This morning, I woke up thinking about the Euthyphro dilemma. It was as if I had been in the middle of a debate, passionately arguing my case for the nature of goodness, when I was suddenly interrupted by the real world as a text message jolted me out of bed. I walked around, threw on a blanket, drank my morning coffee, and read the news, but it was all I could focus on or consider.
In the off chance some of you are unfamiliar with the Euthyphro dilemma, it appeared in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. In it, the philosopher Socrates asks the eponymous character, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
To paraphrase the question (and drop the plural since most world religions are now monotheistic):
Is something “good” because God says it is good, making it dependent upon His will? or
Does God say something is “good” because it is inherently “right”, making goodness independent of His will?
Whether you are atheist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or some other tiny belief system like Summum, how you answer that question will determine the moral and philosophical lens through which you view the world. That, in turn, will influence your civic actions, which will shape nations, cultures, politics, art, and mankind’s notion of justice. How you answer that question, in short, determines the type of world into which your children and grandchildren will be born.
Sometimes, when you are talking about a particular political belief or trying to persuade a family member about how to vote on a certain bill, you need to remember that most people think they are doing right. The divergence in actions comes down to fundamental – in many cases, assumptions – about the nature of the world. Many, many times, it can be traced back to this one question. Those who fall into the first camp will do things they would otherwise consider evil or immoral if they believe that it is condoned by God.
If you’ve been a long-time reader of the site, you might remember that I gave my thoughts on the question, “What is morality?” more than a year ago. Those of you who read that essay in full won’t be surprised to discover on which side of the great moral quandary I stand.
There is, of course, always the sidestep, as mastered by Thomas Aquinas. He said that “Every sin consists in the longing for a passing good.” That sin, in essence, required ignorance of the consequences of one’s actions. Therefore, God being omniscient, had full knowledge, therefore could never desire anything but good. I think it’s a case of mental acrobatics attempting to dodge the underlying question but it satisfies some people. With most of the world being religious, the answer Aquinas gave has the same net effect of saying that you have to do whatever God declares, regardless of if you understand it and even if it appears evil. Though not technically, it functionally falls into the first camp.