Flashback: Review of Plato’s Euthyphro

Last summer I took the time to read through some of Plato’s major dialogues, including The Republic, Meno, Crito, Phaedo, The Symposium, and Euthyphro, among others. In particular, I enjoyed revisiting the famous Euthyphro dilemma, which I last encountered in an introductory philosophy class. My reread of the “dilemma” in its original presentation made me realize that its contemporary presentation is slightly but noticeably different from the original, which was far more about technicalities rather than profound reflection about the relationship between morality and God. Here is the review that I wrote at that time, only slightly edited as it still reflects most of my views today.

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Despite the fact that Euthyphro is the source for the famous Dilemma, the content of the original work is rather tame. In the dialogue, after some philosophical wrangling, it is argued that what is pious is that which is loved by all of the gods. Socrates asks whether those things are loved by the gods because they are pious (first horn of the Dilemma), or are they pious because they are loved by the gods (second horn):

SOCRATES: We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

So here we have two propositions:
1) Person P is pious, and
2) Person P is loved by the gods,
and we are asking whether
A) 1) causes 2), or
B) 2) causes 1)
is true.

Now, Euthyphro affirms A) to be the case:

SOCRATES: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

EUTHYPHRO: Yes.

SOCRATES: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

EUTHYPHRO: No, that is the reason.

SOCRATES: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?

EUTHYPHRO: Yes.

Note that by saying “No, that is the reason”, Euthyphro has affirmed that something is loved by the gods only because it is pious. There can be no other possible cause for being loved by the gods. Thus he has affirmed a two-way causal equivalence relation between 1) and 2), i.e. 1) causes 2) and there is not another thing that can cause 2). This equivalence is not necessarily problematic. In fact, it is important because Socrates did ask for the essence of piety. Showing that it is equivalent to “being loved by the gods”, an easier concept to grasp than piety, would be progress.

In order to show the fatal flaw in Euthyphro’s definition of piety, Socrates introduces the proposition
3) P is dear to the gods.
He proceeds to argue that if we assume 1) and 3) are equivalent (i.e. what is pious is dear to the gods), and that
C) 2) causes 3)
is true, then if we also believe A) is true and B) is false (that is, 1) causes 2) but 2) does not cause 1)), that would imply 2) causes 1), a contradiction:

SOCRATES: But that which is dear to the gods is dear to them because it is loved by them, not loved by them because it is dear to them.

EUTHYPHRO: True.

SOCRATES: But, friend Euthyphro, if that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to God would have been loved as being dear to God…

Thus the assumption that 1) is equivalent to 3) is false, i.e., what is holy is not the same as what is dear to the gods. At the same time, Euthyphro had earlier stated

SOCRATES: And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them, and is in a state to be loved of them because it is loved of them?

EUTHYPHRO: Certainly.

or in other words, that 2) is equivalent to 3). So if 1) is not equivalent to 3), and 3) is equivalent to 2), then 1) is not equivalent to 2). In other words, holiness and piety are not an iff relation, and Euthyphro has indeed only given an attribute of piety, not its “essence” (and by “essence” we mean something else which is equivalent to it).

The modern form of the Dilemma, on the other hand, is only inspired by Euthyphro, as it goes further: does God endorse certain moral principles because they are good, or are they good because God endorses them? If the first horn is true, then God is beholden to a higher principle than him, and he is unnecessary; if the second horn is true, then moral principles are arbitrary; there is a possible world where God commanded us to torture people for sport and such moral principles would be just as legitimate as the ones in this world.

A popular Christian resolution of the dilemma is a form of Divine Command Theory where moral principles are good because they flow from God’s immutable nature. Thus God cannot change moral principles arbitrarily because he cannot change his nature. At the same time, this does not mean that he is beholden to a problematic higher principle: he is beholden to himself, which does not in anyway disturb his divinity. One apparent difficulty people might have with this explanation is that it merely pushes the problem one step backward: had God’s nature been different (for example, mandating torture of innocent people for sport), then the good moral principles would also have changed. Thus we are essentially just taking the second horn of the dilemma, with all of its problems. A Christian might reply that it is impossible for a genuine God to have non-moral attributes; it is essential for God to be all-good, all-loving, etc. To establish this, more complex arguments would have to be put forward, all of which would be problematic for atheists.

I personally have no problem with taking the second horn of the dilemma. Our very unease at a God who commands torture of innocent people is a result of God having set down the moral commandment to not torture innocent people; in a possible world where an “evil God” exists, we would have no objections over that. Such people are acting on the basis of instincts that developed from tens of thousands of years of human evolution and also over a millennium of immersion in Christian culture that holds up love as a core moral value. The objection is thus ultimately personal, with no robust philosophical bases. It is thus hypocritical to attempt to deny the existence of a God by using the very moral principles that are there because of Him.

Euthyphro in itself is more of an interesting demonstration of argumentation in ancient times. Much space is devoted to matters which we think obvious now; for example, initially Euthyphro simply states “that which is pious is that which is loved by the gods”, and it takes some time for Socrates to point out that the gods may disagree with each other. This seemingly misses the point; today we would just go straight to the final form of the argument (“that which is pious is that which is loved by ALL the gods”). But it does remind us that we take these things for granted today precisely because of the 2,300 years of historical familiarity with logic and argumentation starting with Plato.

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