Is “playing God” just a meaningless phrase?

In a
recent piece for
Prospect
magazine, Philip Ball denounces the “playing God” objection, often made
against some proposed uses of biotechnology, as a “meaningless, dangerous
cliché”. More specifically, Ball mentions the objection in relation to Craig
Venter’s creation – already discussed on this blog – of the first microorganism
with a wholly synthetic genome. Though many people from the press have raised
the “playing God” issue in their coverage of Venter’s achievement, “no one”,
Ball writes, “seems in the least concerned to enquire what this phrase means or
why it is being used”. 

Though I
suspect Ball is right that many of the journalists who mention the playing God
objection might not really know what this phrase might actually mean, I don’t think
we should go as far as declaring the objection meaningless. The idea has
actually been spelt out in the contemporary bioethics literature. Following
C.A.J. Coady (see Coady, 2009), we can first distinguish between religious and
non-religious versions of the objection. A religious version would take a
literal line: there is a God who has set out a (presumably good) plan for the
world and has put forward certain commands for us to observe, and it is morally
wrong of us mere mortals to use biotechnology in ways, such as Venter’s, that
mean interfering with the divine plan or commands. Admittedly, such an
objection relies on a number of presuppositions that can be questioned: that
there is a God, understood as an omniscient, omnipotent, and infinitely good
Being, that He has made certain commands or set out a specific “roadmap” for
the world, and that these are incompatible with using e.g. synthetic biology
for purposes such as Venter’s, whereas they are (presumably) compatible with
the practice of medicine for curing diseases, for example. Such presuppositions
might not be easy to defend, but at least the objection has got a specific
meaning, and it can be subjected to critical discussion.

 

Of
course, if we think that we are not warranted in believing in the existence of
God, then the religious version of the playing God objection is undermined.
Still, it is also possible to interpret the objection in secular terms. There
are several possible ways of doing so, and I will only mention two of them
here:

 

1)    One possible way would be to
interpret the charge as an accusation of hubris; humans, supposedly, are
claiming powers beyond their proper station in the world – this is the
interpretation Ball himself alludes to. Such a charge could point to the
negative consequences that are likely to follow from such a hubristic attitude,
or it could take issue with the attitude itself independently of its consequences.
The latter path seems rather unattractive, as the question whether or not
people who want to use biotechnology in the relevant ways do possess this
undesirable character trait is unlikely to be decisive for our moral assessment
of their practices – the actions of even hubristic people might still be likely
to benefit humanity overall, in which case we should permit them to do what
they want to do. A more sensible version of this objection will appeal to the
unforeseen negative consequences that might follow from our use of
biotechnology, given our insufficient knowledge of the natural world. The
objector would probably need to at least suggest what these negative
consequences might be, as merely invoking the possibility of unforeseen
consequences seems too vague to have force. After all, everything we do might
in principle have
unforeseen negative consequences, and taking this as a reason to refrain from
acting would seem to purely and simply proscribe human action altogether.

 

2)    The objection could also be
interpreted as meaning that by using biotechnology for the purpose of improving
human life and well-being, we are threatening human autonomy by assuming a role
heretofore reserved to nature (a religious version of the objection would refer
to God instead). This objection might not be especially relevant to the Venter
case, but it is more so to the idea of designer babies, for instance (see Coady
2009 and Glover 2006).

 

 

No matter
how persuasive we might find such objections, it remains that they have a clear
meaning and that their strength or weakness can be assessed. It is, however,
fair to say that referring to “playing God” without specifying what one means
by that phrase is much too vague. As we have seen, the phrase can receive a variety of meanings:
it can constitute an independent objection to certain uses of biotechnology if
taken in a religious sense. It can also be understood from a secular
perspective, in which case it can actually be reduced to other objections, e.g.
a worry about unforeseen consequences or about children's right to an open
future. We can therefore agree with Ball when he writes that “the next time
[Venter] is asked if he is “playing God,” he might want to ask the questioner
what they mean.”

 

 

References:

 

Philip
Ball. “Playing God” is meaningless, dangerous cliché. Prospect Magazine
, 24th May 2010. URL = http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/05/playing-god-is-a-meaningless-dangerous-cliche/.

 

C.A.J.
Coady. 2009. Playing God. In J. Savulescu & N. Bostrom (eds.), Human
Enhancement
(OUP),
pp.155-80.

 

J.
Glover. 2006. Questions About Some Uses of Genetic Engineering. In H. Kuhse
& P. Singer (eds.), Bioethics: An Anthology
, 2nd ed. (Blackwell), pp.187-97.

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5 Responses to Is “playing God” just a meaningless phrase?

  • Robin Helweg-Larsen says:

    Surely the phrase “playing God” is better applied to the adults who dress up in funny clothes and pretend to talk to (and even have a conversation with) some god or other of their human and culture-specific imagining.

  • Ravi Samuel says:

    It strikes me that the attempts at extracting meaning fail. If the argument is that we should not bite off more than we can chew (your point 1, valid though that is, how is that ‘playing God’? As for your point 2, why should we not attempt to improve what appears to us to be wrong. Does surgery to remedy cleft lips, amount to ‘Playing God’? Is taking a paracetamol when I have a fever?

    My view is that your points 1 and 2 have core meaning. ‘Playing God’ has not.

  • Philip Ball says:

    Thank you for commenting on my piece. I’d urge you not to read too much into the word ‘meaningless’, for the simple reason that this was, like most journalistic headlines, added by the editor. I wouldn’t have quite used the word myself, for much the same reasons as you adduce. But the point I want to make is that the meanings one might assign to this phrase are not meaningful in a theological sense: it is a shorthand for a rather recent and essentially secular notion, which basically that outlined in your points (1) and (2) above. In that sense, I agree with Ravi Samuel, and would like to see ‘God’ purged from phrases like this, which dress up a (false) concept of nature in pseudo-religious garb. There IS, as you say, a way that ‘playing God’ could be interpreted in religious terms, but only if one takes a rather naive theological stance that makes little connection with (at least) the conventional Christian tradition. Needless to say, this does not prevent some people from adopting that stance.

  • Philip: thanks for these clarifications.

    Ravi: the way “playing God” might be a shorthand for point 1) above is that the phrase suggests sth like “taking oneself for (a) God”, i.e. falsely believing that we are wiser than we actually are, or have more control over the effects of our technological breakthroughs than we really do. The link between the concept of God and 2) lies in the idea of dominion, e.g. the worry might be that if parents can select key traits of their future children via genetic engineering, they might severely restrict the range of possible life plans available to them, exercising a quasi-godlike power to determine what kind of people will exist but without being omniscient or infinitely good. Again, I’m not suggesting that these objections are persuasive when applied to cases like Venter’s (or those you mention), just that they do have a clear meaning.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    A comment on Philip’s comment: “only if one takes a rather naive theological stance that makes little connection with (at least) the conventional Christian tradition”.

    The distinction between secular and religious thought is sharp only in the world of intellectuals. For most people who use such expressions, this is indeed a theological idea (how could an expression including the word “God” not be?), and it is indeed a naive one. I think the two secular “meanings” suggested by Alexandre go a long way to elucidating then kind of concern that this expression reflects, but in addition there is at least a vestigial half-belief that perhaps after all there is a God who might punish us for our hubris.

    I’d also question whether there is such a thing as a “conventional Christian tradition”. Again, perhaps there are several in the world of (religious) intellectuals, but beyond such cloisters it is a mess of superstition and half-baked ideas. Perhaps none the worse for it.

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