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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sandel against perfection

I just submitted a review of Michael J. Sandel's new book, The Case against Perfection, to the Monash Bioethics Review. The book is based on an article by Sandel that was published in The Atlantic Monthly back in 2004.

Sandel tries to convince us that it is a form of hubris to respond to life without recognising its "giftedness", but he flounders (so it seems to me) when he tries to translate this idea into secular terms. It's certainly true that we have not earned or deserved such things as our genetic potential, but that does not make them "gifts" which we'd be ungrateful to reject or to be dissatisfied with. Sandel's approach is totally inadequate as a basis for public policy.

I would like to make an observation that goes beyond the scope of merely reviewing Sandel's book, and which I therefore do not make in the review that I sent off to MBR. The dust-jacket blurb says, "Carrying us beyond the familiar terms of political discourse, this books contends that the genetic revolution will change the way philosophers discuss ethics and will force spiritual questions back onto the political agenda." In fact, The Case against Perfection does not explicitly claim any such thing, but its whole drift is to give support to these views, since it relies on a concept of hubris as failing to appreciate the supposed giftedness of life, surely a "spiritual" idea, even if Sandel does make a weak attempt to find a secular justification for it.

It appears to me that many bioconservative thinkers of the left and the right are, indeed, trying to get religious and quasi-religious ideas onto the political agenda (and they are not alone when one considers the more egregious efforts of such organisations as the Discovery Institute). Furthermore they are achieving a good deal of success. This is nowhere more apparent than with issues relating to bioethics. Fortunately, Sandel is able to offer a defence of stem cell research from his point of view, but many other religious believers and sympathisers have attacked even that entirely benign practice. When it comes to more controversial possibilities, such as reproductive cloning, the temptation is to reach straight for some set of intuitions with an origin in religious or quasi-religious ways of thinking.

But there are a couple of elephants in this particular room. Are secular thinkers really going to be prepared to accept the legitimacy of public policy made from a "spiritual" viewpoint, even if it has electoral support? Once we are confronted with that situation, ideas about the tyranny of the majority come to mind. Furthermore, if political positions are going to be based on "spiritual" viewpoints, can we really continue to ignore the issue of the truth of such viewpoints? I believe that we must, in fact, grapple with the truth claims relied upon by spiritually-based participants in public debate, whether it be someone as generally reasonable as Sandel (I don't have to agree with him to see him as a generally reasonable person) or someone as extreme and dangerous as the world's Jerry Falwells and Ted Haggards. They may not like it, but we are entitled to argue that their policy views have no good foundation because they are based on metaphysical claims that are actually false.

As it is sometimes put, we can no longer avoid grappling with the epistemic content of spirituality and religion. That's why we need a new Enlightenment.


Tom Clark said...

Did you see Saletan's review at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/08/books/review/Saletan.html?ex=1185508800&en=ffb0c60fd7c78885&ei=5070

Russell Blackford said...

I hadn't seen it, Tom, but I was interested to do. I will comment in a separate post, as it raises interesting issues. It's useful review, until the end, where Saletan seems to miss the point of the debate.

Russell Blackford said...

grrr @ typos :)

Russell Blackford said...

I found out today that my "real" review, the one in MBR has been accepted and should appear pretty soon.

Meanwhile, Tom, you'll see that I've responded to Saletan's review at great length. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.