Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro

In “Religion: A Barrier to Clear Thinking,” the final article in the award winning series of lay philosophy articles published in the Christchurch Press, Canterbury based Philosopher Simon Clarke addressed the question, “what is the biggest obstacle to thinking clearly about social and political issues?” Predictably he answered “Several answers suggested themselves but time and again I came back to the same thing: religion.” Clarke explained that “the fallacy of grounding morality upon religion was pointed out by Plato over two thousand years ago.” [1]

Clarke was appealing to a famous argument that purports to show that ethics (what is right and wrong) is independent of religion. This argument is known by professional ethicists as “The Euthyphro Dilemma” or “Plato’s Euthyphro” and is named after a dialogue Plato wrote. The current version used against mono-theistic religions, such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is an adaptation (the original applied to poly-theistic religions, those religions that believe in many gods).

The argument is usually framed in terms of a rhetorical question ‘are actions wrong because God prohibits them or does God prohibit them because they are wrong?’ As the question is framed, there are only two possible answers a person can offer.

The first is to contend that actions are wrong because God prohibits them. This answer is said to suffer a debilitating problem, it makes morality arbitrary – anything at all could be deemed ‘right’ as long as God commanded it. Philosopher Michael Tooley has suggested this, “if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible, then it would follow that that action was obligatory. … many people, including many religious thinkers, are very unhappy with that consequence.” Therefore, the critics conclude, actions are not wrong just because God issues commands against them.

The failure of the first answer means that the only possible way out is to claim that God prohibits actions because they are wrong; they are not wrong just because he prohibits them. This answer does not have the problems of the former. However, as Clarke points out, it entails that “there are independent standards for what we should do, independent that is of the dictates of religion.” Actions are wrong before God prohibits them. His commands simply tell us what is already wrong, quite independently of what he prohibits.

This argument is something of a cliché in contemporary secular ethics and is found in almost every secular text book I have read (and will undoubtedly make its way into the Ethics section of the new NCEA Philosophy course). Typically “religious ethics” is mentioned and then dismissed with a short rendition of Plato’s Euthyphro. When I studied Philosophy Plato’s Euthyphro was one of the first things I was taught in first year Ethics. The lecturer spelled out the argument, contended that it showed “religious ethics” was mistaken/confused/ muddle-headed/whatever and from there would went on with the serious business of offering secular perspectives on topics such as abortion, affirmative action, euthanasia, homosexual rights and so on.

Philosopher Peter Geach noted “In modern ethical treatises we find hardly any mention of God; and the idea that if there really is a God, his commandments might be morally relevant is wont to be dismissed by a short and simple argument that is generally regarded as irrefutable.” The short, simple argument he mentioned was, of course, Plato’s Euthyphro.

Given this backdrop it is perhaps not so surprising that Clarke, after mentioning Plato’s argument, stated “… Plato’s pretty convincing demonstration has been ignored by the vast majority of people in the intervening millennia. Why are appeals to religion so common?”

Despite the popularity of making claims like this, I still find them somewhat puzzling. Perhaps secular ethicists assume that theological ethicists have never read Plato or that, if they have, they have ignored him. In fact, the opposite is true. The last 40 years, in fact, has seen sustained defences of theological ethics including thorough refutations of Plato’s Euthyphro. These have been published in the philosophical literature at the highest levels – off the top of my head I can rattle off over 22 different articles and monographs which have offered rebuttals to Plato’s Euthyphro – yet secular ethicists and many textbooks blithely continue as though these answers had never been offered.

I maintain that there is an answer to the Euthyphro dilemma, one that many have pointed out; it is to adopt the first of the answers I mentioned above, to contend that an action is wrong because God prohibits it. Contrary to popular claims, this option can succeed. The objections raised against it are not as debilitating as they are made out to be.

The primary objection is that morality is made arbitrary; anything at all could be deemed ‘right’ as long as God commanded it – even atrocious commands. What is important to note here is that the objector assumes that it is possible that God could command atrocious things like ‘torturing people as much as possible.’ This assumption, however, seems very dubious. We need to remember that we are not taking about right or wrong as being based on the commands of just anyone, we are talking about these things being based on the commands of God. In the mono-theistic tradition that this line of argument seeks to criticise, God is typically defined as a being who is all knowing, all powerful, and is morally perfect.

So, as the terms are defined, the claim that it is possible for God to command people to “torture one another as much as possible” is true only if it is possible for a morally perfect person to command such an atrocious thing. But this is unlikely. The very reason critics cite examples such as “torturing others as much as possible,” is because these actions are paradigms of conduct that no morally good person could ever entertain or endorse. The situation the critic envisages then is a situation which is impossible.

Of course the critic could contend that he or she does not accept the existence of a being who is all knowing, all powerful, and is morally perfect. However, because those the critic is criticising do believe in such a being and also if the dismissal of theological ethics is to be based on an accurate understanding of what the various theological traditions actually believe and teach, and is not based on a caricature, then the sceptic must address what these traditions actually affirm.

This answer typically generates a rejoinder. If some action is right or wrong because God permits or prohibits it then God cannot be said to be good in any meaningful sense. This answer renders the claim ‘God is good’ into no more than the claim that God obeys his own commands, if this is so, can God be said to have any duties at all?

Philosopher William Lane Craig argues that “[duties] are not independent of God nor, plausibly, is God bound by moral duties, since He does not issue commands to Himself.” William Alston drew the same conclusion, “we can hardly suppose that God is obliged to love his creatures because he commands himself to do so!” William Wainwright suggests “the notion of commanding oneself to do something … is incoherent.”

The rejoinder that, if God has no duties then he cannot be said to be good in any meaningful sense, has a grain of truth to it. If we are going to understand God’s goodness in terms of God having duties or obligations that he consistently fulfils then theological ethics, of the sort envisaged, has problems. However, it is not clear to me why the phrase ‘God is good’ should be explicated in terms of God having duties that He follows.

Many theologians have suggested that one should not understand God’s goodness in this way. When God’s goodness is explicated in sacred texts like the Psalms or in official creedal statements such as the Westminster Confession of Faith it is often explicated in terms of God having certain character traits. To claim God is good is to claim that He is truthful, benevolent, loving, gracious, merciful, that He is opposed to certain actions such as adultery, murder and rape and so on. Now, even if God does not have duties, it does not follow that he cannot have character traits such as these. It is true that God may not be under any obligation to love others or to tell the truth or what have you, but that does not mean that He cannot love others or tell the truth. God does not have to have a duty to do something in order to do it.

So there seems, on the face of it, nothing incoherent about contending that God is good, that he has certain attributes like being truthful, benevolent, loving and so on. It is not that theological ethicists have never read Plato or that they have ignored him – they have read him, found his arguments wanting and published responses explaining why – it is that some sceptics have never read the responses or they have chosen to ignore them.

Perhaps these rebuttals do not work (though I think that they do) but even if I am wrong the onus is surely on the sceptic to demonstrate why. Simply ignoring them, misrepresenting the situation and then dismissing religion “as a barrier to clear thinking” is simply not good enough.

[1] Clarke’s series “Clear Thinking” was awarded the Australasian Association of Philosophy Media prize in 2006.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the March 10 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus

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