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Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught political philosophy since 1980. He is the author of[…]

Michael Sandel frames the stem cell debate.

Topic: Framing the Stem Cell Debate

Michael Sandel: The question of science. And this goes back to what we were discussing before about the relation of philosophy to the actual … . One very concrete experience that brought this home to me – the importance of the connection – is when I was asked to serve a few years ago … actually it was in 2001 … on the President’s Council on Bioethics. Now I had not thought – which I agreed to do, and from which I’ve learned an enormous amount – I had not thought before … I didn’t really know anything about stem cells, or the debate about stem cell research, or about cloning, or any of these questions to do with biotechnology. But it turned out to be a fascinating opportunity. It was a kind of public service, because here was a group convened by the President to discuss the ethical implications of new biotechnologies. But whatever public service may have performed by debating these questions of stem cell research, cloning, genetic engineering and the like, I know that I learned a tremendous amount. I have said more than once that I thought I should be paying graduate school tuition for this experience. And what I really … because here was a coming together of debates about ethics, about philosophy, and cutting-edge development in biology and … science. I learned a tremendous amount. I became fascinated with the subject. And I wound up teaching some courses on it, as I still do with a colleague of mine … a great stem cell … . We taught a course together on ethics and biotechnology. And I also wrote a book – a short book – on ethics and biotechnology. So I would have never had the opportunity really, or the occasion, or the provocation to think through some of these questions about genetic engineering and biotechnology had it not been for that experience, which was, in some ways, a very political experience. We were arguing about a lot of contemporary political issues. But it led to a new area of intellectual interest, and it was continuous with – some out to be continuous with – some of the themes in political philosophy that I had dealt with before.

I’ve been a defender of stem cell research, but a critic of the use of genetic engineering for enhancing people for non-medical uses – designer children, bionic athletes, that kind of thing. And in trying to explain why, or even for that matter to understand what’s morally troubling about genetic engineering say for designer children, I was … It seemed to me it was necessary to bring back into political philosophy some fundamental questions that verged even on theology that modern philosophy tries to keep at a distance. For example, what is the proper stance of human beings … ? How should we understand our relation to the natural? What is the relation between moral and political reflection on the one hand, and biology – including all biology and all human nature – on the other? So a range of questions that I’m not a part of the standard discourse in contemporary political philosophy. I found that fascinating.

Recorded on: 6/12/07