Harris, John (2007). “Perfection and the Blue Guitar" in Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 109-122.
Harris primarily takes up against Michael Sandel in this chapter. Sandel’s argument is along the same lines that others have argued, namely that enhancement is beyond us in a way that alters our essential nature and humanity. Harris calls this a conservative position and describes this as being a position the expresses suspicion to change, emphasize the virtue of things the way they are and acceptance of those things. He again points out that human history could be described by enhancement in all fields of human endeavor I mentioned in a previous post. He also notes that enhancement is part of the evolutionary process. I will not detail Sandel’s arguments that Harris quotes at length, only Harris responses as we will probably review Sandel’s work in greater depth later.
Harris does respond to Sandel first by claiming that it is not rational to think that effortful superiority is better than effortless. He uses the sports analogy to compare this idea. Was Pete Rose (the hard worker) better than Joe DiMaggio (the graceful, gifted player)? Harris argues that both had to train to develop what talents they were born with and that they were ultimately judged as baseball players by their achievements. Excellence is the result of doing, not just having. It requires authentic human agency with effort and non-effort. Even the steroid fueled behemoth must work at it and to think that it is easy, is missing the idea of what excellence is or should mean. Now Harris is not arguing for enhancement in this way, he is only arguing against Sandel that there is something inherently less to be valued in achievement from effortlessness compared to more effort.
Harris argues that it is true that an enhanced sense of human agency coupled with increased powers to influence the future and the world may transform our understanding of the moral landscape. A poignant point he makes is that with this technology, we become responsible for our inaction as well as for what actions we do take. Does a child a legitimate claim to harm if a parent fails to act on a disability when that choice was available? Harris would say yes. It is clear that Sandel is a theist so it is not surprising that Harris uses the word “destiny” in regards to the notion of human agency. Sandel also seems to appeal to Rawls in that we should not be entitles to a full measure of the bounty they reap on society compared to those with less gifts. Harris makes the interesting move of arguing that enhancement is actually a way of redistributing gifts before society has to redistribute resources to equalize for the sake of social justice. As Harris says, “enhancement provides more to redistribute and less need for redistribution” (p. 120). Ultimately, Harris wonders whether people who choose to enhance as true masters of their destinies or as the best judges for what they deem best for their children will be able to if arguments like Sandel’s are used to restrict freedom and liberty. This is a bigger question outside the scope of our project, but if God is the presupposition, where is the medical boundary line or is there one?
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