It has occurred to me that despite the fact that I promised a blog that would, among other things, discuss philosophy, I’ve neglected so far to indulge my readers with much philosophy up to this point. I’ve whined a fair amount (sorry about that).
So, let’s begin by looking over one of the old masters, Socrates. In the Euthyphro dialogue, our favorite Athenian is on his way to court to be tried for being impious. Poor Socrates; he’s not even sure what piety is! But he’s in luck. He happens to cross paths with an acquaintance of his, a young fellow named Euthyphro, who’s also on his way to court, not to be tried but to prosecute. And (gasp!) the defendant is his own father. Seems dear old dad sort-of accidentally on purpose killed someone. And Euthyphro is convinced that the most pious thing to do is to forget all that filial piety nonsense and convict any and all murderers, regardless of family ties. Seeing how confident Euthyphro is about his own piety, Socrates feels comfortable asking him what exactly piety is. After all, it sure would be useful defending himself if he knew what it is he’s being accused of.
But here’s where things get tricky. What is piety? Well, Euthyphro can give various examples of pious actions, but he has a hard time coming up with a solid definition of piety itself. He eventually settles on saying that pious things are things loved by the gods. But Socrates isn’t convinced. He asks, is something pious because it is loved by the gods, or are things loved by the gods because they are pious? Euthyphro can’t come up with an answer.
And here’s where we get the so-called “Euthyphro Dilemma,” which in modern terms can be expressed like this: Is something good because God wills it? Then it is arbitrary, because God could will hatred and cruelty to be good as easily as love and kindness. Or, does God will something because it is already good? In that case, there is some standard of goodness outside of God, so what do we need God for? This dilemma is supposed to demonstrate that moral values cannot be rooted in God, and thus is an argument against any sort of moral argument for God’s existence.
Of course, this isn’t a true dilemma. A true dilemma says, “You’ve got two and only two options: A or not-A,” and both are undesirable. A false dilemma says, “Here are two of your choices: A or B.” A false dilemma doesn’t consider that maybe we can choose C or D or E. In this case, our C is simply to say that goodness is inextricable from God’s nature. God doesn’t sit down and think, “Hmm… I can’t decide if I should make rape wrong or not.” God’s unchangeable character is the necessary Good, so to say that something like justice is good is to say that it is comparable to God’s character, and to say something like injustice is bad is to say that it is contrary to God’s character.
The funny thing about the Euthyphro dilemma is that it is not only theists who have to deal with it. Any system, theistic or not, that claims some absolute source or standard of objective moral values has to work out this dilemma. Problem is, most moral systems can’t split the horns of the dilemma as cleanly as the theist can.
Think of it this way. Replace the word “God” in the dilemma for whatever else you use to determine objective moral values. Typically, atheists use some form of evolution explain morality. So, what do we get? “Is something good because evolution determines it to be good? If so, then what is good is arbitrary. Or, does evolution determine it because it is good? If that’s the case, there’s some objective standard of morality apart from evolution.”
Truth be told, it is very easy to see how problematic the first horn of the dilemma is. If we rewound the evolutionary tape, so to speak, and let it play back, do we have any reason to think it would give us the same moral values we have now? I can’t see why, especially considering that some of our moral values, such as caring for the weak and infirm, run contrary to the evolutionary goal of survival of the fittest. It is easy to conceive of a race of intelligent creatures that thrive by practicing rape. So what about the other horn: evolution determines morals because they are already good? Besides the obvious question, “What makes them good then?” I have to wonder how evolution, a blind, unguided process, could evolve us, by chance, to conform our moral sense with what is truly, independently, objectively good. What would be the chances of that? It seems to me that if there is some esoteric nonphysical “good” out there, there’s no reason to think that we know it. It seems entirely possible that we evolved against the good, not with it.
Anyway, that’s my two cents worth. That’s just to say that I’m not scared of Euthyphro, but maybe you should be.