"Playing god" is a charge mostly levelled at development in technologies (e.g. gene editing, artificial "wombs" and the like) that modify humanity and nature. Futurists claim that humanity has already modified its surroundings. That we have become dependent on technology. And that technology modifying humanity in the future has been unavoidable. To someone who does not believe in a "god," what would "playing god" mean? And why shouldn't humans "play god"?

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    – BillOnne
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 16:27
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    I would imagine the phrase "playing God" is always meant in the pejorative (outside poor libertarian politics). it suggests trying to do things that are inhuman and illegitimate": to make decisions that have a very powerful and important effect on other people's lives lawyers who play God with people's lives."
    – user62727
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 4:45
  • "the good that is within us is only the image of God. God is far, far greater than that" etc.
    – user62727
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 4:47

7 Answers 7


Setting aside religious concerns, it's more or less a question of responsibility. You are taking a major step in the life of another individual and that individual is facing the consequences of your deed, so that comes with some responsibility for your actions or can be extremely cruel to that individual, so it's likely a demand to be cautious of what you're doing as you're leveraging some major power and you know "with great power comes great responsibility".


What's wrong with playing God?

It allows one individual (or a relatively small group) to have the power to unilaterally control the fates of many others including all life on this planet.

"Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Lord Acton


See the Ancient Greek use of hubris, as an example of a 'hamartia', a fatal flaw of character that drives a(n inevitable) tragedy, in the encounter with Nemesis.

Many traditions involve channeling, speaking for, representing, or embodying a deity. Indications of a 'real' case decided within traditions include, accurately divining the future, manifesting miracles, acting with great wisdom and self-lessness, and having more than human persistence or endurance. Most religious traditions have some mode of connecting to the divine, and helping manifest it or follow it's guidance.

'Playing' god, is a different category. The implication of play is of not taking it seriously. And in the tradition of interpreting it, is generally going against ancient wisdom, what might be called 'the divine order', often for short-term or selfish ends (in this answer I argue that wisdom is exactly avoiding acting in contradictory ways, short vs long term, self vs other Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises?).

Sisyphus felt no laws or codes could bind him, and used his intelligence corruptly, even to challenge the gods.

Prometheus is an interesting case. As a Titan, he was of the same category as Chronos/Saturn, and was by no means playing when giving fire to humans. But, he was going against the ordinance of Zeus. The daily ritual punishment of an Eagle pecking his liver, can be understood compellingly in the context of Ancient Greek medicine, as the pangs of conscience, at watching what humans have done with fire, and the feelings of responsibility for that.

Sun Wukong from the Chinese classic Journey To The West is another interesting example. There is an argument that Sun Wukong is synchretised with Hanuman, who in Hindu thought is honoured as remover of obstacles. In 'Journey To The West' Sun Wukong embodies 'monkey mind', the non-meditative qualities (Tipitaka embodies the monastic mindset). Restless, creative, 'irrepressible', yet if tamed by discipline capable of great feats. Sun Wukong took on immortality from eating heavenly peaches, indestructability from the alchemy of Lao Tzu, but was not ready to have such powers, so the story is a journey towards attaining inner capacities for these powers, through serving others, and attaining inner discipline.

Looking at Prometheus and Sun Wukong, I'd say it is not a simple binary. But taking against the 'divine order' can involve harsh consequences, penance, and personal development - but can ultimately, be worthwhile.


The main problem with "playing god" is the fact of incomplete knowledge about consequences that is simply hand waved or glossed over by those who want to."play god".

In other words the criticism happens when some people make grand claims about how things could or should be by certain modifications to structures that are not only basic but important and with far-reaching consequences without knowing nor care to investigate those far-reaching consequences.

At some areas this is called "being apprentice magician", like Disney's film, with the apprentice making a mess when trying to use his magic foolishly (not knowing all the consequences).


"Playing god" is usually reserved for doing things that are not achievable through mundane means. Thus, being a parent and shaping the life of a child is not usually called "playing god." But when tech such as CRISPR gene editing comes along and steps outside work-a-day actions it may be so labeled. So it cannot just be the actions producing drastic consequences on some non-consenting individual.

Some factors that will tend to contribute to an action being labeled as "playing god" include the following.

  • The activity has not existed for a long time
  • It is available to only a few people
  • The consequences are displaced from the actor
  • The consequences are potially society wide
  • The consequences are difficult to predict, especially for the layman
  • The persons affected cannot individually refuse
  • The consequences may be hard to recognize
  • The consequences may be life-or-death serious

So the following would not be considered "playing god" even though they can produce quite drastic local changes.

  • Being a parent
  • Being a teacher
  • Being a parish priest (ironically enough)
  • Being a farmer

While the following might be so termed.

  • Being a genetic scientist
  • Being a doctor
  • Operating a nuclear reactor

The Luddites were a group of individuals that believed they would lose their jobs as textile workers if machines were installed to replace them. Technological disruption is a genuine concern. The example we hear about so often is "buggy whip makers." Old tech is replaced with new. People who were employed using the old tech must adapt or lose out. Generally, in the past, the pattern has been a trend of increased productivity and so, eventually, more jobs. But different jobs. So, at the cost of disruption, the economy advances. More people are better off while some people must change jobs. A prime example of this is the radical decrease in people employed in farming while at the same time great increase in employment in other industries.

So Luddites resist tech because it will be disruptive. They may phrase the disruption as "playing god" since the consequences of the changes are wide spread and displaced from the persons enacting the changes. A factory that is built with the new machines may never have had any employees to lose, yet may displace employees all over a continent. At the time, losing one's job could be a life-threatening calamity. The machine-equipped factory owner is "playing god" with the income of textile workers.

Doctors are sometimes described as "playing god" when they make life-and-death decisions. This is not necessarily a question of resisting tech. We are mortal. Eventually in each person's life there will come a time when no reasonable action will prolong life. Deciding this for somebody is seen as a huge thing. Even a person deciding for themself is looked at with great concern.

People who resist bio-tech such as CRISPR may phrase it as "playing god." This also applies to things such as genetically modified organisms (GMO), especially referring to specific companies that stand to make enormous profits.

One rather heart-rending example is rsistance to Golden Rice. This is a genetically modified strain of rice that produces beta carotine, the precursor to vitamin A. Potentially this could save 10's of millions of people from malnutrition induced illness, particularly of the eyes.

Resistance to GMO, and description of it as "playing god," can arise from several reasons.

  • There may be genuine reason to be concerned about a new technology.
  • It can be a cynical ploy to illicit an emotional response. Other forms of this are describing GMO products as "Franken food."
  • It can arise from a genuine concern that insuficient care has been taken to reduce potential harmful consequences.
  • It can result from insuficient care on the part of the person resisting. If they become more aware and informed their resistance may fade.
  • It can be Luddism arising from people who might be financially displaced. They may be using any means they can find to sabotage the GMO product.
  • For some people, resisting GMO is just a job. One suspects there are people in this category in certain large organizations that get funding from donations or government grants. Probably at least some of them don't care about GMO, but actively resist it to generate drama and so money.
  • It has to be mentioned that objections can arise from overtly evil persons. Dictators of some poor countries don't want their people to escape malnutrition induced poverty.

Another category of people who might call a thing "playing god" are members of certain religions. There are groups such as the Amish and Mennonites and some similar groups. These groups generally resit technology beyond some point, though different related groups have chosen different points. Some claim to only use technology described in the Christian Bible. Others allow much more tech, such as electricity, but do not permit radio or any tech beyond. Their reasons for this are complicated and varied. But a significant part of it is to mark their communities and set them apart.

Such groups might refer to any technology they have interdicted as offending god. That is, having a television is against the rules of god, and is usurping god's role. These are things that god should decide, not people. Having a tv is thus "playing god."

But again, note the society wide or culture wide aspects. Because these rules are part of what divides Amish from other cultures, these strictures are more important than mundane rules. And so they must be emphasized with reference to god.


In the examples you are giving, artificial womb, gene editing and the like, there is a risk of turning humans into a commodity: using wombs and genetic engineering, one could be tempted to mass product humans tailored for their own purpose (super soldiers, workers, etc).

This would be similar to what is described in the novel Brave New World, except in that book it's the government that is producing people, but we could imagine the same thing being privatized.

Developing humans as a tool tailored for a purpose goes against Kant moral philosophy, which asserts we have a duty to treat people as self governing, rational beings with their own goals and desires.

Of course one does not have to go full clone army with the technology. We could as well help people with damaged wombs to procreate, or cure genetic diseases, etc. In that regard, those super advanced technologies are no different from a knife that can be used to either do surgery on a person and save their life or to slaughter them.



From Ancient Greek ὕβρις (pride insolence outrage).

Which is amusing. Even if there are no consequences for you (which is not the case if there is a God), there will be for others.

Does Nietsche discuss the greek notion of hubris in any of his works?


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