April 20, 2014

The Euthyphro Dilemma and the Nature of God, Goodness, Sin, and Evil

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?”Socrates Good Because God Says So

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.

  • Ian Francis

    These questions rely heavily on how you define ‘good’.  What people considered good 100 or 1000 years ago is very different than what is considered good today.  Good is also relative to the behavior of others.  In a population of murders and rapists, the fraudster looks like a saint.  But place the same person in general society and you have a much different opinion.  Put in a more historical perspective, in the days of slaves, the slave owner who didn’t beat his slaves could be considered a good person.  That is not true for the same person using today’s standards.
    Looking at both questions, I don’t think I agree with either.  The first question, “Is something ‘good’ because God says it is good” implies a lack of will power.  Although following the logic of Thomas Aquinas, if God, an omnicient and omnipotent being, says it is good, then it must be because He is all knowing and therefore what he says is good is also what is inherently good.  By this logic, both questions are really the same.  As a flawless, omnicient, and omnipotent being, God’s word is not discernable from what is inherently good.  That is, unless, God is a flawed being, in which case both questions are different, and implies that what God considers ‘good’ is whatever He feels like.  If this is the case I choose question 2 over 1 simply because I will not be told what is ‘good’ by someone who may be deciding good arbitrarily.

    I choose to believe neither, as good is not a point, it is a path.  I can still believe that the slave owner who chose to respect his slaves (at least to some degree) was good in his time, as I believe I am generally good today.  To say something, some action or item, is good is really selling the concept short.  For those math-oriented, good is not the position, it is the velocity.  Good (or bad) is the derivative of actions.  A single action cannot be said to be good or bad, its the path those actions lead you on.  And as Einstein taught us so many years ago, velocity is relative.  There is no absolute velocity.  If I am in space and someone passes me at 100 MPH, what is their speed?  100 MPH and mine is 0?  50 and -50?  0 and -100?  None are correct or incorrect.  Just as there is no such thing as absolute velocity, there is no such thing as absolute good.  I can only tell you who is good based on those around them.  Therefore either God’s will (or things ‘inherently right’) change based on the status of humanity, or ‘goodness’ is a concept created by man that sets a moving target for society to aspire to.  I choose to believe the latter.

    • Joshua Kennon

      Really well said. The model of goodness as velocity is interesting, and one I hadn’t considered. I’m going to have to think about that concept for awhile.

    • Gilvus

      That’s one way to model the situation, but I think absolute good does exist. I’ll take a shot: “good” can be defined as favorable circumstances for the continued existence of an entity, whether it is an object, ideal, or being. In the case of a sentient being, you could argue that by extension, “good” encompasses circumstances that allow the entity enough happiness to want to continue its existence, whatever parameters that may be.

      Naturally, what is good for one entity may be congruous, detrimental, or irrelevant to what’s good for another entity. So for your continued existence, proper nutrition is “good” for you no matter what (no relativity there), but may not be “good” for society if you’re a freeloader.

      I’m sure a really smart Greek guy is pirouetting in his grave over what I just wrote. But it’s the best I got.

      • Ian Francis

        Well that’s not a bad idea, but that would mean good is based entirely on the circumstances of the individual. Good would essentially be anything that makes the likelihood of that individual surviving and reproducing increase. This is generally what society is based around, so I suppose it isn’t a bad interpretation. Good would then be totally dependent on the continued existence of the species, and the question of an absolute good goes out the window. Though as I am of this mind anyway, I wouldn’t disagree with you.

        • Gilvus

          Hmm, I think you’re right about the out-the-window part. Take the oxygen catastrophe, for example. 2.4 billion years ago, photosynthesizing organisms began discarding their biological waste (oxygen) into the atmosphere. This flood of oxygen wrecked havoc on the earth’s ecosystems because oxygen is such a corrosive substance. But we consider an atmosphere full of microbial waste gas a “good thing” because we need oxygen to survive.

          So I suppose “good” is better defined as an invention of sentient beings to label choices and circumstances that could affect the quality of their own continued survival. Because I don’t think the earth gave a crap when the oxygenation event happened, nor did the universe.

        • Ian Francis

          I agree completely. If you try to apply ‘good’ to the rest of the universe, you simply cannot. Is it good or bad to mine a lifeless planet of all its resources and leave it just a hunk of waste? Is it right or wrong to dump industrial waste into a star, or on some gas giant? The concept doesn’t even apply. The universe doesn’t contain its own right and wrong. It just is.

        • Gilvus

          Hey Ian, you’re a nuclear engineer, as was my old roommate in undergrad. What’s your take on how the Japanese government is treating their nuclear reactors after last March?

          If you want to continue this conversation, you can email me at g1lvus[at]yahoo

        • Ian Francis

          I’d be happy to. If you don’t hear from me soon, remind me on here. I tend to get busy in spurts.