MOLDING VS. BEHOLDING

Setting aside worries about social impact, many people think a high degree of choosiness would make procreation a little like the manufacture of a commodity. The Apple company certainly wants its next iPhone model to be the best it can possibly be. If a glitch is discovered during the design phase, it will be detected and eliminated before production begins. Appealing features will be added, provided the cost doesn’t make the final product prohibitively expensive. We make baby-making more like product manufacturing if we use every selective option there is.

Proponents of selection say "Why not?” The higher quality we achieve leads to children existing who are actually better off than the different set of children we could have had, if we had opted for the "cheerful moral anarchy of the free range approach” (to use Jonathan Glover’s phrase). So why think anything has gone wrong?

In his book The Case Against Perfection, Michael Sandel claims that designing the best possible new people is suspect, in so far as it goes along with an attitude toward life that is problematic in all of its many manifestations. Perfectionistic procreation involves striving for assets instead of accepting them when they come along as gifts; molding children instead of beholding them; trying to master the future, instead of having an "openness to the unbidden”; controlling our offspring, instead of being receptive to the unknown. The idea seems to be that perfectionistic procreation is just one aspect of a way of life that’s worse on the whole.

The trouble with Sandel’s objection is that in many avenues of life we do legitimately want mastery and control. Once a child is born, and we’re trying to prevent him from choking or sticking his finger in an electrical socket, it’s all to the good for parents to have mastery and control. Certainly I’m not overdoing it if I fastidiously avoid alcohol and smoking, and do my best to eat nutritiously during pregnancy (protection); or if I postpone conception while I’m taking Accutane (selection).

Sandel’s main concern is with selecting and modifying for the purpose of securing the best assets for our offspring ("enhancement”), not for the purpose of preventing diseases and disabilities ("therapy”). The result of deliberate enhancement, he worries, is that assets will no longer qualify as gifts, because they will have been obtained through desire and effort. There’s something unfortunate about that, admittedly, but the upshot isn’t so clear. I may enjoy appreciating the sheer giftedness of the Beatles or Bob Dylan, but when it comes to my own life, it is not quite so satisfying to passively accept the presence or absence of gifts. I often strive to do my best, attempting to overcome natural ineptitude when it gets in the way of achieving my goals. We do the same once children have arrived. We don’t settle for some children being gifted and others not; we help a child overcome his or her natural disadvantages. Granted, it’s a virtue to accept our lot in life in some situations, but in others it’s also a virtue to strive for mastery. If some types of optimizing are excessive, we still haven’t figured out why, and which those are.

 
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