I recently tackled again the always fascinating Euthyphro dilemma, first proposed by Plato in the short dialogue by the same name. I have written about it in depth in my Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life, but it now seemed as good a time as ever to revisit the issue.
I did so in two essays for The Philosophers’ Magazine Online, and I welcome further discussion here at Plato’s Footnote. I begin by mentioning an excellent paper by my City University of New York colleague Michael Levin, which summarizes what the dilemma is all about, as well as a number of (unsuccessful) attempts to wiggle out of it (including the ever favorite one: accusing Plato of setting up a false dilemma — but it should be obvious that just because there are some false dilemmas out there, it doesn’t mean that all dichotomous choices are false. For instance: 2+2 is either =4 or it isn’t.)
The first thing to understand about the Euthyphro is that it is not an argument against the existence of God. Socrates — despite being on his way, at the beginning of the dialogue, to defend himself from the charge of impiety, for which he was later sentenced to death by the Athenian state — was no atheist. Rather, the question being posed concerns, as Socrates himself puts it about one third into the dialogue, the source of morality itself: “And what is piety, and what is impiety?”
The rest of the first essay is a detailed presentation of the dilemma, leading into the beginning of a discussion of various theological attempts to respond to it. One of the first was by none other than Thomas Aquinas. He conceded that something is good because God says so, but this is simply because it is in God’s nature to be good, which guarantees that his commands will in fact be moral. I discuss why the “it’s in God’s nature” defense doesn’t actually do the trick (e.g., to even claim that God’s nature is good you need some concept of good, and where are you getting that, if not by impaling yourself again in one of the two horns of the dilemma?).
The above mentioned paper by Levin does make a novel contribution to the debate, and is worth reading in full for a fresh perspective. Michael analyzes the concept of God’s “dependence” on a given standard of value, and provides reasons to “dissolve,” so to speak, the dilemma. I refer you to the second half of my first essay for a full discussion of his approach.
The second essay moves on to consider what modern theologians have been up to, when it comes to answering Plato, and they haven’t fared much better than Aquinas, in my opinion.
A sophisticated attempt at avoiding being impaled by the Euthyphro, for instance, has been made by Richard Swinburne. It takes the form of a compromise, suggesting that moral values come in two flavors: necessary and contingent. In other words, some moral rules are universal and absolute, while others depend on circumstances. Absolute values, according to Swinburne, hold in all conceivable worlds, examples being the prohibitions against rape or murder. Contingent values, on the other hand, are not applicable everywhere and at every time — let’s say the prohibition on eating certain kinds of foods at particular times of the year.
Swinburne’s stratagem has a serious drawback: if absolute values are independent of specific circumstances, then they can be arrived at by reason (which is of course the project of most ethical philosophers), and one falls yet again on the horn of the dilemma that says we don’t need gods to tell us what to do. In this scenario, God at best gets to tell us his personal preferences in terms of minor actions, like whether or not to eat pork on which days, which hardly seems the stuff of serious moral discourse.
The final section of the second essay discusses what I think is the most sophisticated attempt to date, by Robert Merrihew Adams, and I refer you to my summary of it over at TMP Online.
Incidentally, you may want to check out this little test based on the Euthyphro, courtesy of Jeremy Stangroom, and see how you fare against other readers of The Philosophers’ Magazine.