The ongoing discussion that I’ve been having (largely off the blog) about the recent entries on morality has prompted me to cover one last topic that I only mentioned in passing last time: the Euthyphro dilemma. This should be the last time I talk about morality on the blog for a while, so don’t worry: the end is in sight.
I only recently realized how powerful the Euthyphro dilemma is. Throughout my life, I’ve had certain areas of thought that have been simply closed off to critical thinking. The journey out of religion has been the process of intentionally examining many of these areas and exposing them to the discerning light of reason, abandoning ideas that couldn’t hold up under basic scrutiny. Still, there are many things that I know I have yet to consider in a critical light. Until a few months ago, the Euthyphro dilemma was one of them. I was so used to accepting the stock religious answers without questioning their validity that I didn’t see why the Euthyphro dilemma was particularly compelling. So let’s get to it.
As you likely know already, the heart of the dilemma comes in Plato’s dialogues where Euthyphro tells Socrates, “Piety is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” Socrates responds, “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.” In other words, “does God command what’s moral because he recognizes that right and wrong exist objectively outside himself, or does he define right and wrong as simply whatever his own nature dictates?” Neither of the two answers is acceptable.
Let’s look at the easy one first. If right and wrong exist outside of God and he’s just going along with them, then there’s a higher power and authority than God. There’s something or someone else that we can look to for moral authority, and God is an irrelevant part of the equation. I don’t personally know any Christian who would affirm this option, although, without the irrelevant God part, it would probably be the position taken by most secular humanists when exploring morality.
So what about the second answer–that right and wrong are an inherent part of God’s nature and that he makes the moral rules himself, based on what he wants? For a while, I thought this was very compelling. I thought that right and wrong were based on God’s nature and character, and that if God liked different things, we’d think different things were right and wrong. As a fundamentalist Christian in high school, I actually told a friend the following: “All our morality comes from God. If God was a murderer, we would think that was a high virtue and pursue it as best we could.” Yes, I actually said that.
When you really think about it, however, I don’t think theists can affirm this option in the Euthyphro dilemma, either. Morality isn’t as simple as “because I said so.” Life is more complex than “what are God’s preferences?” If right and wrong are indeed completely arbitrary for humans, based on what God happens to like (though his omnipotence means that he can change his mind about morality, as he most certainly did when transitioning from Old Testament to New), then God himself has no standards.
After critical examination, can you really think that murder wouldn’t be wrong if God, whose preferences are our only moral source, happened to like it? We’re alive, and we want to stay that way. Life is short, and living is, for the most part, good. How could any of this change, structurally speaking, if God’s preferences were different? We know that killing is wrong and harmful completely separately from what God might or might not be like.
I can hear the objections now–because I’ve heard them before: “Of course we can’t imagine a system where murder could be okay, because our minds are so completely influenced by God’s character; we just couldn’t picture it any other way.” This objection does not stand, as most Christians would admit that our morality isn’t perfectly in line with God’s to begin with. Why else would some people feel fine about being gay, getting drunk, or committing other sins? In Christian theology, we don’t share God’s perfect holiness–we think about things in a different, human way.
It’s not like our wills are so intertwined with God’s that if he changed his mind we would suddenly start seeing morality in a completely different light. We’d still have our separate, human way of going about things, which would be based on our experience and expectations about life, and open for revision as time goes on and we refine our moral sensitivities. Unless it’s not already clear, this is a good thing. Commands from God (or actions based on God’s perceived character) are dangerous fantasies because they can justify almost anything and aren’t up for discussion. Not having those dictates (or a moral system based purely around what you think God’s arbitrary personal preferences are) is a good thing because it means we can discuss important moral issues and come to reasonable, human-focused answers.