Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The non-dilemma of Euthyphro

Presumed atheist Pete comments:

Um... Euthyphro, anyone? I know it's only been 2500 years since this kind of idea was shown to be ridiculous, but maybe this guy's just a little slow. In any case this shouldn't be surprising, seeing as how the myth of Abraham's attempted filicide is considered to be a good example..

By all means, let us consider Euthyphro, and in the process demonstrate the risibility of the modern American liberal's notion that having once heard a professor mention something in a lecture is equivalent to possessing substantive knowledge of it.

But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?

Apes don't read philosophy.

Yes, they do, Otto. They just don't understand it.... Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not every man for himself. The London Underground is not a political movement.

It's the "um, Euthyphro, anyone?" that is the sophmoric giveaway. Pete's indicating that he's heard about Euthyphro and he even has some idea that it implies something negative about God and morality, but he doesn't actually know what that might be. Thus he pretends that the matter has been completely settled once and for all, which is far from the truth or it would not have been so widely discussed by various philosophers.

While I like the Socratic method and have been known to make use of it on occasion, I've never been terribly impressed with the examples Socrates uses in the dialogues recorded by Plato. They tend to strike me as doing little more than setting up incompatible straw men, then asserting that the incompatibility therefore proves something it does not. Fortunately, this sort of argument is easy enough to pick apart as it merely requires demonstrating that the base assumptions are false.

The "dilemma"is constructed thusly: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" But simply substituting "obedience" for "piety" destroys the dilemma, (irreconciliable meanings of "moral" and "required by God") since it eliminates the tautology posed.

It's worth examining this in more detail, of course. Consider the first part, which is that "as Socrates presumes and Euthyphro agrees, the gods love the pious because it is pious (both parties agree on this, the first horn of the dilemma)."

Soc. Tell me what is the nature of this idea, and then I shall have a standard to which I may look, and by which I may measure actions, whether yours or those of any one else, and then I shall be able to say that such and such an action is pious, such another impious.

Euth. I will tell you, if you like.

Soc. I should very much like.

Euth. Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.

Here the Christian must immediately disagree, at least within the context of the modern meaning of the term piety. (We'll get to Euthyphro and Socrates agreed-upon definition soon enough.) In this context, the Bible is clear on OBEDIENCE being God's priority, not piety, as there are several examples of pious sacrifices to God being rejected due to their being rooted in disobedience one way or another.

"Is obedience loved by God because it is obedience, or is it obedient because it is loved by God" is only a dilemma to omniderigistes who reject free will and believe that God is controlling those who exhibit the behavior He loves. (As well, one is forced to assume, of those who exhibit the behavior He does not love.) So, unless one subscribes to the notion of an omniderigent god, there is no contradiction whatsoever in positing a God who loves obedience, who loves that which conforms to His will.

This is a known objection to the dilemma, in fact, which is described as being problematic only because "it implies that what is good is arbitrary, based merely upon God's whim; if God had created the world to include the values that rape, murder, and torture were virtues, while mercy and charity were vices, then they would have been."

But this can only be considered a genuine problem for those who insist that a fixed principle cannot be arbitrary, which is ridiculous. There are practically an infinity of fixed variables which, if they were different than they are, would radically alter the reality of our universe. If Moloch were the Creator God, then no doubt child-killing would be a virtue; this is hardly unthinkable let alone a logical impossibility considering how abortionettes here in the United States hold it to be just that.

The fundamental weakness of clinging to this "problem" as proof of the surviving applicability of the dilemma can be seen in the phrase "then they would have been". But since they're not, it's not an issue in this particular universe we are inhabiting. In the universe next door, we can presume that given a different Creator God, there will also be a different morality just as a difference in the strength of the nuclear weak force would alter the amount of hydrogen and helium in that neighboring universe.

Why is it assumed that the universe next door WILL be different, but that the creator god next door CANNOT be? One suspects that this is the sort of rational blunder caused by today's intellectual overspecialization.

But back to Euthyphro, as Socrates points out a problem with Euthyphro's definition that doesn't affect my case in the slightest:

Soc. And the quarrels of the gods, noble Euthyphro, when they occur, are of a like nature?

Euth. Certainly they are.

Soc. They have differences of opinion, as you say, about good and evil, just and unjust, honourable and dishonourable: there would have been no quarrels among them, if there had been no such differences-would there now?

Euth. You are quite right.

Soc. Does not every man love that which he deems noble and just and good, and hate the opposite of them?

Euth. Very true.

Soc. But, as you say, people regard the same things, some as just and others as unjust,-about these they dispute; and so there arise wars and fightings among them.

Euth. Very true.

Soc. Then the same things are hated by the gods and loved by the gods, and are both hateful and dear to them?

Euth. True.

Soc. And upon this view the same things, Euthyphro, will be pious and also impious?

Euth. So I should suppose.

Soc. Then, my friend, I remark with surprise that you have not answered the question which I asked. For I certainly did not ask you to tell me what action is both pious and impious: but now it would seem that what is loved by the gods is also hated by them. And therefore, Euthyphro, in thus chastising your father you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.

Euth. But I believe, Socrates, that all the gods would be agreed as to the propriety of punishing a murderer: there would be no difference of opinion about that.

Needless to say, none of this is of any concern whatsoever to a monotheist or the Christian, who believes in multiple gods but worships only the One whose opinion on the matter happens to be relevant.

Part II of II


Blogger Steven Satak January 29, 2014 2:28 AM  

Vox, I believe C. S. Lewis handled this (to my satisfaction, at any rate) in his essay "The Poison of Subjectivism". Have you had a chance to read that?

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Anonymous Anonymous September 08, 2016 6:37 PM  

Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it’s good? If it’s the first, God is omnipotent but morality seems devalued; it’s just His arbitrary whim. If it’s the second, morality precedes God and is elevated above God, to something like the Kantian Categorical Imperative. But God is no longer omnipotent; He’s the mere transmitter of morality rather than its author.

We now live in a multi-faith/post-faith world. It’s like the “religion and spirituality” section in a bookstore owned by an agnostic; with Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great” placed alongside “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance” and the Qur’an. Since different faiths make different moral demands on their adherents, it’s inevitable inter-religious debate will be conducted according to the second interpretation of the Euthyphro dilemma. A religious Jew or Muslim might say “look, in the Torah/Qur’an God clearly says that we should circumcise newborn males. That should be enough for you, so shut up, obey God’s command and stop arguing”. But such an attitude isn’t going to win over the rest of us. We want the religious to show us that the teachings in their holy books accord with our baseline (non-religious) moral assumptions. Hence all the bizarre attempts to claim that Muhammad was really the first Feminist.

It’s worth watching the Youtube videos made by Hassan Radwan for the Council Of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Radwan was a pious Muslim who taught at Cat Stevens’ Islamic school in London before losing his faith in his fifties. Although Radwan no longer believes the Qur’an is a miraculous book, it’s clear that what shattered his faith was the perception that Islamic moral teachings are, fundamentally, not moral enough. So again, he’s arguing from the second interpretation of Euthyphro. For Radwan, obeying a divine command which feels morally wrong would be like giving strangers electric shocks in a Milgram test, simply because the invigilator looks important and authoritative.

Blogger Kalkidas January 28, 2017 12:35 PM  

The truth is that both statements are true: God loves the good because it is good, and it is good because God loves it. This is so because God IS the good, and God IS love. Q.E.D.

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