Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Euthyphro's Dilemma

Plato, a 4th century B.C.E. Greek philosopher and mathematician, invented a dialog between his mentor (Socrates) and Euthyphro (a self proclaimed religious expert).  Socrates asks Euthyphro:
"Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"
This question raises some interesting questions about morality in monotheistic religions.  In layman's terms, the question can be rephrased as:
"Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?"
So, for all of the theists out there, which one is?  Take some time to ponder...  Have an answer?  Well both answers have serious flaws and fallacies.  My commentaries on the two responses will be directed towards primarily Christian readers.

  1. Morals are commanded by God because they are moral
Then we don't need a God to give us our morals.  It is a fairly common occurrence, in the United States at least, to hear Christians say, "You can't be good without God!"  If this is the answer you chose, not only would you not need the Bible to "learn" your morality, but you would also be able to judge the morality of the God character, which frankly, if he wasn't your God, I think you would find him to be immoral.  The only other comment I can add is that a Christian wouldn't be able to say that God was the creator of the universe and all of its laws.

    2.   Morals are commanded by God

This answer fails to the "might makes right" fallacy, or whatever some authority figure claims to be morally good, you have to except it.  Let's suppose God tells you that murdering is morally good now, after all, how many people did God have murdered in the Old Testament? (2,017,956 people, not including 65 entire cities, and the Flood that killed everyone but Noah and his family;  see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IABptlAhyJw&feature=related)  Obviously there are some cases that God feels it is alright to have His followers kill people.  If you knew that God came down, was standing right in front of you, and He told you he wanted you to kill person or people X... would you be able to tell Him that He is immoral?  I don't see how you could if God was able to arbitrarily assign morals.  I already know that many Christians are sitting at home in front of their keyboards thinking, "well that just isn't in my God's nature to demand that out of us."  Not only does your own Bible contradict you, but now I pose another question:  Where does God get His nature from?  If He Himself designated His own nature, then we fall right back into the appeal from authority that got us here in the first place and if He gets His nature from some other higher entity, we get a situation that is similar to the first answer in the original question.

I highly recommend this clip of the show "The Atheist Experience"; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zNSh7Lq690.  This clip gives a very clear, concise explanation of Euthyphro's Dilemma and the problems that arise from the answers.  In addition to this clip, check this webpage http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Euthyphro_dilemma for an explanation similar to the one I have just laid out.

Please e-mail me at brbailey@umd.edu if you have any questions, comments, or just want to start a discussion.  I have purposely not gone into some of the finer points of my arguments in an attempt to start up a discussion in the comments as well as not wanting to make a huge post about the concepts of relative and absolute morality.  The reason for this is partly because of the fact that neither really works as someone not well versed in philosophy would define them, while the other part being that I'm beginning a philosophy class on morality this upcoming term.  I'll make a long post after the class is completed and/or post some of my work/essays.  Have a great day!

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