Saturday, 25 April 2009

Christianity and Euthyphro

I have no particular interest in Christianity except to the degree that its adherents use it to create or support double standards in their favour and to the degree such religious-based beliefs are used to justify or encourage harm to anyone.

Now all this, and the previous two posts, was triggered by a comment thread that I participated in at Tom Gilsons's ThinkingChristianity blog, a thread which started on quite a different topic. I note that Tom Gilson arguments are clearer and remain on the point far longer than many other Christians I have come across on the Internet, although the same cannot be said for some of his supporters. Still the further answer I give here is not specifically addressed to anyone in that thread but a response in general to the methods employed and implications of those discussions

One of the grounds upon which they (and by they I mean only any Christian who does this but not any Christian in general) seek support for justifying double standards and causing harm to others (although they would not see it this way of course) is based on the claim that moral good comes from God. Hence they know what is right and anyone who disagrees is wrong.

The Euthyphro dilemma was and is a challenge to this, in two ways. The major issue - to them - that most but not all Christians agree must be dealt with, is the repugnant conclusion of the stereotypical Divine Command Theory, that God can arbitrarily decree what is good and this could be capricious.So if God commands man to smash certain infants heads against rocks then it must be morally good because God commanded it. (Check the Old testament, he does decree this).

However this is not the major issue in fact. The underlying issue is their failure to provide possible definition of moral good and this is what the dilemma demonstrates. In their failure to provide such a definition it is also shown that moral good cannot be derived from God.

In their attempt to resolve the repugnant conclusion, they produce a so called new definition of moral good that is meant to avoid this dilemma and hence the repugnant conclusion. Actually what they do is produce a more incoherent and less transparent definition of moral good, "God's eternal nature is identical to moral good" or some equivalent.

However this fails on all counts:

It fails the basic challenge by Socrates to Euthyphro who would surely have found it bizarre when complaining to Euthyphro about the lack of a transparent definition, one that could mean moral good, for Euthyphro to have produced a more obscure and vague answer than the one he proposed, but this is exactly the type of answer offered by those who claim to have resolved the dilemma! Clearly they have not, they have instead demonstrate ignorance of the problem.

The reason why is that they think these, let us call them "divine nature" type, definitions resolve the repugnant conclusion. This is because they think that making God's nature fixed and unalterable, even by God himself, this conclusion is avoided.

Well this fixed type of definition is a red herring as far as the core challenge of the dilemma is concerned. They end up presenting a worse definition because of this need, although this was not, presumably, their intent. In their effort to avoid the repugnant conclusion, they end up solving a straw man or caricature version of the dilemma and not the dilemma proper.

So they have still failed to show any possible necessary connection between the moral good and God. They still have no possible foundation to justify double standards in their favour and harm to others.

Worse still they have not avoided the repugnant conclusion! It is still the case that God decrees or commands but now God has no power to overcome his eternal nature. Does this make any difference in what he commands? None whatsoever. We do not know how, or through what part of, this unexplained nature limits his capacity to commands but it is still the case that God has commanded what he has commanded, as the record of the Bible shows.

So all in all, the efforts behind modified Divine Command Theory (or whatever they call it) fails to overcome the basic objection, that they have no argument - based on their definition of moral good - to justify taking the moral high ground based on their supposed better or sole access to God's moral truth than anyone else.

Now this does not stop adherents believing this, but that is an entirely different matter. No-one else would be remotely satisfied by the circular reasoning required to support this "definition" but that is not an issue to a believer. If a Christian wants to base their notion of moral good on this impossible definition they still can. Whilst it might not be a definition of moral good, it can be used a some sort of guide to discern what they think is morally good, some means of discerning some "standard" of moral good - by having God's nature revealed to them, asking what would Jesus do and so on and so forth. Provided this does not cause problems with others I have no issue. If it does cause issue with others - in terms of interfering with their freedoms or causing other harms, it and they have no immunity from criticism and condemnation.