Sunday, August 23, 2009

Euthyphro's Dilemma Revisited

Socrates and Euthyphro meet outside the food court. As they wait in line for gyros they strike up the following conversation.

Socrates: Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral?

Euthyphro: This is certainly the case.

S: And we are obligated to obey God because He truly relates to us the moral law?

E: You have put your finger precisely on it.

S: If God merely intermediates between man and the moral law, could we not discern the law for ourselves, bypassing, as it were, the middle man?

E: Heaven forbid! These things are too lofty for us!

S: Too lofty for us to receive directly, but not too lofty when passed from hand-to-hand? If God truly relates these things to us surely they are not tarnished in transmission.

E: I would hope not. [PE contemplates] Perhaps God is required to comprehend the source. If we were to approach it directly we would not perceive it rightly, or we would be consumed by its holiness.

S: You may have something there, but two things worry me if this state of affairs obtain.

E: And they are...?

S: First, is it conceivable that what we call God is subject to a superior holiness? Second, does this holiness approve of our offering worship to its messenger rather than itself?

E: This cannot be! God, by definition, is the Supreme Being and what is supreme serves no master.

S: But we have arrived here by mutual agreement, and we have found that God is not God.

[Standing just behind them is William who has overheard the conversation. He interjects...]

William: Excuse me. May I add a thought of my own at this point?

E & S: Please do.

W: What is this superior holiness that God intermediates for us, to which He is beholden?

S: The Good.

W: What is it's nature?

S: As far as I can tell it is an eternal and universal set of moral relations.

W: Is it a thing or an abstraction?

S: An abstraction, a principle.

W: And this abstract set moral relations bind us as well as God?

S: I would think so.

W: It follows then that all things are obliged to adhere to this eternal and universal set of moral relations. Is that your understanding?

S: It is.

W: Do you see this ant crawling up the table leg?

S: I see it.

W: If all things are obliged, is this ant obliged?

S: I don't know much about ants, but I doubt if ants are under any obligation.

W: How about the table itself?

S: Certainly not.

W: So not all things are bound by this superior holiness?

S: No, not all things, but all sentient beings.

W: A helpful clarification, but it raises a question. If there were no sentient beings, if the world were populated only by ants, would there be anything under obligation?

S: I suppose not.

W: And if there were no sentient beings, a set of moral relations would be meaningless, perhaps impossible?

S: I'd have to think that through, but is sounds plausible.

W: Likewise, would not Good itself would be meaningless or impossible?

S: [exhibiting consternation] Mmmmm...

W: Can we conclude that an abstract set of moral relations cannot exist in a vacuum; that at least one sentient being is required for goodness and obligation to have any meaning whatsoever? Can we further conclude that these abstractions cannot precede a being, but must emanate from a being that sets them and imposes obligation upon all beings including himself? Can we ultimately conclude that such a being cannot be distinct from Good but is the source of Good, or, simply stated, is Good Itself. You ask, "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral?" But now surely you see that what is moral can only be what God commands.

S: [continued consternation] You have given me food for thought.

E: Thank you William, but I must tell you that I was just about to make this same point myself.

W: Sorry for stepping on your toes Euthyphro. [The conversation hits a lull, the three men are looking around. Williams continues after a sigh.] Is the service here always so exceedingly slow?

S: Euthyphro, coming here was your idea. What gives?

E: Hey, I've always used the drive-thru!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Euthyphro for Dummies

"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?"

When Euthyphro's dilemma is discussed by people like Julian Baggini (by way of Cyberkitten) or even TruthSeeker (by way of Kevin Parry) are they expounding or confounding Plato? Have they discovered a fatal flaw in a God-based system of ethics? Have they pulled the rug out from under traditional religious beliefs?

Baggini says,

"To my mind, the Euthypryo dilemma is a very powerful argument against the idea that God is required for morality. Indeed, it goes further and shows that God cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary."

To my mind, Baggini, from this auspicious start proceeds in circles and gets nowhere, but stirs up a lot of dust doing so. We can come back to Baggini, but for now I want to turn our focus on TruthSeeker. TruthSeeker poses the dilemma to Heather on the pretext of engaging in some intellectual discussion (albeit unrelated to the topic at hand), so I'm not sure what TruthSeeker thinks other than that Heather showed "a total lack of understanding of Euthyphro's dilemma". So I ask TruthSeeker to enlighten us about that here in a forum dedicated to the topic. After that I'd like to know if there has been any advance in philosophy in the intervening 2,400 years on the nature of the good or did Plato write the last word on it?

Near the end of the dialogue, Socrates has become frustrated in his attempt to learn from Euthyphro the nature of the pious and impious and in despair says, "So we must investigate again from the beginning what piety is, as I shall not willingly give up before I learn this." (15c)

I'm with Socrates. TruthSeeker (and everyone else), the floor is yours.