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Euthyphro’s Lament

It’s true of apologists for anything – religious, political, or other sets of ideas – that they tend to misuse their intellectual tools. It’s equally true for counter-apologists, which often is a set that includes myself. So, I try to be careful, and I try to discuss matters that coincide with apologetic or counter-apologetic interests carefully, and to understand them on their own terms rather than in terms of what aids an argument. It’s difficult, and I don’t blame a person when that effort fails, nor do I beat myself up over it when I fail.

I certainly don’t blame the apologist for misusing philosophy, as it is difficult to treat fairly on its own terms even without apologetic agendas setting a hindrance. Further, moral philosophy carries with it a perplexing array of bootstrap problems that make it near impossible to wade through even under the best of circumstances. So, it is understandable when apologists misuse it, as they have often done in Christian apologetics. Understand when I start linking and critiquing, that I do not mean to show contempt – I only seek to expose mistakes that are extremely easy to make.

The inspiration for this post, and the next few in the series I will be making, comes from here. In future posts in this series, I will have a lot more to say about various moral theories, including relativism. I won’t engage directly with the “seven fatal flaws” of moral relativism. Instead, I will acknowledge that there are difficulties with moral relativism, while trying to better explain what it is and why some philosophers adopt it. I will also discuss the pro’s and con’s of a small variety of other types of moral theory. But before I do, I want to try to get the apologetic/counter-apologetic argument behind us. And I want to begin by pointing out the one “fatal flaw” with the “seven fatal flaws” approach to relativism. That flaw is this: none of the “seven deadly flaws” addresses the truth of moral relativism. We will find that it is extremely difficult to have even the most rudimentary discussion of moral philosophy without confusing “is” and “ought”. Without discussing whether the flaws attributed to moral relativism are correctly stated, we can take them for the sake of argument and acknowledge that they would give us reason to be dissatisfied with moral relativism if they are correctly formulated. But, they would not tell us whether moral relativism is true or not. There are many things in this world that we find disappointing and dissatisfying. That does not make them untrue.

Allow me a brief tangent. I personally espouse a very limited form moral realism on some matters, and moral relativism on others. I cannot blame a person for espousing moral realism on all matters. I will eventually present my reasoning, complete with its own difficulties – including the inevitable blurring of the line between “is” and “ought”, and will criticize no one who rejects my reasoning in favor of reasoning more similar to that of Greg Koukl or Roger Morris.

Going back to the apologetic angle… I have presented Euthyphro’s dilemma before to show that Divine Command theory has no advantage over moral relativism, and I suggested the same in Roger’s comments. Roger responded both in his comments and in a subsequent post with a standard apologetic effort to keep a theistic upper hand over secularistic moral relativism.

Euthyphro’s dilemma is similar to the “deadly flaws” in that it does not make arguments about the truth of any proposition; it only makes arguments about the consequences of certain propositions.
The proposition under discussion – Divine Command theory, more or less – has unfortunate consequences for the apologist, but we are left to discern whether it is true by other means entirely. Yet, I take it up, not because I think it greatly furthers the discussion of moral philosophy, but because it helps us to deal with the consequentialist apologetics. It doesn’t show us the truth of one system or another, but shows us that the consequences we fear in one are no more avoidable in the other.

Briefly, Divine Command theory states that it is good to obey God’s commands. Euthyphro’s dilemma is this: is it good to obey God’s commands simply because he commands them, or does God command as he does because those commands are good? If the former, then the unfortunate consequence is that God could command acts that we believe to be evil, and thereby make them good – for instance, he could command rape or the killing of babies, and it would be evil for us to disobey. If it is the latter, then the unfortunate consequence is only for the religious apologist: God must rely on an objective and independent standard of goodness in order to make his commands. Since that standard must exist before God can make his commands, then it exists logically prior to God. Such an objective standard can exist without God.

The question now is this: does the apologist successfully avoid the dilemma by positing that God does appeal to an objective standard, but one that does not exist independently of Himself, grounded instead in His (good) character? I say he only manages to postpone, and possibly multiply, the unfortunate consequences.

First, we find that this again confuses “is” with “ought”. We might find that God’s character is a certain way, but we have yet to see whether that means we “ought” to act in accordance with it. But, this may be the least of the trouble for this theory.

By making God’s character serve as the standard of goodness, we risk a tautological system. If we have no external standard against which to judge God’s goodness, then we cannot mean that he is “good” in any real, objective sense. We can only say that goodness is whatever God is. Here we might revisit the “seven fatal flaws” and ruminate over whether it is praiseworthy merely to be whatever you are – or blameworthy merely to not be whatever you are not. If God’s character is goodness, and created beings are by definition not God, then they are by definition – and by creation – not good. Can blame be assigned to someone for being what they were created to be: other than God, and therefore other than good?

Furthermore, and more importantly, it leaves us with the same dilemma that Euthyphro presented, only asked differently: could God’s character be other than it is? Could God’s character be such that rape and infanticide were good, while refraining from them are not? If it could not be, then there is an objective standard – logically prior to God’s character – that constrains God’s character. If it could be, then we are returned to a difficult arbitrariness, only now it does not stem from God’s choices, but from his character.

That’s enough for today. The next post in this series will have some overlap with the apolgetic angle, as it will deal with the question of whether certain “objective” moral standards carry some of the same difficulties we find in the “seven deadly flaws” arguments, because the are only subjectively considered to be “objective”. But hopefully we will be able to get past that particular bootstrap problem and deal with some other interesting problems.

I will close this post by explaining the title. I call this Euthyphro’s lament because it is fair to say that no moral philosophy is without problems. The problems are various – self-reference, the confusion of “is” and “ought”, lack of philosophical grounding, or simply the possibility of moral conclusions that do violence to our moral intuitions. In other words, the difficulties of moral philosophy are lamentable, and not only because they fail to support apologetic or counter-apologetic agendas.

5 comments to Euthyphro’s Lament

  • The Euthyphro argument has been misunderstood by many a critic. An atheist philosopher friend of mine, Evan Fales, candidly admitted in personal conversation that the Euthyphro argument just doesn’t work and that, if God exists, his character is sufficient to ground ethics without needing some extraneous standard (Ockham’s razor!).
    At any rate, I’ve written on the Euthyphro as part of a longer argument at
    http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/pdf/God-naturalism-morality.pdf.

    I’ll copy and paste the relevant section on the Euthyphro argument below:

    *In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip, the mischievous imp Calvin is pon¬dering the lyrics of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”: “. . . He knows if you’ve been bad or good; so be good, for goodness’s sake!” Calvin reports his musings to Hobbes, his striped sidekick and co-conspirator. “This Santa Claus stuff bothers me . . . especially the judge and jury bit.” Why, Calvin wonders, does Santa carry such moral authority? “Who appointed Santa? How do we know he’s impartial? What criteria does he use for determining bad or good?”

    Along these lines, Socrates, in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue (10a), once asked: “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” Various philosophers of religion have followed up on this question to show that no necessary connection exists between God and objective morality. They present the dilemma in (roughly) this way: either God’s commands are arbitrary (something is good because God com¬mands it—and God could have commanded “You shall murder/commit adultery”)—or there must be some autonomous moral standard (which God consults in order to command). Robin Le Poidevin maintains that “we can, apparently, only make sense of these doctrines [that God is good and wills us to do what is good] if we think of goodness as being defined independently of God.” Steven Pinker, who believes that our evolutionary hard-wiring fully accounts for our moral beliefs and sense of moral obliga¬tion, claims that Plato made quick work of the idea that God is “in charge of morality” since God’s dictates would be “divine whims.” Such claims, though, are misguided. Why think our alternatives are reduced to these two—(a) a moral standard that exists completely inde¬pendently of God (which God must apparently consult when issuing com¬mands) or (b) divine arbitrariness or capriciousness?

    Although divine commands may serve as a partial guide to living rightly (for example,
    God’s civil laws to theocratic Israel),91 God’s good character with accompanying “divine motivations”92 is the more ultimate and underlying reality; God’s moral nature is more fundamental to God’s worship-worthiness than God’s commands—a point nontheistic philosophers seem to ignore.93 Even divine command theorist Robert Adams points out, “It matters what God’s attributes are. . . . It makes a difference if you think of commands as coming from someone who completely under¬stands both us and our situation. It matters not only that God is loving but also that he is just.” Elsewhere Adams speaks of God’s commands spring¬ing from a good design and purpose; such commands are conducive to human flourishing: “It matters to the plausibility of a divine command theory, for example, that we do not believe that God demands cruelty.”

    Indeed, the ultimate resolution to this Euthyphro dilemma is that God’s good character or nature sufficiently grounds objective morality. So we do not need to look elsewhere for such a standard. We have been made in the divine image; without it we would neither be moral beings (let alone exist) nor have the capacity to recognize objective moral values. The ultimate solution to the Euthyphro dilemma shifts the grounding of moralityfrom the commands of God to something more basic—that is, the nature or character of God. Thus, we human beings (who have been made to resemble God in certain ways) have the capacity to recognize this, and thus God’s commands—far from being arbitrary—are in accordance with that nature and also with how we have been designed. We would not know goodness without God’s granting us a moral constitution. We have rights, dignity, freedom, and responsibility because God has designed us this way. And we can grant Pinker’s assumption that fundamental moral convictions that prohibit torturing babies for fun or raping are hard-wired into us evo¬lutionarily while rejecting the notion that this hard-wiring grounds human morality. Such hard-wiring is quite compatible with God’s existence, but it runs into trouble if morality is strictly natural, as we noted above.

    As an aside, God’s designs for us are for our good and well-being, not our harm (Deut. 6:24; 10:13). Contrary to the skeptic’s caricatures of God as a divine police officer or cosmic killjoy, God issues commands that are rooted in God’s good nature and are in line with the maximal function and flourishing of human beings. Indeed, these commands spring from the love and self-giving nature of God, who is pro nobis (for us).

    Furthermore, in light of (1) our ability to recognize basic moral values and ideals, as well as (2) our moral failures to live up to these ideals, this “moral gap” suggests the need for (3) divine grace to enable us to live as we ought. So, rather than Kant’s “ought implies can,” we failing humans may still cast ourselves upon God’s mercy and grace; that is, “ought implies can—with divine assistance.”

    There are other points to ponder. What if the naturalistic (or nonthe¬istic) moral realist pushes the Euthyphro dilemma further? What if she calls God’s character itself into question? Is the very character of God good because it happens to be God’s, or is God’s character good because it con¬forms to some external standard of goodness? I briefly respond below.
    • If the naturalistic (or nontheistic) moral realist is correct about there needing to be some moral standard external to God, then she herself cannot escape a similar dilemma, mutatis mutandis: Are these moral values good simply because they are good, or is there an independent standard of goodness to which they conform? Her argument offers her no actual advantage over theism. And if two enti¬ties are sufficient to establish a relation (here, God’s good character and moral values), inserting yet a third entity—some moral stan¬dard independent of God to assess the connection between them—becomes superfluous. The skeptic’s demand is unwarranted. The naturalist’s query is pointless in this regard also: we must eventually arrive at some self-sufficient and self-explanatory stopping point beyond which the discussion cannot go. Why is this “independent moral standard” any less arbitrary a stopping point than God’s nature? God, who is essentially perfect, does not have obligations to some external moral standard; God simply acts, and it is good. God natu-rally does what is good. God does not fulfill moral obligations but simply expresses the goodness of the divine nature. As H. O. Mounce suggests, “God cannot hold anything good unless he already values it. But then his valuing cannot depend on its being good.”
    • The idea that God could be evil or command evil is utterly contrary to the very definition of God (who is intrinsically morally excellent, maximally great, and worthy of worship); if we are really talking about “God,” then this God cannot be some evil creator of the uni¬verse.
    • The acceptance of objective values assumes a kind of ultimate goal or design plan for human beings. This would make little sense given naturalism (since we are the products of mindless, unguided pro¬cesses), but it makes much sense given theism, which presumes a design plan or ideal standard for human beings.
    • Even if there were some moral standard independent of God, it still would fail to account for how humans, given their valueless, unguided, materialistic origins came to be morally valuable, rights-bearing, morally responsible beings. There seems to be no reason to think that the Euthyphro dilemma poses a serious threat to a theistically rooted ethic.
    For all their huffing and puffing, naturalistic moral realists are mis¬taken about the “threat” that the Euthyphro dilemma poses for God’s being the ground of objective moral values.

  • Smijer, I’ve posted this on my blog as well. Hello again Jerry,

    I’ve now had a chance to read through your detailed response ‘Euthyphro’s Lament.I must say that your discussion was rhetorically very impressive and read superficially as a quite technically sophisticated piece of work. I certainly had to read it carefully through a number of times in an attempt to distill out of it the pertinent points. I got it down to two relevant points and will address the second first up.

    Your musings over ‘What is Good’ is covered quite well by Greg Koukl in his discussions about Euthyphro’s Dilemma. I quote Koukl directly:

    “What is “good”? It doesn’t help to say that God is good unless we know what the term refers to. If the word “good” means “in accord with the nature and character of God,” we have a problem. When the Bible says “God is good,” it simply means “God has the nature and character that God has.” If God and goodness are the very same thing, then the statement “God is good” means nothing more than “God is God,” a useless tautology.

    The answer to this problem hinges on the philosophical notion of identity, expressed symbolically as A = A. When one thing is identical to another (in the way I’m using the term), there are not two things, but one. Everything that’s true of the one is true of the other. They are not two, but one.

    According to Christian teaching, God is not good in the same way that a bachelor is an unmarried male. When we say God is good, we are giving additional information, namely that God has a certain quality. God is not the very same thing as goodness (identical to it). It’s an essential characteristic of God, so there is no tautology.

    A proper understanding of Christian teaching on God removes one problem, yet we still face another: What is “good”? How can we know goodness if we don’t define it first?

    The answer is through moral intuition. Even the atheist intuitively understands what moral terms mean. This is precisely why the moral argument for God’s existence is such a good one. The awareness of morality leads to God much as the awareness of falling apples leads to gravity. Our moral intuitions recognize the effect, but what is the adequate cause? If God does not exist, then moral terms are actually incoherent and our moral intuitions are nonsense.

    When Euthyphro’s dilemma is applied to Christianity, it mischaracterizes the Biblical view of God. Goodness is neither above God nor merely willed by Him. Instead, ethics are grounded in His holy character. Moral notions are not arbitrary and given to caprice. They are fixed and absolute, grounded in God’s immutable nature. Further, no outside definition of piety is necessary because morality is known directly through the faculty of moral intuition. God’s laws express His character and–if our moral intuitions are intact–we immediately recognize those Laws as good. This doesn’t mean Christianity is true, only that it’s is not handicapped by Plato’s challenge to Euthyphro. ”

    With regards to the first major point you make, you admit that moral relativism has many aspects that we would intuitively find disappointing and dissatisfying, but that this didn’t necessarily make relativism untrue. What makes relativism untrue in that it is, in practical terms, unliveable and unworkable in it’s pure intellectual form. I don’t live as a moral relativist and I expect neither do you, at least in matters that involve your own personal rights and comforts. In your piece, you have given a fine example of intellectual rhetoric supporting the notion of relativism, one that conveniently allows you to continue to sidestep your own personal moral intuitions (and their metaphysical ramifications to your atheism), but in practical terms relativism fails what Mark P. Cosgrove calls ‘The Test of Existential Repugnance’. That is it is impossible to live out one’s existence as a pure, consistent moral relativist. Somewhere along the line, every person’s moral intuition bubbles to the surface and betrays their highly theoretical and intellectual assent to relativism.

    This is another fine example of how some atheists use overly intellectual philosophical argumentation to desperately suppress their own deep inherent intuitions, in much the same way as the Dutch boy desperately jamming his finger in the leaking dyke, lest the whole thing come crashing down.

  • Hello again smijer,

    I’ve now had a chance to read through your detailed response ‘Euthyphro’s Lament’. I must say that your discussion was rhetorically very impressive and read superficially as a quite technically sophisticated piece of work. I certainly had to read it carefully through a number of times in an attempt to distill out of it the pertinent points. I got it down to two relevant points and will address the second first up.

    You musings over ‘What is Good’ is covered quite well by Greg Koukl in his discussions about Euthyphro’s Dilemma. I quote Koukl directly:

    “What is “good”? It doesn’t help to say that God is good unless we know what the term refers to. If the word “good” means “in accord with the nature and character of God,” we have a problem. When the Bible says “God is good,” it simply means “God has the nature and character that God has.” If God and goodness are the very same thing, then the statement “God is good” means nothing more than “God is God,” a useless tautology.

    The answer to this problem hinges on the philosophical notion of identity, expressed symbolically as A = A. When one thing is identical to another (in the way I’m using the term), there are not two things, but one. Everything that’s true of the one is true of the other. They are not two, but one.

    According to Christian teaching, God is not good in the same way that a bachelor is an unmarried male. When we say God is good, we are giving additional information, namely that God has a certain quality. God is not the very same thing as goodness (identical to it). It’s an essential characteristic of God, so there is no tautology.

    A proper understanding of Christian teaching on God removes one problem, yet we still face another: What is “good”? How can we know goodness if we don’t define it first?

    The answer is through moral intuition. Even the atheist intuitively understands what moral terms mean. This is precisely why the moral argument for God’s existence is such a good one. The awareness of morality leads to God much as the awareness of falling apples leads to gravity. Our moral intuitions recognize the effect, but what is the adequate cause? If God does not exist, then moral terms are actually incoherent and our moral intuitions are nonsense.

    When Euthyphro’s dilemma is applied to Christianity, it mischaracterizes the Biblical view of God. Goodness is neither above God nor merely willed by Him. Instead, ethics are grounded in His holy character. Moral notions are not arbitrary and given to caprice. They are fixed and absolute, grounded in God’s immutable nature. Further, no outside definition of piety is necessary because morality is known directly through the faculty of moral intuition. God’s laws express His character and–if our moral intuitions are intact–we immediately recognize those Laws as good. This doesn’t mean Christianity is true, only that it’s is not handicapped by Plato’s challenge to Euthyphro. ”

    With regards to the first major point you make, you admit that moral relativism has many aspects that we would intuitively find disappointing and dissatisfying, but that this didn’t necessarily make relativism untrue. What makes relativism untrue in that it is, in practical terms, unliveable and unworkable in it’s pure intellectual form. I don’t live as a moral relativist and I expect neither do you, at least in matters that involve your own personal rights and comforts. In your piece, you have given a fine example of intellectual rhetoric supporting the notion of relativism, one that conveniently allows you to continue to sidestep your own personal moral intuitions ( and their metaphysical ramifications to your atheism), but in practical terms relativism fails what Mark P. Cosgrove calls ‘The Test of Existential Repugnance’. That is it is impossible to live out one’s existence as a pure, consistent moral relativist. Somewhere along the line, every person’s moral intuition bubbles to the surface and betrays their highly theoretical and intellectual assent to relativism.

    This is another fine example of how some atheists use overly intellectual philosophical argumentation to desperately suppress their own deep inherent intuitions, in much the same way as the Dutch boy desperately jamming his finger in the leaking dyke. lest the whole thing comes crashing down.

  • Hi guys! Thanks for your comments. I think I can answer you both relatively briefly. A few points:
    1) I am (and Plato is) not attacking any specific theistic theory of morality. I am only responding to the notion that the theist has an advantage over the atheist where it concerns an objective grounding for our moral intuitions. I think I have done so above by showing the flaw in an objective and meaningful grounding through Divine Command or through Divine Character.
    2) We do agree that moral intuition is the proximate grounding of most moral reasoning. Ontological questions about the origin of that intuition will be answered differently by the naturalist than the theist. I grant that you are welcome to your theistic ontology of moral intuition and hold to my own naturalistic ontology of moral intuition.
    3) The problem we both face is whether moral reasoning can be cognitively grounded such that by some objective standard, we can know what is truly and ultimately “good”. This is difficult for both the naturalist and supernaturalist for reasons of the bootstrap problem. Wherein inheres this ultimate standard of “good” such that, in principle, any moral system can be judged by it? If, as I believe, our biological disposition and social interactions define our morality, then why do we call this morality “good”? If, on the other hand, our moral system depends on either the command of God or the essential character of God, then we are still left with that insoluble question – why do we call this morality “good”? What the post above has done is to show that we have similar difficulties no matter what approach we take for grounding our moral reasoning.

    A last word in response to this comment:

    This is another fine example of how some atheists use overly intellectual philosophical argumentation to desperately suppress their own deep inherent intuitions,

    I am assuming here that you are talking about moral intuitions. And in fact, it is quite the opposite – like you, I respond to those moral intuitions and find them so important that I find it desirable to find a way of thinking about them that will impart them more authority than it would seem, on the surface, that a personal intuition should carry.

    On the other hand – if you are talking about intuitions about objective reality – again, I would like to trust them, but science humbles us in many ways, and we often have to employ rigorous methods to distinguish fact from intuition.

  • [...] me to a blog where the relation between God and morality is discussed in two unsigned posts: “Euthyphro’s Lament” and the briefer “One Other Thing” (in which the author promises that this is “the [...]

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