Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The sin of enhancement and the claims of giftedness

From Michael J. Sandel, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering:

Consider two types of athletic achievement: We admire baseball players like Pete Rose, who are not blessed with great natural gifts but who manage, through effort and striving, grit and determination, to excel in their sport. But we also admire players like Joe DiMaggio, whose excellence consists in the grace and effortlessness with which they display their natural gifts. Now suppose we learn that both of those players took performance-enhancing drugs. Whose use of drugs do we find more deeply disillusioning?

Some might say effort; the problem with drugs is that they provide a shortcut, a way to win without striving. But striving is not the point of sports; excellence is. And excellence consists at least partly in the display of natural talents and gifts that are no doing of the athlete who possess them. This is an uncomfortable fact for democratic societies. We want to believe that success, in sports and in life, is something we earn, not something we inherit. Natural gifts, and the admiration they inspire, embarrass the meritocratic faith; they cast doubt on the conviction that praise and rewards flow from effort alone. In face of this embarrassment, we inflate the moral significance of effort and striving, and depreciate giftedness. This distortion can be seen, for example, in television coverage of the Olympics, which focuses less on the feats the athletes perform than on heart-rending stories of the hardships they have overcome, the obstacles they have surmounted, and the struggles they have waged to triumph over an injury, or a difficult upbringing, or political turmoil in their native land.

If effort were the highest athletic ideal, then the sin of enhancement would be the evasion of training and hard work. But effort isn't everything. No one believes that a mediocre basketball player who works and trains even harder than Michael Jordan deserves greater acclaim or a bigger contract. The real problem with genetically altered athletes is that they corrupt athletic competition as a human activity that honors the cultivation and display of natural talents. From this standpoint, enhancement can be seen as the ultimate expression of the ethic of effort and willfulness, a kind of high-tech striving. The ethic of willfulness and the biotechnological powers it now enlists are both arrayed against the claims of giftedness.

This book is a stimulating read, though I disagree with a number of Sandel's premises as well as his conclusions. Most obviously problematic here, for instance, is his invocation of nature in the phrase "the cultivation and display of natural talents"--that begs all sorts of questions about what it means to think of a talent as natural. (Donna Haraway has a very nice point somewhere about the way a kind of xenophobia crops up in, say, the attitude towards genetically engineered vegetables--if you are the kind of person who thinks it would be exciting to eat a tomato with a luminiscent gene inserted into its DNA, then none of this makes much sense.)

More seriously, though, can it really be said that striving and excellence are so much at odds with one another? I understand the point about genetic giftedness. We are not all made equal in these respects. But the gifted athlete must have a gift for striving as well as an inherent quality of excellence to be cultivated, and striving can take one a very long way also...

On the other hand, it is clearly possible that I'm quite wrong about this. In graduate school, I was very certain that every success I achieved was overwhelmingly down to hard work. (One professor of ours laid out very bluntly the notion that one had better choose whether to pin one's hopes on quantity or quality of work, as far as publications go, and I remember knowing clearly that I was temperamentally on the side of quantity rather than quality--how dismayed I was to realize around year four that as I had only published one article to date I was going to have to fall back on quality!) In retrospect, perhaps I could have worked a bit less hard and achieved roughly similar successes, and I think that I may have underrated the role of talent; but obsessive attention to work seems so closely related to giftedness that it is partly counterintuitive even to frame things in this way.

I suppose also that we tend to underrate our own gifts and overrate the gifts of others--I have always taken it for granted, for instance, that I can read a huge volume of material and retain what's needed. Reading fast is a mixed blessing in life, though for the work that I do I suppose it must be said to be an unequivocal good--certainly I would have had to adopt very different research strategies at various points if I could not count on (when needed--brain would explode if I did this all the time, it goes in spells) being able to read fifteen hundred pages a day of new material for many days in a row, or to easily reread a Dickens novel in one sitting.

(Isn't that awful?!? I'm kind of ashamed to admit that I can read like that, it is a bit of a freak of nature. It's been a while since I had a really good major stint of reading, to tell the truth; I miss it. I'll next have it properly when I'm massively digging in on a major new research project. On the other hand, though I am sure that I would always have been able to read fifteen hundred pages worth of trashy novel whatever I did, it's only because of years of reading more stringently that I can read that much of, say, crazy books from the eighteenth century, or non-fiction books on the history of science, or what have you. Anything philosophically challenging still goes a lot slower--I cannot read Derrida or Locke or whoever at anything like that pace.)


  1. 1500 pages a day? That explains a lot, though it certainly makes the rest of us mortals wonder why we bother.

  2. No, no, it leads to no different results, just different routes of getting there! i.e. I would have to make more sensible choices about what to read in the first place if I was not such a maniacal reader (or for instance to write better drafts the first time round if I was not willing to slog through a million fast edits). It's like these elite marathoners--they all carry different training loads, you've got to have pretty high mileage if you want it to be good, but "pretty high" might mean 80 for one person and 130 for another, quality is to a great extent more important than quantity per se.

    (And it is not all the time that I read like that, just that I can when I want to! Again, the sports analogy is close, I keep on telling myself this when I get frustrated that I can't increase my training volume without risking injury--cumulative effect of years of reading like this makes me capable of processing a lot now...)