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Nigel Warburton on... the case against perfection

Updated Wednesday, 12th March 2008
Should we allow genetic and performance enhancement in sport?

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As the controversy about Dwain Chambers, a British sprinter who was found guilty of cheating by using illegal performance-enhancing drugs rumbles on, Ethics Bites considers a more basic question. Chambers was shown to be a cheat - he clearly broke the rules. But should we allow other kinds of performance enhancement in sport? Should we make genetic enhancement part of sport?

Biotechnology is opening up many possibilities. Athletes will soon be able to inject chemicals 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 podcast for Ethics Bites, the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel comes out firmly against the pursuit of perfection by genetic enhancement. He explains why, for example, he thinks it would be wrong to permit genetically enhanced athletes to compete. He, of course, defends biotechnical solutions to medical problems. It is when we attempt to enhance ourselves 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. And this will be bad for all of us.

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

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 could 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 Maradona. And watching the top marathon runners today is already like watching bionic athletes, but no less absorbing for us mere mortals.

Sandel's arguments are interesting and thought-provoking. For some of the arguments on the other side of the debate, try John Harris's book Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. He presents an uncompromising defence of safe enhancement:

Enhancements are so obviously good for us that it is odd that the idea of enhancement has caused, and still occasions, so much suspicion, fear, and outright hostility.

Further Reading

  • The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering by Michael Sandel, published by Belknap Press
  • Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People by John Harris, published by Princeton University Press

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