Euthyphro’s Reply

In beginning a survey of the small set of apologetic and counter-apologetic arguments which circle around the internet (seemingly without end), I thought I might begin with an argument which showcases one of my (and history’s) most beloved figures: Socrates.

I am speaking, of course, of the famous Euthyphro Dilemma. Those who are interested may read the text, but the modern extrapolation is much simpler. It is a variation on Socrates questioning whether the gods love something because it is good, or whether it is good because the gods love it. The former case would mean that goodness is unrelated to the gods (or, in our culture, God), whereas the latter would mean that the entire concept of goodness is arbitrary.

The first thing to notice, perhaps, is the connection between the use of this argument to oppose theistic ethics and moral relativism. Socrates himself does not actually use the argument in this way, but, by all accounts, seems genuinely interested in an answer. Claiming that the dilemma is truly unanswerable, however, commits one either to Platonism or to the abandonment of all objective morality.

The overwhelming majority of atheists I’ve encountered seem quick to adopt relativism, which strikes me as very odd, given the moral nature of many of their complaints with religion. That is to say, this argument reduces any moral outrage of we non-platonic modern people to a matter of opinion. My own moral outrage at certain religious groups gives me pause before blithely adopting that the matter is nothing more than a difference of opinion. Much more so, I should think, the fervent rage of many atheists at the corrupt religious practices they see around them.

Still, there are deeper problems with the position that this question is not answerable. Most fatally, it ignores the monotheist position altogether. Profound as Socrates question was in the context in which it was asked, applying it in this way to modern views of God is to commit the fallacy of false dichotomy.
That is, this argument does not address the possibility that the “thing” the gods love because it is good is, in fact, the one God himself.

In this case, God approves of something because it is good, but that ” something” is not beyond him. It is his good nature.

So, what is goodness? What is that standard by which all things should be measured? One is certainly free to claim that such a thing is inert. or that it simply does not exist. Euthyphro’s Dilemma, however, does nothing to support either of these positions until monotheism has already been abandoned.

This is why, I suspect, the argument is so appealing to non-theists, yet so uninteresting to monotheists. Far from disproving God, or God’s goodness, it lays bare the challenge facing the secular person:

Having rid ourselves of this third option, what view of goodness can hope to prove rational?


5 responses to “Euthyphro’s Reply

  • c emerson

    Thank you for this post.

    It has been too long since I last read Euthyphro (which i just did) and I appreciate your take on it. I certainly agree that Plato’s point is far far far from any claim that good / holy / piety is subjective or relative. Interesting that anyone would argue that from this dialogue. It seems clear enough that ‘what one loves’ derives from a subject, while what is holy (good) is holy in itself:

    “It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?”
    “… if that which is dear to God is dear to him because loved by him, then that which is holy would have been holy because loved by him. But now you see that the reverse is the case, and that they are quite different from one another.”

    Of course this does raise the question of separation between that which is objectively holy (good) and Socrates’ gods, if not from a monistic God.

  • c emerson

    I actually just referenced Euthyphro (as a result of your post here) on Atheism and the City at:

    I am new to that blog as I am to your’s, so I did not link your blog directly, but I have listed your blog on my blog roll (which I hope is okay). I take a philosophically middle ground as to the possible existence of God; so far I have been able to avoid diatribes from either end of the spectrum. I don’t generally post on blogs that tolerate any excessive ‘non-debate’. I’m here to learn. I’ll read more of your posts in the near future. Thanks again.

    • Debilis

      I’ll have a look over there as well.
      And feel free to link as you please. That wouldn’t bother me in the slightest.

      I appreciate the reminder that we should all be trying to learn. I’ll have to take care that it what I’m always seeking to do.

  • c emerson

    Ok, thanks. I like to identify interesting sites to others – as I find those willing to debate or dialogue instructively. I plan to read through all your posts as I can. Feel free to post on my blogs anytime. Good work.

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