Monday 12 June 2023

The Euthyphro Dilemma: What Makes Something Moral?

The sixteenth-century nun and mystic, Saint Teresa. In her autobiography, she wrote that she was very fond of St. Augustine … for he was a sinner too

By Keith Tidman  

Consider this: Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?  Plato, Euthyphro

Plato has Socrates asking just this of the Athenian prophet Euthyphro in one of his most famous dialogues. The characteristically riddlesome inquiry became known as the Euthyphro dilemma. Another way to frame the issue is to flip the question around: Is an action wrong because the gods forbid it, or do the gods forbid it because it is wrong? This version presents what is often referred to as the ‘two horns’ of the dilemma.


Put another way, if what’s morally good or bad is only what the gods arbitrarily make something, called the divine command theory (or divine fiat) — which Euthyphro subscribed to — then the gods may be presumed to have agency and omnipotence over these and other matters. However, if, instead, the gods simply point to what’s already, independently good or bad, then there must be a source of moral judgment that transcends the gods, leaving that other, higher source of moral absolutism yet to be explained millennia later. 


In the ancient world the gods notoriously quarreled with one another, engaging in scrappy tiffs over concerns about power, authority, ambition, influence, and jealousy, on occasion fueled by unabashed hubris. Disunity and disputation were the order of the day. Sometimes making for scandalous recounting, these quarrels comprised the stuff of modern students’ soap-opera-styled mythological entertainment. Yet, even when there is only one god, disagreements over orthodoxy and morality occur aplenty. The challenge mounted by the dilemma is as important to today’s world of a generally monotheistic god as it was to the polytheistic predispositions of ancient Athens. The medieval theologians’ explanations are not enough to persuade:

‘Since good as perceived by the intellect is the object of the will, it is impossible for God to will anything but what His wisdom approves. This is as it were, His law of justice, in accordance with which His will is right and just. Hence, what He does according to His will He does justly: as we do justly when we do according to the law. But whereas law comes to us from some higher power, God is a law unto Himself’ (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 21, first article reply to Obj. 2).

In the seventeenth century, Gottfried Leibniz offered a firm challenge to ‘divine command theory’, in asking the following question about whether right and wrong can be known only by divine revelation. He suggested, rather, there ought to be reasons, apart from religious tradition only, why particular behaviour is moral or immoral:


‘In saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but sheerly by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realising it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise him for he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary?’ (Discourse on Metaphysics, 1686). 


Meantime, today’s monotheistic world religions offer, among other holy texts, the Bible, Qur’an, and Torah, bearing the moral and legal decrees professed to be handed down by God. But even in the situations’ dissimilarity — the ancient world of Greek deities and modern monotheism (as well as some of today’s polytheistic practices) — both serve as examples of the ‘divine command theory’. That is, what’s deemed pious is presumed to be the case precisely because God chooses to love it, in line with the theory. That pious something or other is not independently sitting adrift, noncontingently virtuous in its own right, with nothing transcendentally making it so.


This presupposes that God commands only what is good. It also presupposes that, for example, things like the giving of charity, the avoidance of adultery, and the refrain from stealing, murdering, and ‘graven images’ have their truth value from being morally good if, and only if, God loves these and other commandments. The complete taxonomy (or classification scheme) of edicts being aimed at placing guardrails on human behaviour in the expectation of a nobler, more sanctified world. But God loving what’s morally good for its own sake — that is, apart from God making it so — clearly denies ‘divine command theory’.


For, if the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious, which is one of the interpretations offered by Plato (through the mouth of Socrates) in challenging Euthyphro’s thinking, then it opens the door to an authority higher than God. Where matters of morality may exist outside of God’s reach, suggesting something other than God being all-powerful. Such a scenario pushes back against traditionally Abrahamic (monotheist) conceptualisations.


Yet, whether the situation calls for a single almighty God or a yet greater power of some indescribable sort, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who like St. Thomas Aquinas and Averroës believed that God commands only what is good, argued that God’s laws must conform to ‘natural reason’. Hobbes’s point makes for an essential truism, especially if the universe is to have rhyme and reason. This being true even if the governing forces of natural law and of objective morality are not entirely understood or, for that matter, not compressible into a singularly encompassing ‘theory of all’. 


Because of the principles of ‘divine command theory’, some people contend the necessary takeaway is that there can be no ethics in the absence of God to judge something as pious. In fact, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, presumptuously declared that ‘if God does not exist, everything is permitted’. Surely not so; you don’t have to be a theist of faith to spot the shortsighted dismissiveness of his assertion. After all, an atheist or agnostic might recognise the benevolence, even the categorical need, for adherence to manmade principles of morality, to foster the welfare of humanity at large for its own sufficient sake. Secular humanism, in other words  which greatly appeals to many people.


Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative supports these human-centered, do-unto-others notions: ‘Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’. An ethic of respect toward all, as we mortals delineate between right and wrong. Even with ‘divine command theory’, it seems reasonable to suppose that a god would have reasons for preferring that moral principles not be arrived at willy-nilly.


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