Monday, July 4, 2011

Two Good Articles: Sandel and Hitchens

In clearing out a career’s worth of files, books, journals, and magazines, I came across the April 2004 issue of The Atlantic – the only issue I own (as far as I know). I noticed that it has two excellent articles.

The first, featured on the cover, is by Michael J. Sandel. The article, “The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong with Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, and Genetic Engineering,” foreshadows his similarly named 2007 book, The Case Against Perfection. I have discussed Sandel’s book and course on Justice elsewhere here and found his work very helpful in thinking about the virtues, moral philosophy in its practical application, and bioethics.

The article here carries the reader in a careful consideration of his moral intuitions about the willful attempt to design human beings to our liking through genetic engineering. What is it about designer babies, bionic athletes and the like that we find creepy in ways similar to our responses to such literary dystopias as Brave New World or the film Gattaca. Starting with this unease, Sandel considers one explanation or ethical principle after another and shows how it fails if some alteration to the story is made that leaves the unease but removes the apparent ground for it.

In the end, Sandel, a Harvard liberal, brings us to considerations similar to those raised by such conservative writers as Thomas Sowell and Roger Scruton. It is a wariness about the utopian desire to control and remake the world from scratch according to our own desires, with what Sowell calls an “unconstrained vision” and Scruton “unscrupulous optimism.” It is an unease reinforced by the utopian efforts of the last century, of left and right, of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot as well as Hitler, with their drive – led by an enlightened party with an absolute dictator at the helm - to cast off the constraints of history, religion, tradition, the wishes of the masses, and human nature, to make the world anew by any means necessary (i.e., by extreme violence and the deaths of millions).

It is, as Sandel acknowledges, a religious sensibility that recognizes, in contrast to such unscrupulous optimism, the giftedness of life, its unbidden nature, and the inherent imperfection and limits of our life on earth. As he says,
To acknowledge the giftedness of life is to recognize that our talents and powers are not wholly our own doing, despite the effort we expend to develop and to exercise them. It is also to recognize that not everything in the world is open to whatever we may desire or devise. Appreciating the gifted quality of life constrains the Promethean project and conduces to a certain humility. It is in part a religious sensibility. But its resonance reaches beyond religion.

Citing the theologian, William F. May, Sandel discusses how parenthood, more than other human relationships, teaches us an “openness to the unbidden.” In a social world that prizes mastery and control, it is a school for humility. Though we care deeply about our children and love them unconditionally, we cannot choose the kind we want. As we appreciate them as gifts or blessings, we recognize that there are limits to how far we can or should seek to control, shape, and direct them.
Sandel points to the similarity in spirit between attempts to improve children through genetic engineering and the heavily managed hyper-parenting that is now common among the more educated and affluent. But far from vindicating genetic enhancement, the similarity highlights the problem with over-controlling, over-ambitious parenting. To appreciate Eugenics and genetic engineering
Eugenics, old and new, and genetic engineering represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness – the Triumph of the Will – over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.


In the same issue of The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens offers a surprisingly sympathetic assessment of that earlier critic of Promethean pretensions to remake the world from scratch, Edmund Burke.

Hitchens points out how prescient Burke was in pointing to authoritarianism and violence of the French Revolution, its inherent elitism in substituting the enlightened few and ultimately the imperial dictator for both tradition and the wishes of the people. Burke points to the feebleness of the National Assembly and the absurdity of expecting the military leaders to submit themselves to it. Thus, he predicts the rise of Napoleon (not coincidentally the name George Orwell gives to the pig who represents Stalin in his dystopian novel, 1984) almost a decade before it happened:
In the weakness of one kind of authority [i.e., the assembly], and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself…. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.

Except for the bit about the king, who by the time of Napoleon’s seizure of power had already lost his head to the revolution, this is eerily exact, as Hitchens says.
As Hitchens points out, Burke’s response to the French Revolution was diametrically opposed to his earlier support for the American Revolution, a shift that led to astonishment on the part of Thomas Paine, who supported both, and scorn from many later leftists, who characteristically attributed base material motives to Burke’s turn. In this regard, Sowell’s comments on the two revolutions, in an interview he did in connection with his reissued book, A Conflict of Visions, is instructive. Sowell argues there that the American Revolution reflected the constrained vision of its leaders, whereas the French Revolution was led by a revolutionary elite with an unconstrained vision and a determination to make the world anew according to their own understanding of the dictates of Reason. [The interview is available at] From this perspective, Burke was right to support the American but criticize the French Revolution.

Hitchens, who is reviewing a Yale edition of Reflections on the Revolution in France with scholarly essays edited by Frank M. Turner, has an interesting discussion of Paine’s relation to Burke and also of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s essay. O’Brien is interesting both because of his attempt to rescue Burke from his easy dismissal (by liberals) as a reactionary and because he illuminates the importance of Burke, a fellow Irishman, in his Catholic and national sympathies in the face of English oppression. Here Hitchens surprises us with his own sympathy (empathy anyway) for Burke’s Catholic sympathies. Indeed, he almost reminds one of his devastating critic, Terry Eagleton, a Marxist whose own Catholic and Irish sympathies were aroused more recently by Hitchens’s crude and ignorant antics as a New Atheist.

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