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Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizenship - Genetics and morals

Updated Monday, 8th June 2009

The third of the 2009 Reith Lectures tackles the debate over genetic engineering which, says Michael Sandel, requires us to rethink the proper stance of human beings toward nature, and toward the given world: Genetics and Morals

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New genetic technologies hold great promise for treating and curing disease. They also offer the prospect of engineering our children and ourselves to be stronger, smarter, and more successful. Should biotechnology be used for non-medical enhancement?

It is now possible to use new reproductive technologies to choose the sex of one’s child. Is this objectionable? What about using genetic screening or engineering to choose other traits of one’s child – hair colour, eye colour, or, in the future, to improve intelligence, musical ability, or athletic prowess?

And what about genetic self-improvement? Should sports leagues prevent athletes from using 'gene doping' to enhance their performance? Should universities discourage students, teachers, and scholars from taking 'smart pills' to improve their memory, concentration, and cognitive abilities?

Of course, safety considerations argue against the use of many genetic and pharmacological enhancements. But suppose the medical risks could be minimised. Would there still be a moral objection to the use of such enhancements?

In Lecture 3, Sandel argues that genetic engineering to create designer children or bionic athletes is objectionable for reasons that go beyond the matter of safety. Using bioengineering to enhance our children – even for their own good – is at odds with the virtue of accepting children with unconditional love, and being 'open to the unbidden'. It fails to appreciate life as a gift.

The debate over genetic engineering for enhancement forces us to move beyond the familiar terms of moral and political discourse. The problem with trying to create designer children is not simply that it will create false expectations of parents for their children, and therefore make for unhappiness; or even that genetic design will impair the autonomy of the child, her right to choose her path in life. The deeper problem lies in the Promethean aspiration to mastery and dominion – the hubris – such engineering reflects.

The debate over genetic engineering, like the debate over climate change and the environment, requires us to rethink the proper stance of human beings toward nature, and toward the given world. Is it possible to articulate an ethic of restraint to check our impulse to mastery and dominion? A new citizenship will be one that puts these big moral and spiritual questions at the centre of public discourse.

First broadcast: Tuesday 23 Jun 2009 on BBC Radio 4





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