The deep concern about genetic engineering

Dworkin hits the nail on the head in Sovereign Virtue:

“My hypothesis is that genetic science has suddenly made us aware of the possibility of a similar though far greater pending moral dislocation. We dread the prospect of people designing other people because that possibility itself shifts… the chance/choice boundary that structures our values as a whole, and such a shift threatens, not to offend any of our present values… but, on the contrary, to make a great part of these suddenly obsolete.

….The terror many of us feel at the thought of genetic engineering is not a fear of what is wrong; it is rather a fear of losing our grip on what is wrong. We are not entitled–it would be a serious confusion–to think that even the most dramatic shifts in the chance/choice boundary [the distinction between what we are and are not responsible for] somehow challenge morality itself: that there will one day be no more wrong or right. But we are entitled to worry that our settled convictions will, in large numbers, be undermined, that we will be in a kind of moral free-fall, that we will have to think again against a new background with uncertain results.”




I had the opportunity to see “Disgraced” at the Berkeley Rep last weekend. The play’s emotional arc is extraordinary. The tension begins to simmer over the course of the first several scenes and explodes in the penultimate scene, a four-person dinner party in which each attendee degrades himself in words or actions.

The core of “Disgraced” is the self-understanding of the protagonist–Amir, a Pakistani-American muslim and high-powered lawyer. “Disgraced” represents his self-understanding through a portrait. The play begins with Amir’s wife painting him, and it concludes with Amir staring ambivalently at the completed portrait. The portrait depicts Amir in western business attire, looking down at the viewer in semi-profile. In one sense, it depicts Amir’s image of himself as a successful Westerner.

Amir behaves despicably in the course of events and comes to realize that he is still alienated from his life in America by virtue of unresolved anger toward his family, his wife, and Islam’s history with the west. However, while Amir disgraces himself during the play, the ending suggests that he is in a sense the play’s hero. In its final moments, Amir places his completed portrait over his fireplace. The portrait occupies the same place that a statuette of Shiva, a Hindu god, occupies in the opening scene–a gift from a colleague that represents how his colleagues misperceive him. This composition suggests Amir sees his portrait, and the identity it depicts, as form of self-misunderstanding, and it suggests he has begun a process of reflection in light of the play’s events.

The tone of his ending, moreover, contrasts with the abrupt and emotional departures of two other characters. These characters have not yet begun a process of reflection and adjustment. Even while Amir falls the furthest, there is hope for his character that’s lacking for the others. The great nemesis of “Disgraced” is shame over the past, which leads characters like Amir to act irrationally and wrongfully. Only Amir, however, shows awareness of shame’s danger and the danger of anger at events beyond his control.