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Can we Play God? - David Perry

Dr. David L. Perry, a Lecturer in Philosophy at Seattle University, contributed to this dialogue by examining three criticisms theology often raises against the use of genetic technology. One criticism, Perry says, is that “Genetic engineering is often judged as ‘unnatural’ or said to ‘violate natural law.” But such an argument is flawed, Perry argues, because “strictly in descriptive or empirical terms, the claim that genetic engineering is ‘unnatural’ is very strange, since if it truly violated natural law it would not be possible for us to do. In this sense, it would truly be ‘unnatural’ for human beings to defy the law of gravity - unnatural because impossible - but it is quite ‘natural’ for human beings to manipulate genes,” Perry says. “I don’t mean to imply that any and all genetic manipulations are ethical,” Perry cautions, but rather “that whatever is in our power to do is in an important sense natural to us.”

A second criticism raised by theologians is that “Genetic engineering is condemned as ‘violating the dignity of human life.” Disabling genes for Tay-Sachs or Huntington’s disease in parents who desire healthy children is not a violation of human dignity, argues Perry; rather, it is “morally acceptable, even praiseworthy.” Similarly, using genetic knockout research to create brainless human organisms for organ- and tissue-donor purposes does not necessarily violate human dignity, Perry argues. “[A] capacity for consciousness is a necessary condition for being a person and having interest, rights and dignity,” Perry says, and “since the human beings created not to have brains will never be conscious persons, harvesting their organs need not represent a violation of human dignity.” This does not mean, however, that such a practice is “morally justifiable,” Perry stresses. This line of reasoning simply points to a weakness in the theological criticism.

Thirdly, Perry says, genetic engineering “is often criticized as ‘playing God.’” The first weakness found in this criticism was first put forth 200 years ago by the philosopher David Hume. “Hume pointed out that if we violate God’s sovereignty whenever we intentionally take human life, then logically we must also violate God’s sovereignty whenever we prolong human life beyond its ‘natural’ length,” Perry says; such violations include inoculations and medical interventions.

An even more fundamental weakness of the criticism of “playing God,” Perry argues, is the mistaken belief “that God intervenes in nature or human events in any way.” If it “is claimed that God has intervened in the past to promote good, limit suffering, prevent evil or establish justice, then the question arises as to why that God manifestly does not intervene in all such cases,” Perry says. “[I]f we are to believe that God is wholly and consistently compassionate, we must therefore abandon our belief in divine intervention and omnipotence.”

“Many people who have reflected seriously on the problem of evil have concluded from it that God does not exist. I disagree with that conclusion,” Perry says, but I think that at the very least the problem of evil forces us to give up many cherished beliefs about God’s providence. Even if God exists and is wholly good,” Perry says, “we are in an important sense on our own. Thus,” Perry concludes, “the ethical questions concerning genetic engineering become all the more acute.

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