The dilemma of Euthyphro

Samantha asked:

Both Blackburn and Arthur casually allude to Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro as the locus classicus of the decisive refutation of a religiously based “command morality.” The sheer casualness and brevity of their allusion tells you much about how decisive and final that refutation is usually taken to be. How is that supposed to work exactly?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This issue was contentious even in the ancient days, because Greek mythology, where it deals with the gods and their doings, is in large measure a chronique scandaleuse of human patterns of behaviour transferred to the heavens. The poets depicted it without compunction, which (as you know) incurred Plato’s censure in his Politeia. For any thinker to put up such a conceptual dilemma as Socrates proposed about piousness (“hosios”), would have made the average intelligent Greek wonder what he is all about. On this account there was a more or less general perception alive among the Greeks that the gods, being immortals, could not truly understand the human imperative of adding quality of life to their social structures — of which the primary consideration was what we today call ‘human rights’, in Locke’s words, life, liberty and freedom of economic activity, none of which is meaningful to an immortal being. All the same, they always sought the blessing of the gods for this impulse towards democracy, which made its first tentative appearance in the colonial city states of the 7th century BC, despite their belief that this was a signature of humanity, not of divinity. But there is frankly no democracy to be found on Olympus — any more than in the Heavens of Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions — which is precisely the reason that Socrates insists on the consent of all the gods. But now the aforesaid exhibitions of piety among the migrating colonists might easily strike a cynic as expedients; and I suspect that many an old-time Greek would have been familiar with Pascal’s Wager long before Pascal ever thought of it.

Then c. AD 1700 Leibniz brought the same issue up again:

“Whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and Goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths.”

You will be forgiven (in both cases) for protesting that the form of the question is circular and therefore half-meaningless. Thus Plato/ Socrates tended to reify ‘The Good’ and attribute its custodianship (though not its cultivation!) to the gods. Leibniz in turn might be supposed to hint at the possibility that ‘the good and just’ exist independently from God; or if the first half of the question is considered in isolation, that Voltaire’s rebuttal says all that needs to be said. But does this mean the issue has suffered terminal refutation, as in your question?

By no means, it is alive and kicking as we speak, because there are innumerable people (including academics) who find that morals are insecure and parochial at best, unless we can have recourse to divine command. Equally of course innumerable people reject this notion and applaud the multiplicity of moral codes, mindful of the dictum “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. In other words, the whole subject matter is impaled on the horns of a dilemma that is located somewhere between Dostoyevsky’s despairing cry “if there os no God, then everything is permitted” and Kant’s categorical imperative.

Returning to Socrates: His final word of reconciliation was, that the question of piousness, goodness, justice etc. is not answered by reference to God’s will, nor by God’s love of it, because the way the question is posed you can only go around in circles with your arguments. Yet Blackburn/ Arthur evidently speak for themselves, not for the intellectual community as a whole, since a massive literature exists which extends all the way from the Scholastics to modern deists, theists, agnostics and atheists, and it must not go without saying that their contentions have spawned a huge bevy of new terms and nomenclatures in moral and ethical philosophy. But this is a domain “where angels fear to tread”, hence I shall refrain. Although I must mention before I close the small matter of punishment, that gets nowhere near the same mileage of prose as love and divine will. I hope at any rate that you now have something to mull over, beyond the apparent shrugging of shoulders by Blackburn/ Arthur!

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