Tag Archives: euthyphro

Why Russell was Wrong IV: The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Relative

moralContinuing on in my discussion of Bertrand Russell’s speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, we now get to an argument from morality. This is of particular interest in considering Russell as the intellectual grandfather of the New Atheists, in that it is a group of such strong moral pretensions.

As to the issue of morality, theists have often said that, while belief in God is not required to behave morally, the existence of God is required to explain how any objective morality could exist.

Russell’s response is, essentially, a version of what is typically called the Euthyphro Dilemma:

[B]ecause even supposing that there were [objective morality], you are then faced with the question “Why did God issue just those laws and not others?” If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others — the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it — if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary.

So, is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because its good? Proponents of this argument would say that this shows that either God’s morality is arbitrary or God is irrelevant to what is moral. This seems a very good argument, so long as one does not consider it too closely.

I, of course, intend to do just that:

Monotheists have never maintained that God selects moral law the way a shopper selects a box of cereal in a grocery store. The first option can easily be set aside.

The second option can likewise be set aside, at least unless the atheist can give some argument in its favor (which Russell has not). Theists have no more maintained that there is some ethical standard, somehow existing above God, than that God arbitrarily decides on morality.

In fact, I have no idea where Russell gets this idea that most orthodox theologians claim that God’s morality is based in creating the best possible world. There is simply no standard of “best” until we already have a basis of moral law. Theologians, ancient and modern, understood this point–which is why none of them, so far as I can tell, ever took this position.

Rather, what Christian theism has always claimed is that the moral law flows from God’s nature. It is neither a whim nor something external to him, but God himself that is the standard of goodness. To ask whether something is good because God wills it or God wills something because it is good is completely wrong-headed. God wills the good because he is goodness itself.

In other circumstances, we understand this point. No one would ever ask if you look like your reflection because you had altered it to look like you (arbitrary) or because you had plastic surgery to look like it (you are subject to the reflection). Here, it is perfectly obvious that you look like your reflection because it is an image of your physical nature. Likewise, morality is a reflection of God’s ethical nature.

This also answers the question as to why God didn’t will some completely different set of morals. Any “God” who can will any set of morals has no set moral nature and, therefore, is not the God Christians actually believe in.

It is also very significant that proponents of this dilemma so rarely offer a foundation for morality of their own. On the contrary, I get a lot of claims of moral relativism, or simply refusals to take a position on morality, from those who claim to be morally indignant at God. This, of course, begs the question “why should those of us who don’t accept your relativistic (or unnamed), anti-theistic morals be concerned?”.

This is why Russell (like the New Atheists) needs to do more than criticize theistic moral systems; he needs (and they need) to present and defend a system as superior to theistic morality–that we might see if it is immune to the criticisms leveled here.

Russell closes the point with this:

The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.

Of course, I don’t think he’s shown anything like a definite fallacy in the traditional arguments. Really, this description reminds me of nothing so much as the New Atheists themselves. In this case, actual arguments have very quickly given way to political activism.

After all the bombastic claims of intellectual superiority, the scorn, the ridicule, and, yes, the blatant moral posturing, it’s become clear that the group is far more interested in which slogan is persuasive in a freshman dorm room than what is logically defensible.

In the form of the New Atheists, a devoutly secular form of Pharisee has come to roost in our culture. And I feel that Russell shares part of the blame for this.

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?