised version of what must have happened (the answer is probably not).
Wilson provides plausible explanations of why the Athenians were so ready to execute Socrates. His political views (anti-democratic, apparently pro-tyrant), his associations (with those who had acted impiously), his irritating arrogance, and possibly his public humiliation of his accusers, these are the background to the charges of corrupting the youth, and neglecting the gods of Athens. She also provides the social and political background to Socrates trial, and a succinct overview of his philosophical stance as Plato portrays it. But the real strength of the book is Wilson's ability to characterise the numerous Socrates that have existed throughout history in an elegant and economical style that is engaging, stimulating, and at times profound. Highly recommended.