People often claim that certain decisions should not be made or certain actions should not be done because doing so would be “playing God.” Obviously, simply making this assertion is not an argument-but it can be developed into one. However, developing a proper argument of this sort is as hard to do as it is easy to simply shout or type “that is playing God!” This is why most people simply use those words rather than actually making an argument.
Taken literally, this method is based on three assumptions. The first is that God exists. The second is that God wants or commands that certain decisions should not be made or that certain actions should not be done. The third is that we should do what God wants/obey His commands.
This often, but not always, involves an acceptance of divine command theory. In oversimplified terms, this is the theory that what God commands is right and what He forbids is wrong. The effectiveness of this method would rest on the acceptance of this theory.
Taken metaphorically, this method is based on the assumption that people should not make decisions or take actions as if they were God. In this case, what it means to make decisions or take actions as if one is God must be defined. This is often defined in terms of arrogance or acting outside the limits of normal constraints. Why this should not be done must also be defended. In such cases, there is often a tacit or hidden appeal to a moral theory other than divine command theory. For example, playing God might be seen as having terrible consequences; thus assuming a consequentialist position.
While this method has a certain dramatic appeal, it is usually better to use the underlying moral theory rather than playing the “God card.”
The method involves the following steps:
Step 1: Argue that making the decision about X or doing Y would be playing God.
Step 2: Argue that people should not play God.
Step 3: Conclude that people should not make the decision about X or do Y.
While there are only three steps, properly completing them can involve a considerable amount of work. Completing the first step requires adequately showing that the decision or action in question would be playing God. Doing this would require providing an adequate account of what it is to play God and how that specific action or decision would be playing God. In many cases it might be found that the criticism is not that people would be playing God, but that the action is simply seen as being wrong for other reasons and the playing God card is played for dramatic effect. In that case, another method should be used. The second step is also challenging because it requires providing a suitable argument as to why people should not play God. This can be done by arguing that humans should abide by limits whose violation would be crossing a line into a moral area meant only for God. Once the first two steps are completed, the third step is easy in that it follows logically.
This method is often employed to argue again euthanasia. The first step would be to argue that making the decision to let someone die or actually pull the plug would be playing God. The second step would be to argue that people should not play God. From these two points it would follow that people should not make the decision about euthanasia or actually pull the plug.
This method is also often used to argue against genetic engineering or other scientific “tampering.” The first step would be to argue that tampering with the genetic code of living things is tampering with God’s work. The second step would be to argue that people should not play God in this way. From these two points it would be concluded that people should not tamper with the genetic code of living things.
In its literal form, use of this argument rests on certain assumptions about God and what God wants. Not surprisingly, the argument tends to be effective with people who share the same religious views. But, it tends to be ineffective when used on people who do not share the same religious beliefs.
In a live discussion, one way to respond is to require that the person spell out exactly how one is playing God and why this is wrong. This is can also be a request for the person to explicitly state the underlying theory/principle. This is not actually a counter-argument but can be used to expose the lack of an argument on the other person’s part. Obviously enough, if a person challenged to provide such details cannot deliver, then the argument is severely flawed. In many cases people will simply not expect to be challenged in this manner and hence will be ill-prepared to reply.
One general way to respond is to show that there are defects in one or both of the first two steps. This is done by arguing that the person either failed to show that X would be playing God or failed to show that playing God is wrong.
Another way to respond is by arguing that it is acceptable to “Play God” in similar situations. This can be done by presenting an argument by analogy. The analogy is drawn between the situation at hand and a similar situation in which making the decision or taking the action is regarded as morally acceptable.
Using the euthanasia example, the argument could be counted by showing situations in which people make similar life and death decisions that are considered acceptable. You might use the example of how in the legal system people make decisions to put people to death and this is not seen as playing God. Or, you might use the example of how in war people make decisions of life and death and even kill people and this is not seen as playing God. This sort of response is especially effective when the person being argued against holds inconsistent position. For example, many people who are against euthanasia endorse the death penalty and accept war. If such a person argues that euthanasia is playing God and hence wrong, then they would have to show why the death penalty and war are not playing God. Someone who holds to a consistent moral position will obviously be far less subject to this line of response. In the example just considered, such a person would regard war and the death penalty as being wrong, too.
As a second example, consider the matter of genetic engineering. While people often claim that such tampering is playing God, the fact is that people have been altering animals through selective breeding for thousands of years without being accused of playing God. Genetic engineering is simply a more efficient method of achieving the ends of selective breeding. Therefore, it can be concluded that genetic engineering is not playing God. This sort of response can be countered by breaking the analogy. In the example just given, the argument could be countered by an argument which shows that genetic engineering is relevantly different from the manipulation of animals by selective breeding. Of course, a person could also counter by arguing that selective breeding is also playing God and morally wrong.