This is when we argue that we should not intervene in the “natural” course of events because intervening would be playing God.
People use the playing God defense when arguing against euthanasia, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. For example, “we shouldn’t legalize euthanasia because we would then be allowing doctors to play God.”
Keep in mind that there may be good arguments against these positions, but the playing God argument is probably not one of them.
The idea that we should not play God has several weaknesses. First, not everyone believes in God. Second, believers disagree about what God wills. Third, many people who use the “Don’t play God” defense are committing the appeal to nature fallacy. This is because they believe God created everything with a natural purpose and that we should not interfere with that purpose. This seems to be a version of the appeal to nature fallacy since the argument is that not interfering in God's Creation (i.e. Nature) is what makes something good.
While these criticisms are significant, we can identify the central problem with the playing God defense by considering the following questions:
- Are doctors playing God when they remove a patient’s appendix or cancerous growth?
- Is the hero playing God when she jumps in front of a car to save a life?
- Would a future geneticist be playing God if she removed a baby’s cancer-causing genetic sequence?
I think most people will agree that these are morally praiseworthy acts even though they are examples of playing God since each involves interfering with the natural course of events. So, why is it good to play God in these cases, but not others? Reflecting on these cases should help us clarify our moral ideas; it should help us see that we believe it is often good to play God and to interfere in the natural course of events. For that reason, it is fallacious to claim that playing God makes an action wrong.
Another problem with the playing God defense is people often present it when no good reasons can be found. That is, it as an emotional and empty response. The following example should clarify:
When I ask people why playing God applies in one case but not another, they give reasons that are different from the playing God defense. For example, when I asked one student why it was wrong to play God in the genetic engineering case, the student responded that messing with the genetic code may lead to unintended consequences. This is a good point, but notice the student is no longer relying on the playing God argument. The student shifted to a utilitarian argument (a utilitarian argument is one that focuses on net future happiness and suffering).This student really disagrees for utilitarian reasons, not because he thinks the doctor is playing God. His appeal to playing God is empty because he is actually relying on God-independent reasons for why he thinks it is wrong to remove the cancer-causing genetic sequence. His appeal to playing God seems to be an emotional reaction, not a real argument.
Again, let's say there is a God. The appeal to playing God is still weak because we can always ask, "Why does God will x?" When we ask this question, people will give God-independent reasons for why x is good or bad.
To summarize, the playing God defense is fallacious because it is vague, a form of the appeal to nature fallacy, or an empty emotional phrase based on God-independent feelings or beliefs. *Independent in an epistemological sense
How to avoid it
Do not speculate about God’s Will. If you believe in God, use the mind and conscience God gave you to discover right and wrong.
- Playing God is an ambiguous phrase. What are some of the possible meanings of "Playing God?"
- If playing God is interfering with the natural course of events, are the following acts wrong?
- A Downs Syndrome Baby is born with an intestinal blockage that will kill him unless the doctors perform a routine operation. The doctors do the operation.
- 75,000 Americans have their appendix removed each year. Most would die if doctors did not interfere.
- Conjoined twins are both about to die unless doctors do a surgery that will kill one twin and save the other. They do the surgery thereby killing one and saving the other.
- Congress passes a law stating everyone must wear a seat belt when driving.
- A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people tied to a track. You have only one way to prevent this from occurring. You can pull a lever to push the trolley unto a second track where it will only kill one person tied to that second track. You would thereby save a net of four lives. Assuming you cannot escape these conditions, is it wrong to pull the lever to save a net of four lives? Would it be playing God? (This trolley scenario was first presented by Judith Jarvis Thompson and is now used in most ethics classes to help students explore their ethical foundations).