The Euthyphro Dilemma

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

In his Slate article, Bad Religion, Ross Douthat argues that even bad religions “have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims.” Douthat’s argument evokes the Euthyphro Dilemma, inspired by one of Plato’s dialogues. The dialogue features Socrates and religious expert Euthyphro, and has been modernized as “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?”

For those who espouse the Divine Command Theory of morality, the Euthyphro Dilemma presents two horns upon which they may choose their impalement.

If the Divine Command Theory is true, then either (1) morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, or (2) morally good acts morally good because they are willed by God. These two options are intended to be mutually exclusive and logically exhaustive. If (1) is true, then morally good acts are morally good independent of God’s will, and God is unnecessary. If (2) is true, then morally good acts are subject to God’s arbitrary whim, and arbitrary morality is not objective.

Douthat tries to avoid the arbitrariness by evoking God’s nature:

Virtue is not something that’s commanded by God, the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, but something that’s inherent to the Christian conception of the divine nature.

Similarly, renown Christian apologist William Lane Craig writes:

God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from His moral nature.

But what does it mean to claim that a being has a nature? A nature is a set of properties that the being possesses. We can now form a new Euthyphro-like dilemma: “Is God good because he has these properties? Or are these properties good because God has them?” And we are right back where we started.

The apologist may then try to argue Divine Simplicity: that God is identical to its properties. But, as Alvin Plantinga notes, properties are abstract entities, causally inert, and hence, via this argument, God is abstract and causally inert.

Douthat is trying to plug the leaks in his metaphysical dike. But, the very act of plugging causes new leaks to appear. A perfect example of a non-coherent metaphysical worldview.

H/T: Wes Morriston (pdf), John Holbo, Julian Sanchez, John Casey, Julian Sanchez.

44 thoughts on “The Euthyphro Dilemma”

  1. Spiritual masturbation always feels good but never ends in full orgasm.

  2. Mark,
    You got both votes from Woosty and MikeS.
    Here comes a negative one:

    You said;

    “MARK: While not subscribing to any tradition myself, I still think religion has a function as an intellectual repository for those of a similar cultural identity.

    ((ID707: As a comfort for mankind, that’s fine. But is it worth the sacrifice of your mental freedom to see yourself naked before the emptiness and grandness of the universe, and face those thoughts instead from which religions shields you???))

    “MARK: Not to mention the close connection that exists between modern spiritual experiences, whether natural or induced by magnetic fields or even psychoactive drugs, and historical ones.”

    ((ID707: Am I alone in seeing these as only surface effects of our searching within our own minds for deeper meaning to universal questions?? What we find is ourselves, or illusions as to higher meaning. Pragmatically that may be classed as good. All the ancient lore, substances and its modern counterparts are again aids to search within ourselves. All stories of ecstasy and other experiences to the contrary. If we are fortunate we can experience many types of groundshaking experiences in our lives. Including unitiy and reality defying ones. But proof of a god, I don’t believe they are. They only indicate deeper levels on mental processes, some very deep but not divinely inspired.))

    “MARK: The need for ritual and the sacred is very much a part of the human character. The modern answer isn’t to attempt to destroy the impulse (futile effort in any case) but to tame it in avenues of expression that avoid the negatives (tribal thinking, absolute certainty) and accentuates the positives (universal compassion, positive outlook).”

    ((ID707: Again you speak from a utilitarian point of view. But the utility you propose as being attainable is a small one compared to mankind’s capabilities if it could dispense with this emotional and mental crutch. I can not prove this but neither can you prove the contrary, although we could both point to small samples.

    I believe that empathy, a brotherhood with all, as well as the virtues you list, can be achieved without religion’s superstructure.

    We demonstrably learn the value of cooperation, and eating the right food, and living thr right life style (check out the Right Livelihood Award), and loving all—- not because Jesus commanded it, but that it is simply good for me and for others.

    Our needs for socializing can be met without the presence of a spiritual leader who all defer to, or or dogma in his place.
    To defer to external decision makers, to defer to guideline anchored in diffuse history or modern false prophets is following the wrong way.

    Be instead trained to use your own mind. And let social pressures and laws do Their part to complete the brief picture here.

    The comments given you by others are not included, but are outside my consideration here. End ID707))

  3. Barkin’Dog,

    You know who shat on the drachma, don’t you?
    That’s right, our own folks who steer the international credit markets, including Moody, et al.

    Even the IMF and the World Bank are but extensions of our
    corporatist interests. Why, that’s good for us, you say.

    Usury is usually not even good for the loaner. Witness our game-playing the mortgage market. It was only the get-in-and-out sleaze and the banks that used them that won on that. The rest of us get to pay for Obama’s cosmetic “I will save honest folks homes” play as always for votes.
    How’s them onions taste?

  4. The most disturbing part of this discussion is that we that is the human beings who people this earth know when our actions with regard to other human beings are wrong but we want to find a way to justify what we decide to do regardless of what we know. Ruminations of this type may be fun and maybe even helpful but they do nothing to help right the wrongs that are done. Let’s face it any one who has great power sooner or later takes the view that only he can devine the truth and the right and he will kill or destroy whoever disagrees and points to the devine right of kings or dictators or bishops or popes or even presidents.
    Philosophy is good; it exercises the mind. It can however be used to obscure what we already know but wish we didn’t no matter what the source of our knowledge may be.

  5. “The modern answer isn’t to attempt to destroy the impulse (futile effort in any case) but to tame it in avenues of expression that avoid the negatives (tribal thinking, absolute certainty) and accentuates the positives (universal compassion, positive outlook).”

    Mark,

    Beautifully espoused.

  6. My thoughts about a deity led me to become a deist in this sense. Experiences in my life have led me to believe that the possibility of some creative force intertwined with the Universe is plausible. Physics from the early 20th Century onward has shown, if not proven, that some weird, counter intuitive phenomena exist (i.e. The nature of matter, inter-connectedness of matter, string theory, multiple dimensions). However, while I think there might be a creative force intertwined within the Universe, I think it is impossible at this point of human existence for us to begin to comprehend its nature, or if it even considers us as having any importance.

    The idea that any such creative force could have an intimate interest in our individual lives seems very improbable. Yet I do think that there is a probability, possibly slight, that some universal law akin to the idea of Karma exists as part of the universal fabric, but is mechanistic in design. Where I begin to differ with the standard religious concepts of God is that their underlying assumption is that the deity is some cosmic tinker, creating us as amusement and rewarding/punishing us based upon that deity’s rules of behavior. This to me posits a God who has merely created playthings and in many ways has set up a sadistic Universe and we its trivial actors in a Divine Comedy of tragic proportions for us. Given the exaltation of God made by most religions, it seems to me a blasphemous proposition.

    As for Mr. Douthat’s article, I think it typical of him in that it is a confused, illogical piece, meant merely to reinforce his own pre-judgments. With striking insularity he sees Christianity as the only important repository of ethical behavior and even has the ignorance to believe that the Christian message is unique in its origins.

  7. Mark , what a thoughtful response. I would add that, sans blind fundamental extremism, they serve as a crucible of sorts to ones actualizing their highest potentials in society.

  8. “Religion: The opiate of the people. Or was that the Euro which was the opiate of the people?”
    ———————

    hahahahaha! BarkinDog, that was good!

  9. “Religion means the unconscious projection, or transference, of infantile parental dependence onto an invisible anthropomorphic parent-substitute out of range of critical observation. Not a whole lot more that one needs to say about the subject.”

    Ehh, I think that goes a bit far. While not subscribing to any tradition myself, I still think religion has a function as an intellectual repository for those of a similar cultural identity. Not to mention the close connection that exists between modern spiritual experiences, whether natural or induced by magnetic fields or even psychoactive drugs, and historical ones. The need for ritual and the sacred is very much a part of the human character. The modern answer isn’t to attempt to destroy the impulse (futile effort in any case) but to tame it in avenues of expression that avoid the negatives (tribal thinking, absolute certainty) and accentuates the positives (universal compassion, positive outlook).

  10. Religion: The opiate of the people. Or was that the Euro which was the opiate of the people?

  11. And once kings even believed the planets ruled through their relative positions—-astrology of course.
    I know two who have lived their lives telling the tales to´their believers.

    Some at a recent conference even predicted an Obama win. although as always, as priests will do when dealing with a proposed expression of god’s will, they will reserve themselves for the effects of the variable effects of a counter force (Mercury in retrograde) in case the primary tale is not borne out. (The devil or Shatan)

    I personally feel the child quickly finds that it is master of its own body, and of the articlew which it plays with, Finds that it can command, can negotiate, can be contrary, can be obstinate as it wishes, and finds that even MOM AND POP have limited patience and effectively unbelievable physical power when present.. So God as a replacement for all powerful parents does not impress me.

  12. “Religion means the unconscious projection, or transference, of infantile parental dependence onto an invisible anthropomorphic parent-substitute out of range of critical observation. Not a whole lot more that one needs to say about the subject.”
    ————————
    except perhaps to make the observation that religion then becomes, to the child in us, the place of succor and sanctuary when the world becomes more challenging than sane.

  13. To those who don’t Believe Belief will always seem incoherent. To those who do, it doesn’t matter, (Sry Aquinas, for the retooling – if Aquinas, seems to be a lot of different attributions on the net.)

  14. If a bear shits in the forest and no one hears it, does it matter? Does it matter if someone smells it? Does it matter if someone steps in it?
    Those questions were posed twenty thousand years ago by Drachma who lived in what is now Greece. This is long before Christians will admit that the Earth even exited. It is said that now that Greece has stepped in it that they are going back to the Drachma. Your thoughts?

  15. “The child begins by assuming that adults were the makers of all things; for they are thought to be omniscient and omnipotent until events make it all too evident that they are neither. Whereupon the cherished image of an all-knowing, all-potent, manually or otherwise creating parent is simply transferred to the vague figure of an anthropomorphic though invisible God, which has already been furnished by parental or other instruction.

    “The figure of a creative being is practically, if not absolutely, universal in the mythologies of the world, and just as the parental image is associated in childhood not only with the power to make all things but also with the authority to command, so also in religious thought the creator of the universe is commonly the giver and controller of its laws. The two orders – the infantile and the religious – are at least analogous, and it may very well be that the latter is simply a translation of the former to a sphere out of range of critical observation.” — Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology

    Religion means the unconscious projection, or transference, of infantile parental dependence onto an invisible anthropomorphic parent-substitute out of range of critical observation. Not a whole lot more that one needs to say about the subject.

  16. “..the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, .”
    ————————-
    someday let’s talk about this comparison…..

    this morning during my prayers and mental ablutions I will let G*d know he’s on the hotseat…. 😉

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