The Slippery Slope of Normal


What does it mean to be “normal?” How do you measure it? In medicine, doctors use percentiles, such as “your child is in the 90th percentile for height.” These statistics are measured relative to a norm. These norms can be helpful for detecting health problems. But they can also be used by parents to compare their children to everyone else’s kids. Expressing relief that their child is “normal,” what they really want is better than normal.

This attitude is even more obvious in academic performance. A “B” average is normal, but an “A” average is better because it is better than normal. So, do whatever it takes to get the A.

This attitude persists throughout life. We’re not satisfied with “normal.” Most people want to be better than normal, or, bluntly, better than “that guy,” whether that guy is a friend or complete stranger. This has led to a culture of medicalizing perceived shortcomings and justifying the use of medical resources for enhancement. People feel both the pressure and the entitlement to be “above average.”

In his book, The Case against Perfection, Michael Sandel addresses the issue of enhancing our children.[1] One of his examples is the off-label use of human growth hormone, or HGH. This is a drug that doctors can give to children who have a hormone deficiency that causes them to be shorter than normal.

However, HGH can make any child a little taller. Height has its advantages. Parents who want to give their child every opportunity to succeed may demand HGH to boost their child’s height to taller than average.

However, as Michael Sandel points out, everyone cannot be above average, by definition. If everyone took HGH, then the average height would go up. In other words, what was once above average height is now the new normal.[2]

And the competitive process begins all over again.

Our culture’s use of enhancement technologies is a self-perpetuating conflict. On the one hand, we want equality. We want everyone to have every opportunity to succeed. On the other hand, we want access to medical technologies so that we can be above average. So that we can win. The end result is that the “new normal” is continually escalating, never quite within reach.

What’s the solution? There are no easy sound-bite answers that I can give here. We need to be having honest conversations about these matters in our families, in our churches, and in the broader society. But let me leave you with one countercultural idea: resist the urge to be better than normal. Instead, give some serious thought to recovering the Christian art and virtue of contentment. Can you be content with how God created you and with what He has given you? As Christians, that should be normal.  

For Moody Radio, this is Paige Cunningham, and these are my thoughts on everyday bioethics.


[1] Sandel, Michael J. The Case against Perfection (First Harvard University Press, 2007).

[2] Ibid. pages 16-18.


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