Thursday, 23 April 2009

Socrates versus Euthyphro

5 comments
Plato, in 380 B.C.E, wrote the famous Euthyphro dialogue about a debate between Socrates and Euthyphro over Euthyphro's attempts to provide a definition of piety. Socrates using his famous question method, proceeded to show that all Euthyphro's attempts at providing a definition failed.

The standard and important implication of this is over the relation between the gods and piety that one cannot, at least using Euthyphro's techniques, provide a definition of moral good in terms of God. There is a deeper and broader implication over the definition of any value term in general, as to what could be a suitable definition of a value term. There are quite a few seeds in this whole dialogue that, whilst not fully explored by Socrates or Plato, were to bear fruit in much ethical analysis 2,000 years later. Indeed part of the power in this dialogue, is that, whilst this was specifically addressed to the relation of God and moral good, it is not, so to speak, fine-tuned to that specific issue, it does not exist just to dismiss such God based claims, although that is its most popular use, its power comes from the stance it takes over defining value terms in general, to which God based definitions are particularly prone, but they are not alone.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Now what about the famous Euthyphro argument or dilemma?

Well when Socrates was challenging Euthyphro over piety he was asking for a definition of piety, that is one that is transparent, coherent and non-arbitrary.

By transparent is meant a definition that could possibly be a definition of the term in question, as to whether such a definition is correct or not, that is a different challenge. Now if the definition is not transparent but opaque, then we do not yet know whether this could be a possible definition of the term in question. Until we have established that - that it could possibly be correct - then there is no basis to further find out of it is correct.

By coherent is meant that the definition has to make sense, that is what is being offered as a definition could be type of thing that could constitute a definition of the term. If it cannot the definition is incoherent.

By non-arbitrary is meant that the definition is not viciously circular or question begging. If it is question begging, the definition is arbitrary. There are no independent grounds to justify it, it is a definition by fiat.

So at one stage in the dialogue, Euthyphro offered a definition of pious was along the lines of “What all the gods love is pious, and what they all hate is impious”. Socrates was still trying to show this was both circular, opaque and incoherent, that it fails as a definition of pious. He grants that it might be an attribute of the gods - that what they love is pious - but this attribute is not the same as what is pious and it is not an explanation of what pious is. Hence the dilemma:

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods ?”

Taking the second horn is to confuse this attribute of the gods with piety and provides no reason as to why what they love is pious, the fact that if there is no reason can be restated as in the relation between them is arbitrary. The reason that is lacking here is the one that is needed to serve as the definition but Euthyphro has failed to provide it. It could not be a correct definition, since it is not even a possible definition.

If one takes the the first horn one accepts that there is a reason that is partly constitutive of the definition of pious, but being loved by the gods is not it. That is he has still not properly defined piety only arbitrarily assumed that this is what the gods (must) love. Asking the gods themselves why the love what they love, if they do not provide a reason except that what they love is pious or the equivalent, is question begging. The question of what piety means or what the term piety refers to still needs to be answered, by finding the suitable reason. Without such answers, Euthyphro’s definition is circular and opaque.

Taking either horn shows that Euthypro has failed to offer a coherent, transparent and non-arbitrary definition of piety. Socrates shows that Euthyphro's definition is only an apparent or pseudo-definition not a real one. There no basis to even determine if such a definition is correct since it is not even a valid definition .

There are many points to explore within this simply stated dilemma. The most fundamental one is Socrates is asking Euthyphro where is the reason that is need to partly constitute any value definition? Euthyphro's proffered reason "loved by the gods", the dilemma shows that this is not a sufficient one to constitute such a definition.

Divine Command Euthyphro Dilemma

In modern terms we drop the no longer believed pantheon of Greek gods and address the relation between God and moral good. Can theists provide a suitable definition one that could be true? One standard definition "it morally good because it is commanded by god". This looks coherent - it provides a reason in the definition as all value definitons require but is this a suitable reason? We put the definition into the dilemma form to see:

“Is the good commanded by god because it is good or is it good because it is commanded by god?”

We see it has the same problems as Euthypro's definition.

The first horn indicates that the real reason why something is morally good is to be found elsewhere outside God.

The second horn show this is not a suitable reason to define good, as the definition is opaque, unless the theist can provide the reason why God command what God Commands he has failed to provide a transparent definition of good. If he refuses to provide such a reason and denies that there is any other, and provide only circular arguments along the lines of "we know it is good because God says so and God would not lie because God is good" and so on, the it is a definition by fiat and is arbitrary.

Arbitrary and Capricious

Now one conclusion often made as a result of this invalid definition, is that whatever God commands could be arbitrary and capricious. Whatever God commands however immoral it looks to us, if it commands it, it is, by definition, by fiat, morally good. Most theists find this conclusion unpalatable and seek to answer this challenge. However this problem is a conclusion of the dilemma not the dilemma proper - which still is about the invalidity of the proffered definition. As a result they seek to solve this challenge by addressing a caricature of the dilemma not the dilemma proper. They seek to resolve only the "arbitrary and capricious" charge and fail to address the invalid definition point.

Still there are some that fully embrace the implications of the arbitrary and capricious horn in a quite unashamedly and scary fashion. For a pertinent example of this see

Once you have seen this video you will see why I, anyone and everyone has a need to condemn such people. No-one would want such a person as their neighbour! (thanks to lukeprog for making this video).

Other theists can accept the dilemma and take the first horn in a unproblematic fashion. The issue of deriving good from God does not concern them as such. It is certainly a common mistake by many Christian and Islamic theists that there is and must be a necessary connection between the two. There is not.

However many believe they have to resolve or dissolve the dilemma in one form or another without ending up with the mutually agreed the repugnant conclusion - worryingly and proudly displayed as a badge in that above video. They believe they have succeeded. Have they avoided the mistake of only addressing the "arbitrary and capricious" charge? We will examine these issues in the next post.

5 comments:

Tom Gilson said...

You have a video, and I've viewed it. I have a podcast. You listen, and then we can talk. How's that sound?

faithlessgod said...

Sounds good to me. Will post a comment here when I have listened to it.

faithlessgod said...

I have heard it. A very surprising (not in a good way) riposte given what I have noted and the original video. It deserves its own post, some time next week.

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Naviya Nair said...

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