Eubios Ethics Institute | Book List | TOP - Asian Bioethics in the 21st Century

6.8. Playing God

- Leonardo D. de Castro and Allen A. Alvarez
Department of Philosophy, University of the Philippines,
Diliman, Quezon City, 1104 The Philippines

"We should not play God before we have learned to be men, and as we learn to be men we will not want to play God." (Ramsey, 1970, 151)

Many developments in genetics and biotechnology in the last twenty or so years have generated ethical controversy. Critics have cited various reasons for opposing practices such as assisted reproductive techniques, genetic modification, genetic testing, cloning, stem cell research and others. Occasionally, the charge has been "playing God." According to this view, human beings are playing a role that is reserved for somebody much greater. Men are playing God when they should not be.

The words of Paul Ramsey quoted above express a kind of dilemma that awaits resolution in the minds of people as they seek succor from modern biotechnology in order to confront the challenges of disease, poverty, environmental degradation, conflict resolution, and other urgent problems. As the challenges appear more and more pressing, some government leaders, policy makers, and scientists are becoming convinced that the only way to deal successfully with the challenges is to extend their powers in a way that would enable them to manipulate the basic structures of life forms and things. The reference is to fundamental components of being that have seemed previously to be immutable: human, animal and plant genome, as well as the most basic aspects of reproductive systems.

One of the ideas underlying the charge of playing God is the existence of an unbridgeable gap between being man and being a Divine Creator. There are fundamental differences between human beings and God. There are limits to the capacity of human beings to know, to understand, and to foresee. God's capacity in those respects is unlimited. Whereas God is all-powerful, human beings have only limited powers.

There is also the idea that the gap between human beings and God is not only unbridgeable but also necessary. God is an infinite being as a matter of necessity. On the other hand, it is necessary for human beings to be nothing more than human beings. To refuse to respect the gap is to do something wrong and to violate God's law.

But, what exactly does that gap involve? With respect to the practices (or possible practices) mentioned above, what can God do that human beings cannot? What does God do that a human being should not? What reasons support the view that human beings cannot - or should not - engage in the practices referred to?

In this paper, we try to answer these questions as we examine various meanings and interpretations of "playing God." We analyze the significance of these interpretations for biotechnology, morality and religion. We also clarify the type of limits that human beings may be said to exceed when they play God.

In the end, we point out that the expression "playing God" has derived much of its force from its religious association even when it does not necessarily have a religious significance. We stress the need to sort out the meanings that we attribute to "playing God" in order to forestall its use merely as a slogan that appeals to human fears rather than to human rationality. We need to get to the bottom of accusations rather than take their meanings for granted without subjecting them to thorough rational examination.

Nonetheless, we recognize the importance of "playing God" as a reminder that when human beings try to accelerate their response to pressing problems they could be overlooking essential ethical concerns. The charge of playing God needs to be taken seriously because it raises ethical issues that strike at the heart of humanity. However, we need to clarify what the slogan means in varying situations in order to be able to provide appropriate responses.

How human beings play God

As we look at various situations where human beings have been accused of "playing God," we can see that the phrase has been taken to have a broad range of meanings, including the following:

Tinkering with nature
Tampering with the basic structure of what it takes to be a human being
Making decisions about the fate of our fellow human beings without proper authority
Taking advantage of (exploiting) one's fellow human beings
Flirting with the unknown
Sex selection
Genetic engineering
Assuming a greater responsibility than one has the power or resources to assume
Deciding when to end a life
Deciding when to begin a life
Ending a life
Determining a person's destiny
Usurping divine powers
Eugenic testing
Looking into the secrets or mysteries of life

This listing gives an idea of the ambiguity that surrounds the use of the expression and the misunderstanding that it is liable to incite. Depending upon the situation being considered, the context for the actions listed above may vary and their interpretation could take on differing shapes. For the purposes of this paper, there are a number of interpretations (or cluster of interpretations) that are pertinent. The discussions shall be confined to the following:

Playing God by overlooking human weakness and fallibility;
Playing God by manipulating nature; and
Playing God by probing the secrets or mysteries of life.

In a paper commissioned by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission of the United States, Courtney Campbell makes the following observations about the use of "playing God":

This slogan is invoked as a moral stop sign to scientific research and medical practice on the basis of some or all of the following attributes:

Human beings should not probe the secrets or mysteries of life. Continued scientific pursuit to reveal these secrets can create a "God of the gaps" theology, in which "God" is reduced to a symbol that simply fills in for those questions modern science has not yet answered.
Human beings do not have the knowledge, especially knowledge of outcomes, attributed to divine omniscience.
Human beings do not have the power to control the outcomes of actions or processes that is a mark of divine omnipotence.
Human beings have no authority to make decisions regarding the beginnings or endings of life, which is reserved to divine sovereignty.
Human beings are fallible and display a propensity to evaluate actions according to self-interest rather than by the self-giving quality of divine love.

In these respects, the appeal to "playing God" serves to remind human beings of their finitude and fallibility. By not recognizing personal limits and human constraints on scientific aspirations, persons enact the Promethean presumption of pride or hubris. (Campbell, 1997, 15-16)

The first of the attributes listed above pertains to more than the dangerous outcomes that may be the result of human failings. It shall be dealt with in a separate section on human efforts to probe into the mysteries of life. The other attributes, focusing on human weakness and fallibility, are dealt with in the following section.

Playing God: the issue of human weakness and fallibility

One can easily take for granted that "Playing God" has a specifically religious meaning. The phrase seems obviously to refer to God and to what human beings might do in an effort to approximate God's powers:

For some the phrase "playing God" has a very specific religious meaning, and it is intended to signal a very profound criticism of certain forms of actual or proposed genetic research. It is intended to say that the creation of life, especially human life, is something that God alone has the right to control, and hence, that human efforts to attain that control represent a kind of dangerous arrogance and impiety. In Western thought God is conceived as an all-knowing and all powerful being. And God is all good as well. This last point implies that nothing will go amiss when God uses that power to create. There are no tragic surprises. (Antonucci,, 2002)

However, the phrase has been used so often that many people tend to give it a secular interpretation, especially in the field of biomedicine and biotechnological research:

[I]n the field of genetic research human beings, who are not all knowing (hence, can be responsible for triggering tragic outcomes), and who are not all powerful (hence, may not be able to reverse powerful biological forces once they have been unleashed), and who are not all good (hence, these powerful technologies may be used by some for evil ends), are really taking terrible risks without sufficient preparation for potentially bad outcomes. (Antonucci,, 2002)

Citing the example of reproductive cloning, the Report says that the prospective practice is a "misguided act of human hubris" and that "there is too much potential for misuse and abuse, and too little capacity to control for such bad outcomes." (Antonucci,, 2002)

The emphasis here is on the fact of human fallibility and the possibility that it could give rise to severe consequences that human beings do not have the capability to handle. Since human beings are not omniscient, omnipotent, or all good, they should not assume the risk-laden responsibility that is inextricably tied up with many forms of genetic engineering. They are not sufficiently prepared for outcomes that have a potential to become tragic not only for individual persons but also for humanity in general.

This is also one of the bases for criticisms leveled against the cultivation and use of plants containing genetically modified organisms. For instance: [T]he one overriding fact [is] that Monsanto is in the business of playing God. Even if technological intrusion into and manipulation of the environment had not left a lengthy and frightening record of unintended disasters in the past century or so, there would be no reason to have any faith that Monsanto was so wise and foresightful that it could predict with any certainty what the consequences of its genetic intrusions would be - and that they would always be benign. Thomas Midgely Jr. didn't mean to destroy the ozone layer when he introduced chlorofluorocarbons for refrigerators and spray cans half a century ago; the champions of nuclear energy didn't mean to create a deadly hazard with a life of 100,000 years that no one knows how to control. And now we are talking about life - the alteration of the basic genetic makeup of plants and animals. A mistake here might have unimaginably horrible consequences for the species of the earth, including the human. (Sale, 1999, p. 14-3)

What one can observe in these examples is that although God and His divine powers are used as points of reference, the explanation can effectively be provided in nothing more than human terms. One can make the critical observations by referring primarily to the limits that human beings should feel free to do given available information and research. It is difficult to see what the accusation that some scientists or companies are playing God adds to our understanding beyond the claim that they are doing things whose outcomes they could not be sufficiently safe and secure about.

If one were to say simply that the scientists and companies concerned were taking risks in behalf of humanity that exceeded those that were compatible with their capacity to predict and prepare for outcomes, then we can go forward by discussing the particular risks involved and the appropriate parameters for evaluating possible consequences. By accepting that these parameters are open to human investigation, we encourage human beings to assume responsibility for as long as they are willing to accept the limits to their predictive capability. On the other hand, the accusation of playing God seeks to put a stop to scientific initiatives without giving investigators the opportunity to establish how far their predictive capabilities can take them.

Manipulating nature

Focusing on a different aspect of human over-extension, the online edition of BBC News on 17 May 2000 headlined a warning issued by the Prince of Wales about the perils of playing God. The online summary of the Reith Lecture delivered by Prince Charles, provides the following highlights:

Scientific investigation is essential, but greater respect should be shown for the genius of Nature's designs, with checks and balances tested and refined over millions of years.
Science should be used to understand how nature works but not to manipulate it for the apparent convenience of present generations.
Limits to "sustainable development" should reflect mankind's sacred duty to care for the earth in the interests of future generations.
Failure to heed the perils of overriding Nature's checks and balances could lead to the disintegration of the earth's overall environment.
Treating the world as a "great laboratory of life" could have disastrous long-term consequences
. (The Prince of Wales, 2000)

"Manipulation" is a key word in this summary. The Prince puts forward a view that seems to be held by many: nature is not something to be manipulated. Even if scientific investigation is essential in order to understand how nature works, there has to be a line between allowable investigation and manipulation that consists of "treating the world as a 'great laboratory of life' [that] could have disastrous long-term consequences."

Reflecting on his own lecture, the Prince further says:

[W]e should show greater respect for the genius of Nature's designs - rigorously tested and refined over millions of years. This means being careful to use science to understand how Nature works - not to change what Nature is, as we do when genetic manipulation seeks to transform the process of biological evolution into something altogether different. The idea that the different parts of the natural world are connected through an intricate system of checks and balances which we disturb at our peril is all too easily dismissed as no longer relevant. (The Prince of Wales, 2000)

These references to manipulation or alteration leave us with a need to clarify how these may be distinguished from plain investigation or from acceptable forms of intervention. How might one distinguish manipulation from plain investigation?

One could say that in plain investigation, the investigator makes no effort at all to change things or to interfere in any way with their "natural" course. The idea is to be able to study and describe how things are without changing them. However, this appears to be an unsatisfactory way of drawing the distinction since investigators are likely to discover a lot of things that need to be changed as they make their observations.

In studying disease, investigators precisely are looking for things that are wrong that they could change. People who are committed to improve the lives of their fellow human beings would find no reason to do medical research if they were not to be given an opportunity to find ways of intervening with the "natural" course of disease. All their work would be futile and they would even be remiss in their obligations to society and the whole of humankind. They cannot stand idly by as the destructive forces of nature wreak havoc on helpless lives.

In reply, it can be said that disease is not part of the natural course of things. Disease is an aberration that detracts from the way that things ought naturally to be. Hence, one should feel free to intervene with the course of disease. Disease-causing developments, not being part of nature, can be legitimate objects of human intervention and manipulation. According to this view, intervening with disease-factors is not, strictly speaking, intervening with nature. Intervening with disease-factors aids the natural flow of events by allowing it to proceed without impediment.

This solution moves one step forward and may be useful to some extent. However, genetic research has taken humanity and health care to a point where it is very difficult to define precisely what constitutes disease.

One difficulty has to do with drawing the line between the treatment of disease and the enhancement - or modification - of human characteristics. It is not always easy to say whether a given procedure serves to remedy a disease or to satisfy a human being's craving to enhance some chosen traits. Should we understand a procedure that is designed to increase a person's height as a treatment of disease and therefore as a remedy that seeks to preserve nature's goodness? What reasons do we have for interpreting it as a violation of a divine injunction to preserve nature? And what about medical concoctions that are intended to whiten a person's skin - are they unnecessary enhancements that violate God's will as found in nature? On the other hand, if they were to be regarded as treatment, what disease can they be said to cure?

Another difficulty arises from the fact that genetics-related biotechnology has made intervention with disease possible even before disease symptoms could arise. For example, the presence of breast cancer genes in a woman signals an invitation to deal with the eventuality of breast cancer even before lumps could appear or cancerous tissue could be detected. Would the pre-symptomatic removal of a woman's breasts to preempt the development of breast cancer constitute intervention with nature? It is clear that answers would not readily be forthcoming even if we were to accept that "playing God" aptly describes the controversial practices unless we can clarify exactly what the phrase means.

Perhaps we can get a hint from ordinary uses of "manipulation" to understand more closely when it ought to be considered wrong.

We can say that a person is engaged in a kind of unwanted manipulation if she were to try to get others to accept a certain situation by lying to them or not telling them the whole truth. Hence, A might be manipulating B to accept the use of a genetically modified product by hiding some truths, such as that the product has genetically modified components or that the product has not been sufficiently tested on other animals before being marketed for human use. Here, the manipulation would not be acceptable because it is rooted in the perpetration of falsehoods and is performed in disregard of public safety.

A might also be engaged in unacceptable manipulation by simply not consulting B about a deliberate change in the environment that would affect the latter. Introducing fluoride into the water system used by everyone would be an example. Even if it were designed to benefit other people, the step would count as unacceptable manipulation if it were to be undertaken without the knowledge and consent of those who are meant to be affected. The same can be said about manipulation of nature in general. Whether one is dealing with disease or not, manipulation would be wrong if it were to be seen as an exercise in human arrogance towards other human beings - i.e., as an exercise that takes other human beings for granted by not respecting their right to be informed and consulted about things that would have implications for their health, safety or mode of existence.

The manipulation that we would ordinarily consider wrong consists of those actions that are undertaken against the will, or without the knowledge or consent of other people. Using a person or a situation to promote one's hidden agenda, or to promote an agenda without the consent of other persons involved, fall under the same category.

This is not to say that these interpretations of playing God provide us automatically with exact and uncontroversial criteria for determining what is, or is not wrong. However, they do provide definite directions for proceeding in a manner that is manageable and within reach of human reason.

We do not need to be reminded that, as human beings, we have the ability to modify our environment to suit our needs and purposes. Our knowledge and experience provide the foundation for that ability. We have used our natural environment, manipulated it, and in that sense, played God. There is nothing mysterious about that practice. For that reason, we should not think of confining to mysterious processes the determination of limits to responsible human behavior. "Playing God" is too all-encompassing a term to serve as a criterion for determining what human beings can or cannot do. We have to take pains to unpack its meaning in order to preserve its usefulness as a reminder of human frailty.

Probing the mysteries or secrets of life

Beyond the boundaries of manipulation lies the possibility of creation. As human beings learn more about the essential stuff of life through genetic research, they continue to blur the previously known boundaries between gods and mortals. The possibility of asexual human reproduction illustrates the extent to which knowledge has transcended traditional limits.

Chapman observes that 'playing God' has been used to warn human beings that they should not modify the constitution of living (including human) beings, as this would constitute a usurpation of God's creative prerogative. (Chapman, 1999, p. 52-57)

As regards the modification of man himself, Paul Ramsey says the following: "With the death of God in secular culture, human beings who enact their self-modifying freedom assume the role of man-God. (Ramsey, 1970, p. 92, Emphasis added).

For Rosner, the following three questions concerning human cloning raise boundary-setting issues in relation to the concerns mentioned: (1) Are we encroaching on the domain of the Creator? (2) Are we allowed to tamper with our essence in creating an "artificial" human? (3) Do we have permission to alter humanhood and humanity? (Rosner, 1986)

And, paraphrasing Peters, Hansen and Schotsmans provide the following account of playing God in relation to embryonic stem cell research:

In the first instance, the expression pertains to the steadily growing base of human knowledge of the foundations of God's creation of the human being, namely with regard to embryonic stem cells. The laboratory has become the place where we gain insight into God's awesome secret. The Torah is no longer the lamp to light the (human) path (Ps 119,105); rather, the microscope has become the beacon. Only one small 'peephole' allows us a nearly panoramic view of the so-called 'germ at the beginning of human life,' or the stem cell. This cell, whose nucleus is protected by a cell wall, is now the new sacred place; whoever enters it treads in the Holy of Holies. This sacrosanct place no longer contains two stone tablets, as did the Ark, but the two new laws of life, the DNA strings. As a result, when using the phrase 'playing God,' people point to the growing power of medicine over life and death. This power has recently culminated in human ES cell research. Stem cells - to which some accord the status of the inception of human life - are considered to be the ultimate means of saving the life of a patient with serious ailments. Last, 'playing God' is applied in a more or less literal manner where human beings themselves attempt to create - as God - new human tissue or even life, with the aid of (therapeutic) clone technology. In brief, the power of mastering (human) nature through (therapeutic) cloning raises the question whether the human being, as the image of God, is permitted to carry out this task or whether God alone may exercise this right? (Hansen and Schotsmans, 2001,p. 12)

What is controversial, according to this view, is that through the process of genetic modification, human beings would be creating rather than merely receiving their own identities. They would thus be usurping a Godly prerogative.

In response, one can say that this criticism is based on the mistaken assumption that genetic identity is equivalent to a person's identity. One can correctly be accused of engaging in Divine creation by genetic modification only if the active selection of an individual's genetic traits can be held to be equivalent to the engineering of a person's identity. However, this view does not hold for the simple reason that a person cannot be reduced to the sum total of her genes. As we can see in the case of identical twins, persons cannot be said to share a single identity just because they share the same genetic constitution. Given the same genetic starting point, twins emerge with different personalities and identities.

Moreover, we do not usually consider it wrong for human beings to exercise their freedom to try to develop their personalities as they see fit. This is part of their prerogatives as human beings. In order to do this, they only have to play human. This can be said to constitute playing God only to the extent that human creativity and the exercise of human freedom are positive responses to God's invitation for human beings to be Godly. The point is that, if God gave human beings freedom, He could not be interpreted to have given them their individual identities. When human beings assert their freedom by shaping their own identities, they could not be playing God. We can only perpetrate unhealthy ambiguity if we were to insist on using the phrase to characterize human initiatives in this regard.

Playing Human

What is wrong about 'playing God, given the examples and situations that we have examined, is not that human beings are exercising a power that is reserved exclusively for God. In the first place, if a power were reserved exclusively for God, only God could have the capacity to exercise it. But, we are actually given cases where the capacity of human beings to do things is not in question. What we have to deal with is a clamor to put a limit to what people may be allowed to do. When human beings are said to play God, they are actually committing an abuse in the exercise of human powers. What is at stake is not a boundary between powers that human beings may be allowed to exercise and what God alone may exercise but a boundary between legitimate and illegitimate exercises of human powers.

Thus, when human beings are said to be playing God, they could be doing any of the following:

Taking serious risks with biotechnology that puts people's lives in danger
Introducing irreversible changes into the environment
Manipulating human beings in a way that compromises their integrity
Exercising their creative potential in a manner that affects the identity of human beings
Discriminating against other human beings by passing judgment on the relative value of their lives in cases of euthanasia, abortion or genetic screening.
The powers involved in these actions may be extraordinary, but they do not require an Infinite Being. These are not powers reserved only for God. For, God cannot be unfair, impartial, manipulative, etc. The powers involved are usually allowed of human beings, provided they do it properly, i.e., without being unfair and impartial, taking undue advantage of their fellow human beings or putting them at great and unjustifiable risk.

Even when "playing God" seems to refer only to the exercise of a divine power, one can unpack its meaning, based on examples, in terms of abuses of human powers. It is important to realize this point in order to be able to tackle head on the ethical issues that come with 'playing God.' Otherwise, some analysts will continue to find refuge in the ambiguity that the use of the term and avoid the need to present clear and credible explanations. A prohibition against playing God is much too ambiguous to provide practical guidance in specific situations. We agree with Gronski that:

Religious leaders are likely to make a more substantive contribution to debates about agricultural biotechnology by addressing these life patents than by speculating that genetic engineering is "playing God." (Gronski, 2001)

Arguments against cloning that invoke the language of "playing God" are not always theological, and they are seldom sound or sufficient. The slogan is often presented as the conclusion of an argument whose premises are either unexamined or unidentified. At the very least, the theological and moral concern behind the prohibition needs explication. The language of "playing God" cannot by itself carry the full weight of an ethical or policy prohibition on human cloning. (Campbell, 1997, p. 16)

There can be no doubt that the phrase "playing God" has a very useful precautionary value. It serves as a word of warning that people must heed. However, it should not signal a full stop. What it should indicate is a need for more rational and comprehensive deliberation.


Antonucci, (2002) "Playing God/Perfect Children" Communities of Color and Genetics Policy Project: A report for the Communities of Color and Genetic Policy Project
Campbell, C. (1997) "Religious Perspectives on Human Cloning," Cloning Human Beings: Report and Recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to the President of the United States, Vol.II, Rockville, Maryland.
Chapman, A. (1999) Unprecedented Choices: Religious Ethics at the Frontiers of Genetic Science, Minneapolis.
Gronski, R. (2002) "Genetically Modifying Food: Playing God or Doing God's Work" A Panel Discussion at
Hansen, B & Schotsmans, P. (2001) "Cloning: the Human as Created Co-Creator?" Ethical Perspectives 8 (2001) 2, p. 75-87.
Ramsey, P. (1970) Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.
Rosner, F (1986) Modern Medicine and Jewish Ethics. New York, Yeshiva University Press.
Sale, K. (1999) "Monsanto: Playing God." The Nation v268-9.
The Prince of Wales (2000) "A Reflection on the 2000 Reith Lectures" BBC Radio 4,

Note: This paper was not an oral presentation at ABC4.

JArticle top

Eubios Ethics Institute | Book List | TOP - Asian Bioethics in the 21st Century