Monday, June 02, 2008

Books about Better, Best, and Perfection

I just finished reading two more books: The Case Against Perfection and When Your Best isn't Good Enough.

I requested the first one from ILL, but when it came I couldn't remember why, at first. After a while I remembered that one of the commenters on barefoot meandering's video game blogpost had talked about the difference between accepting love and transforming love and had mentioned this book.

The two kinds of love turn out to be defined by someone called William May in The President's Council on Bioethics:

Parents find it difficult to maintain an equilibrium between the two sides of love. Accepting love, without transforming love, slides into indulgence and finally neglect. Transforming love, without accepting love, badgers and finally rejects. E.B. White captured nicely the difficulties of balancing the two contending passions as they pervade daily life:

"Every morning when I wake up, I am torn between the twin desires to reform the world and to enjoy the world and it makes it hard to plan the day."

It may not overreach to observe that modern science exhibits the two sides of love suggested here. On the one hand, science engages us in beholding; it lets us study and savor the world as it is. On the other hand, science and the technologies it generates engage us in moulding, in the project of transforming, amending, and perfecting the given world.

Coincidentally, this theme is present in the other book I read, which I picked fromthe Temporary Book Collection in our tiny local library. Dr Leman doesn't use the words, but he also discusses how parents can sometimes try so hard to improve their children that they implicitly seem to reject the child as he exists.

Now, back to science and the Case Against Perfection. Michael Sandel discusses the new possibilities for genetic enhancement that exist in our society now. He makes an analogy to the kind of low-tech enhancement that parents already practice. Expensive SAT prep classes, to the tune of thousands of dollars; preparation courses for 2 year olds, in order that they can compete for the "Baby Ivy" prep schools; help with homework and college apps. Where does it stop? He makes the excellent point that an increase in the possibilities brings with it an increase in responsibility, and guilt, and "ownership". When genetic enhancement of a child's height, or memory, or muscles, is a possibility, when does it start becoming an obligation, a duty? How much of the achievement can be considered the child's, when the parents are the ones designing the genetic possibilities?

He says you already see this a bit in Down Syndrome cases. Now that there is a possibility of genetic screening, there is also a possibility of termination of unwanted Down children. When there is that possibility, then the parents who choose not to test or terminate end up holding the bag -- it is almost "their fault" that they have a disabled child. (it's not in reality, of course, but I definitely have seen this reasoning in our society).

In a future where genetic tinkering is an option, will there be even more divisions between privileged and unprivileged, and will parental responsibility for bringing up "designer children" become all-encompassing? These are the questions the author asks, and they are not easy to answer. As he says, they are the kind of questions that "science" tends to avoid, because they seem to have "religious" implications, but in fact they can be addressed without specific religiosity.

I thought when I was reading the chapter on "low tech" enhancements like prep-testing for 2 year olds, that these things have a tendency to backfire. Children who have been extensively prepped for tests may not develop in other ways that are more important in the long term. The author does not mention this-- to make his argument against enhancements clearer, I think, he focuses only on the troubling aspects of genuine improvement. Only as an aside does he comment that improvements like eagle-eyes for golfers might have costs for the player's ability as well as benefits. But you do see that the success record for most "helicopter parents" and "hurried children" is mixed at the very least. This brings the problem back to the issue he mentioned -- that what humans seem to value in achievement is the natural gift plus what the person makes of it. We admire Achilles for his natural gifts, but are disappointed by his character flaws. We regret that Hector was defeated, yet in the long run admire him more for his defeat than we do Achilles for his victory.


lissla lissar said...

Sadly, the testing does mean some parents choose to abort Down Syndrome babies. It certainly happens in Canada. I was reading an online discussion about whether it was evil and abusive for parents who know they have a very high chance of passing on specific genteic diseases to have children, because those children would be doomed, and the parents burdened.

The general consensus was Yes. That there might be good in life, however short, was not considered.

There was a funny (I thought) article in the national newspaper recently about parents who are choosing, radically, to allow their children free time, without structure or classes. The writer observed that in testing, children who don't go through extensive Ivy League prep test as more flexible and creative, which doesn't surprise me.

The weight of the expectation that you'll push your children academically, plus the natural desire to see your children do well, breeds huge insecurity. One needs to remember that there are so, so many other goods in life that don't involve getting into Harvard with a 4.0.

And the possible future when you can tailor and choose your children's genetic everything scares me witless. It's one of the things it's good that we don't control.

Susan L said...

Willa, I want to say that I've been reading all of your posts and have really benefitted from them. I actually print the posts so I can read and think through them carefully. I appreciate your deep thoughtfulness and your ability to communicate so intelligently.

I may not often post a specific response, but I want you to know that I read here regularly and really appreciate what you post!

Thank you,

Chari said...

Interesting how this kind of coincides with MY current read, the Four Loves by CS Lewis. I AM getting some of it!

Funny........I was just peeking at Clare's blog.........I think I need to go get Our Mutual Friend off the shelf. Other than A Christmas Carol......I have not actually read any Dickins.......Maddelyn is WAY ahead of me at 13 yrs :)

God bless! Miss you!

Laura A said...

Willa, I've been trying to post a comment here for about three days, but keep getting interrupted, so let me just say that this is another subject I think about frequently and I'm reading what you have to say with interest.

It feels to me as though Manhattan parents are deeply into "low tech enhancement." I also noticed years ago that I rarely see Downs children anymore. Very sad, as Lissla pointed out, that the debate has been turned on parents who choose to carry children with genetic diseases to term. Slippery thing, public opinion.

And on a lighter note, I love that E.B. White quote!

Beate said...

"Accepting love, without transforming love, slides into indulgence and finally neglect."

Hi Willa,

I spent quite some time thinking of this comment and wondering what was nagging at me. Finally, I realized that this was an entirely flawed view of what love is. True love can only come from God and it is inherently transforming. My own struggle is to let that happen through the Holy Spirit instead of pridefully attempting to change another person. I need to just attempt to love as perfectly as I can through Christ, and trust that He will work through me. I have to accept my children as He created them, hard as that is some days ;-)

This is too long, and I'm having a hard time reigning in those rambling thoughts ;-) Yet even love from a purely human standpoint will tend towards transforming. We have too much at stake emotionally for it to be otherwise. That is something I personally struggle against, if that makes any kind of sense ;-)

Willa said...

True love can only come from God and it is inherently transforming. My own struggle is to let that happen through the Holy Spirit

Beate, I would certainly like to think more about this. It almost sounds like you are saying that "accepting love DOES transform" by its nature.

Since Chari mentioned the Four Loves I will quote from the wikipedia definition of Agape or Caritas:

(agapē, αγαπη) is an unconditional love directed towards one's neighbor which is not dependent on any lovable qualities that the object of love possesses. Agape is the love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance. Lewis recognizes this as the greatest of loves, and sees it as a specifically Christian virtue. The chapter on the subject focuses on the need of subordinating the natural loves to the love of God, who is full of charitable love. Lewis states that "He is so full, in fact, that it overflows, and He can't help but love us." Lewis metaphorically compares love with a garden, charity with the gardening utensils, the lover as the gardener, and God as the elements of nature. God's love and guidance act on our natural love (that cannot remain what it is by itself) as the sun and rain act on a garden: without either, the object (metaphorically the garden; realistically love itself) would cease to be beautiful or worthy.

When we are parents we are trying to be transformed by God's love for us, into someone who reflects God's love for our children. So then, we don't have to mix together a stew of "a bit of acceptance, a bit of transformation" and hope to strike the right balance. It is more like Pope John Paul's "families, become what you are." ... trying to bring out to the fullest what is already there.

Is this sort of what you are talking about?

Beate said...

Yes that's it - although you manage to put my thoughts together more coherently than I do LOL! I have more to add, but too many distractions ;-)

Papa Ben also speaks of agape in God is Love....

lissla lissar said...

I do think there are different sort of love. Of course, all love ultimately comes from God, and is fundamentally good, but different aspects or types of love can be unbalanced, just as other virtues or goods can be unbalanced. Mercy without justice is unbalanced, and so is accepting love without transforming love.

The trick is the balancing.

I had a more complete post, but the internet ate it.