Improve the human body, how far?

For Michael Sandel, changing our body to adapt to the world, and not the other way around, is a profound form of alienation.

The Swiss know this well: advances in genetic engineering put citizens under constant pressure, that of having to decide on standards by which it is sometimes difficult to measure the real problems. It is a new responsibility that continues to fall on the legislator, therefore, a new moral burden that technology imposes on each of us. And everyone feels, in doing so, that these biological questions go far beyond biology, without knowing, however, precisely how to define what this somewhat vague beyond consists of.

Improve, not cure

That is why the little book by the American philosopher Michael Sandel, finally translated into French, is precious. In fact, it tries to formulate with great clarity what exactly is at stake in genetic manipulations, and more particularly in its melioristic use, that is, with the aim of consciously improving the capacities of an individual, and not treating him, which is very different. . Four uses are envisioned, which have been the subject of a lucrative market for years in the United States: increased muscle mass, size, memory, as well as the question of fetal sex selection. Is there any harm in these practices and why?

The question is thorny because everyone knows that every parent wants the best for their child, and in principle, they give themselves the means to achieve it, through education, private classes, etc. The Williams sisters were reportedly programmed for tennis by their father Richard long before they were born. Why not use new genetic technology to achieve the same ends (assuming it is safe, of course)?

Moral disturbance

Of course, those who do not feel any moral disturbance from the wording of this question can close the book here. They are in tune with the blind race for performance that characterizes our time. But those who, on the contrary, feel uncomfortable without being able to formulate it in exact terms would do well to read it to the end. In fact, they will find important and profound arguments, the heart of which is restored with these phrases:

“One could easily be tempted to believe that manipulating our bodies and our children to achieve success in a competitive society is exercising freedom. But changing our nature to adapt to the world, and not the other way around, is actually the deepest form of alienation. " And he continues: “It distracts us from a critical reflection on the world and kills any desire for social and political progress. Instead of using our genetic abilities to 'straighten the crooked wood' from which man has been carved, we should do everything possible to create political and social arrangements more suited to the gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings. "

Respect and humility

What is fundamentally at stake for Sandel is our ability to appreciate the given character of life, rather than making it an object of power and dominance. The result is a kind of "bioethics of giving" that favors respect and humility, not out of fatalism or a spirit of servitude, but because it allows cultivating, as he explains, fundamental human dispositions of openness, responsibility and solidarity. .

In bioethics, there is no ultimate reasoning that gives the key to indisputable truth. But there are ways of reasoning, and they are the ones that count; and Sandel's, unlike the most current literature, elevates the bioethical debate to the appropriate level, to which it should always have. Going beyond the mere technical questions, going also beyond the utilitarian calculations of cost-benefit, as well as the individualistic morality of autonomy, it places what is at stake in these practices at the level of their meaning and their importance. (as was also the case 60 years ago, in his bright anticipations, Hannah Arendt for example).

Reason together

So when it comes to raises, the real question is not whether it is "good" or is it "bad", "the real question is whether we want to live in a society where parents feel compelled to spend a fortune to grow up." perfectly healthy children a few inches more ”. It is a question much deeper than that of good or evil, a question that leaves us face to face with our responsibilities and forces us to reason. Together.