Euthyphro Dilemma – A False Dichotomy
“The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy; or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” [Socrates] 1
“What is right and wrong depends on God’s commands such that his commands alone are what make actions right or wrong. There is no reason for what is right and wrong and morality is arbitrary.
God commands us to perform certain actions and refrain from others because certain actions are right and others are wrong and being fully rational he knows what is right and wrong and being completely good he issues commands to humanity that conform to his moral knowledge. Yet morality is autonomous from God’s commands and is something to which God must conform. Thus God is not omnipotent over morality.”2
I harbour a well-deserved and abiding skepticism about the integrity and/or competence of philosophers and sophists, an attitude not inconsistent with Scriptural opinion.
“It is written:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For, since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”3
It has become a game of ‘Where’s Waldo’ in detecting the flaw of logic or disingenuity that the sophist is playing on the reader or hearer. It often provokes headaches in me. But otherwise, it is a fine idle occupation for one whom has long become bored with Sudoku.
One of the common sophist deceits is to contrive a question with only two equally abhorrent options, suckering the respondent into not thinking outside this box. But, there just might exist alternatives beyond the snare. Even coin flips sometimes can land on its side (1 in 6,000 for the U.S. nickel).
In the case of the Euthyphro dilemma, the other option is that God embodies the Right, the Good, the Virtuous and the Holy. (This is not to deny the existence of others; just that I cannot think of any offhand). That is, that which is Right is because God commands it; while simultaneously, it is Right in the objective, ‘impartial’ sense. This would entail that God had always been good and understood what is the good, defined as being the best of all possible options, through His impartial good will and wisdom. That is, God is good in both the intrinsic and extrinsic sense of that attribute.
Whether this is true, is beside the point. The fact that an alternative option is available discredits the all-encompassing presumption of the question and calls into question the integrity or competence of the poser of that question.
“Invoking God doesn’t actually get you very far in ethics, because ascribing “goodness” to a deity or its laws is meaningless unless there’s some independent criterion for this.”4
The idea that some independent criterion could be fashioned by men, in order to judge God’s behavioural (ethics) and attitudinal (ethos) preferences, which would not itself, smack of partiality and the preferences of the fashioner of such criteria, whether conscious or unconscious, is a bit rich. But even were it possible to “take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly”5; the limitations of the human mind are easily manifest from the best of their minds.
All too often, philosophical constructs suffer from simplism. Some suggest that through a few axioms, we can deduce a whole comprehensive ethic and ethos (i.e. Ayn Rand). Or with a few reductionist overriding moral principles, we can command a comprehensive ethic that fits the general principle without inadvertent detriment (i.e. utilitarianism – ‘the greatest good (objective criteria) happiness (subjective criteria) for the greatest number’). Even though Christ summarized the Mosaic Law in two great commandments, there was no attempt to eliminate the existing Law; but to explain that all the commandments are the particulars from wisdom, which underlie and support that ethos. (“All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”6)
This desire for reductionist simplism was evident in the naïve and wrongheaded hopes that humanity, as consequence of the Human Genome Project, could ascertain personality traits from single genes or simple combinations thereof. But life reflects the textured, asymmetrical complexity of a willow tree over Lake Ontario than the suffocation of geometric shapes. The invariable evolution of basic law codes and constitutions toward labyrinthine and sclerotic complexity as a society ages; even with the best of intentions; whether exemplified by the Talmud, the Catholic Canon or modern secular constitutional judicial interpretation, confirms the impossibility of containing life to a few moronic mantras.
Or as one thumbs through the pontifications of atheist Sam Harris in his book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”, it is a reminder of the superficiality of many human endeavours at ethics. Ethical questions, according to him, can be grounded objectively in empirical facts about what causes people to flourish. As the scientifically minded are generally historical illiterates, denigrating history for lacking the only ‘true’ and ‘approved’ methodology for ascertaining truth, Harris might be ignorant that poor and uncouth peoples often prevail over the rich, organized, civilized and cultivated; let alone account for it. Consider that the rustic and austere Romans conquered the various quadrants of the Hellenist Empire, which even the Romans acknowledged, were far advanced in thought, aesthetics and science. Consider the German barbarian tribes, who were but a fraction in population size in comparison to the Western Roman Empire they overtook. Or even more so, consider the Mongolian herdsmen who conquered China, various Muslim caliphates, much of Russia and even would have invaded Europe except that they didn’t think backward 13th Century Europe was worth the bother. By Sam Harris’ reckoning, being impoverished, uneducated, relatively uncivilized and ethically brutish could constitute the best human values.
There is little hope for an empiricist and physicalist (updated version of materialist) to pry through the psychological complexities that bind a person to his neighbour or to the community; which according to the Greek historian, Polybius, explaining to his own people, constituted a considerable foundation for Roman power. And in one who doesn’t believe in metaphysical free will, it would be curious how Harris reconciles the raison d’être of morality and moral choice, when people will be what they are, determined by genetics and neurochemical reactions, according to the dogma prevailing in neuroscientific circles. The inconsistencies and absurdities abound! I don’t want to get started on this man! Like the Mongols’ attitude toward the 13th Century Europe, there is insufficient in this man’s mind worth invading!
As it is written, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”7 Empirical and external manifestation have very limited value in the comprehension of the human psyche. I recall a sociological survey, probably biased, which associated U.S. states, which still practiced capital punishment, with higher crime rates. As is standard in sociology; typical sociological aspects (i.e. income and wealth) were factored out from distorting the survey. What was not and could not easily be factored for, is the coherent ideology, probably distinct to the U.S., which underlies belief in capital punishment, the stronger convictions in their beliefs, greater skepticism towards political authority and relying on self for protection (instead of authorities); the latter components not infrequently nor unnaturally, leading to higher incidence of transgression of laws. These factors are more difficult to credibly include in any survey. Subjectivity or charges of subjectivity and the problem of external ‘introspection’ of another person’s genuine beliefs undermine the scientific impartiality of the survey.
Then there is the problem of omniscience, or lack thereof on the part of man. The limitedness of human knowledge and understanding may not fully comprehend the impact of a particular behaviour or attitude. How often have we heard of government policies which caused unintended natural consequences? In the gay marriage debate, the proponents of this innovation scorn arguments of its detrimental affect on the Estate of Marriage by citing lack of apparent consequences immediately upon passage in other jurisdictions.
However, contained in the aphorism, “You shall know them by their fruits”8, there is inference that a time lag exists between the growth of a new tree and the manifestations of its fruit, which equally applies to ideas. The stresses on the public purse in Canada and Europe, caused by state takeover of health system, took decades to appear and be acknowledged. The logic of Darwinism towards eugenic and euthanasia programs for the mentally deficient or insane (275,000 killed by the Nazi state, starting in the late 1930s), took between 50 – 75 years to full realize. Charles Finney’s Altar Calls are only now being broadly recognized for the travesty that they are, a full century after the innovation.
Those trusting in rational capacities of humanity to appropriate ethical values are often bereft of psychological insight in the nature of man; suffering from a self-serving self-image or naivety. What a far cry is Socrates’ “Does not every man love that which he deems noble and just and good, and hate the opposite of them?”9 from Christ’s “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil”10. William Saletan might claim that gays can practice fidelity, chastity, and continence.11 But the overwhelming historical anecdote and sociological data bears witness that those who deviate from one historical sexual norm are not inclined to abide by the others.
The issue is not that humans should refrain from acquiring moral reasoning and wisdom. The Scriptures, particularly the book of Proverbs (i.e. Chapter 2), repeatedly enjoins and promises it (“Making wise the simple.”12). Julian Sanchez’ scoff that invoking God gestures “at a black box wherein we’re assured the answer lies, and asserting that we needn’t worry our pretty little heads about it”13, merely display his ignorance of such matters. Contrary to secular criticism, the Scriptures do not nor could not give a ready-made particular answer for every ethical problem that confronts us. Only broad principles are enumerated; just as the Constitution and the nation laws require judiciaries to apply them. And those Biblical principles often have rationales demonstrated through argument and examples of individual’s lives elsewhere in Scriptures.
The problem with human judgment of the goodness of God and His laws is that it bespeaks of an arrogant lack of circumspection about the limitations of human understanding. If an omniscient God exists, does one honestly think that the more limited human could fully comprehend His wisdom; anymore than little five year old Johnny could understand why his daddy doesn’t buy him an airplane? Even in the absence of a theistic universe, the problem of human lack of omniscience, impartiality and intellectual integrity remains.
- Plato, “Euthyphro”, c. 380 B.C., Transl. Benjamin Jowett
- Mark Timmons, “Moral Theory: An Introduction”, 2002, pp 28-29
- 1 Corinthians 1:19-21
- Julian Sanchez, “All Ethics Are Secular Ethics”, April 23rd, 2012, http://www.juliansanchez.com/2012/04/23/all-ethics-are-secular-ethics/
- Matthew 7:4
- Matthew 22:40
- 1 Samuel 16:7
- Matthew 7:16
- Plato. Ibid.
- John 3:19
- William Saletan, “Why can’t gays practice fidelity, chastity, and continence?” Slate, April 18, 2012, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_book_club/features/2012/ross_douthat_s_bad_religion/bad_religion_book_gay_rights_and_christian_love_.html
- Psalm 19:7. Also James 1:5
- Julian Sanchez. Ibid.