26 May, 2006

Some thoughts on Euthyphro

Plato's Euthyphro is truly one of the great classics of philosophy. In this post I want to offer some general thoughts on its central argument as a prelude to a later post exploring a particular epistemological concern and its relationship to Euthyphro's dilemma.

In the dialogue Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the nature of holiness, arriving finally at the well-known ( among philosophers and students of philosophy, anyway!) dilemma:
  • Are things holy because they are loved by the gods?
  • Or are things loved by the gods because they are holy?
Euthyphro wavers between one and the other while Socrates ruthlessly eviscerates every argument he poses. One the one hand, holiness depends upon arbitrary whim while on the other, the gods themselves appear redundant to the question of holiness. Neither option seems wholly satisfactory and yet Euthyphro is unable to see where the fault lies.

Although Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing "holiness", the dilemma is extendable to other concepts, most commonly that of good:
  • Is "good" that which is commanded by God?
  • Or are things commanded by God because they are good?
In the realm of moral philosophy, Euthyphro's dilemma is employed most commonly against arguments for so-called "Divine Command"(DC) morality, which hold that "good" either stems from or is known by God's commands. However, the tactic really only works against the idea of Divine Command simpliciter. That is, the idea that "good" is constituted by God's commands. But this would seem to be a rather naive version of this theory and one not often encountered by knowledgeable theists who will more often assert that "good" is in fact a reflection of God's nature and not the arbitrary result of His commands. For the more sophisticated theist intent on arguing a version of DC theory, this notion can be accompanied by a further assertion that God's commands are a reflection of His nature and thus form the epistemic ground of "good" (how we know what "good" is).

But rather than solving the dilemma, this sort of brings us right back to it. Even in this more sophisticated version of DC, there would seem to be no epistemic difference between "God commands that which is good, based on his nature" and "God's commands are good." This is so because we have no independent means of verifying that God's commands reflect something external to His will (His nature) and thus, epistemically speaking, both versions are really equivalent.

There are certainly other means of grounding morality in God's nature, but the theist intent on paring this grounding with the certification of God's alleged commands as "good" regardless of any external verification would seem to have to deal with Euthyphro's dilemma.

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