Genetic modification

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

4. Interfering with nature

A major ethical concern in genetic modification is whether modifying genes is somehow intrinsically wrong. This often stems from the criticism that scientists are ‘playing God’ or that they are ‘interfering with nature’. The playing God criticism tends to be a criticism of the decisions and actions of an individual, in that they overstep the boundaries of their authority or role. However, this often then collapses into a concern about interfering with nature, on the grounds that the scientist is seen to be playing God precisely because they are interfering with nature.

Although interfering with nature concerns are prevalent in many areas of applied ethics (see Environmental ethics §1) and bioethics, they remain difficult to pin down as the basis for a rigorous form of philosophical criticism (Sheehan 2009). For genetic modification (as defined; see §1), the interfering with nature concern arises from two premises: (1) that genetic modification in some way makes changes outside a perceived natural order of things, and (2) that there is a particular value attached to naturalness. However, both premises themselves are open to reasonable contestation. There are differing conceptions regarding whether a natural order exists, as well as debate over whether interference with it goes against some value. Given the vast array of unnatural interventions in other areas (such as clinical medicine) that have not resulted in any claim to some intrinsic wrongness occurring, the onus would be on proponents of this view to make a convincing case that genetic modification per se is somehow wrong on the grounds of unnaturalness.

While it would seem easy to dismiss, or at least very demanding for a proponent to adequately support, there is no doubt that interfering with nature arguments have had a profound influence on philosophical and ethical debates over genetic modification. Multiple attempts have been made to account for a philosophical foundation for these arguments. These include accounts as to the concept of nature itself, either in terms of theological Natural Law accounts (such as those of Aquinas (1268–71); see Aquinas, Thomas) or in terms of human agency and activity (Hume 1739–40; Mill 1874; see Mill, John Stuart; Hume, David). Such accounts of nature then also require additional support, by appeal to a normative position as to the wrongness of actions falling outside what is natural.

Perhaps the most developed attempt at an account of the wrongness of acting beyond an account of what is natural is offered by Norman (1996), through his appeal to ‘background conditions’ of human life. These conditions are what help to give life explanation and meaning. Whenever there is a perceived threat to these background conditions, this equates to an interference with nature and threats to life’s meaning. Nevertheless, considerable scepticism remains as to whether appeal to such reactions, no matter how reasonable their formation might be, could constitute a sound moral basis (Blackford 2006).

Citing this article:
Newson, Ainsley J. and Anthony Wrigley. Interfering with nature. Genetic modification, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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