By Michael LaTorra
Harvard's Michael Sandel argues in his book The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering that life is a gift and that we should accept the unbidden nature of this gift, working toward acceptance and solidarity with others rather than seeking unbridled mastery over human biology.
But is life properly viewed as a gift?
The claim that life is a gift automatically entails a responsibility on the part of the recipient of that gift to respond with gratitude and without taking issue with the precise attributes and characteristics of what has been given and received. One is supposed to live by the aphorism "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" (or you might see a lot of rotten teeth). So to accept Sandel's premise that life is a gift is also to accept that one is obliged to respond in a certain way and without closely scrutinizing the actual conditions of what has been received.
But is life a gift at all? The alleged giftedness of life is not inherent in life itself. Something can be given and received without that something being a gift. Communicable diseases are given and received, yet we do not usually consider diseases to be gifts. In some cases, some individuals will say that they learned valuable lessons from their struggle with a disease. In that sense, perhaps we could deem a disease to be a gift. A better term for such an event, however, would be a test.
A test is given and received, just like a gift. However, a test may properly be viewed as fair or unfair, depending on whether the test is appropriate to the skill and knowledge level of the person being tested, and whether the test is free from trickery or deception. We are not expected to have any sense of social obligation to be grateful for being tested. We are not expected to overlook unfairness, bias or deception in the test itself. Indeed, we have a duty to evaluate the fairness of the test so that neither we nor other test-takers should be badly affected by an unfair, biased, deceptive or inappropriate testing instrument.
Life as we currently live it has many undesirable features, such as sickness, old age, too-short duration, painful death, and other limitations. To represent life as a gift without recognizing these negative attributes is to bias the discussion of how life might be improved. If life were merely a gift, one would have to wonder about the motives or competence of whomever chose to give such a gift. If you were shopping for the perfect gift to give someone you loved, would you give them spinal bifida and Huntington's disease?
Life is not always or only a gift. Life is also a test. A crucial element of this test is how life itself might be improved so as to lessen suffering, improve capacity, enhance abilities, and extend the duration of every desirable aspect of life itself. This is the lesson of life. This is how the test is well-met. The true gift of life is to make it better than it was when first received.