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Saturday, 8 December 2007

Euthyphro: The Ins and Outs of Morality With God

The Euthyphro dilemma -- so called, because an early version is related in Plato's dialogue between Euthyphro and Socrates -- amounts to the observation that, if we believe that some universal notion of goodness or morality is imposed on the universe by God (or by the gods, in the case of the ancient Greeks), then we seem to be forced into one of two options. On the one hand, it is possible that God chose to set up a particular morality because He knew it was the morality. God, in this picture, is generally considered to be (non-tautologically) good, conforming to the true morality precisely, and showing us right from wrong in a way that is in line with this true morality. In this picture, morality is actually separate from God, and God, being good, follows it and also enforces it to some extent.

When theists defend God on grounds that He knows better than us, and always has a good purpose in mind, they seem to be working within this first framework: God is aiming for something (objectively) good, so trust Him on that.

The other possibility is that goodness is just whatever God says it is. In that case, if God says it's right to kill babies, then it's right to kill babies. In fact, if you believe God did, as in the Bible, say to kill babies, then killing babies was at that point the right thing to do. To say that 'God is good' is pretty meaningless in this picture -- all it says is that God does what God wants God to do.

There are also 'mixture' versions. For example, some Christians say that since God made this world, God has the right to do whatever He wants with this world, and we ought to follow along with that. If we take this as referring to an objective moral statement along the lines of "if you make something, you have total control over it and it ought to obey you", then essentially these Christians are saying that there is some outside -- even potentially outside of God -- objective morality, it's just that that morality means, firstly, that we should do what God wants, and secondly, that since no-one created God, God can do whatever He wants. Frankly, I think this idea gives you the worst of both worlds and I have no idea why it is so popular.

Then there are those who say that God can do whatever He wants -- but aren't we lucky that He wants what is good for us? Such people distinguish between one sort of 'good' which is defined as 'whatever God wants', and another sort of 'good', which is defined in an almost utilitarian fashion, in terms of what makes us human beings happy and fulfilled and all the rest of it, and which God happens to like, isn't that nice? If you believe that, I guess I can understand why you praise God's goodness despite defining 'good' in terms of God -- presumably you're praising the fact that God's notion of goodness happens to coincide with your own.

I think it says something, however, that it is this coincidence with what we believe to be good that so often provides the clincher with respect to how God's goodness is viewed. It's quite rare (and, in my case, almost always nauseating) to find someone who embraces the second option of the Euthyphro dilemma without pause, excusing any and every aspect of the 'Problem of Evil' with the idea that morality is just whatever God says it is. A tsunami killed millions of people, and orphaned a whole lot of innocent kids? That's not evil, it's good, because it's what God wanted, and good is whatever God wants. No, you don't hear that very often.

I'll keep my human notions of what is good, and never mind that there appears to be no God. And if I ever discover God, then yes, I'll dare to measure Him against that notion. Unlike my fellow human beings, an all-powerful God doesn't need my sympathy or my compassion, and if God causes evil in the lives of human beings, I'll dare resist and be not resigned to a universe ruled by an amoral or immoral God. I won't give up without a fight.


Pseudonym said...

Interesting. Never read this dialogue, but it's going on my "to-read" list.

A few of the more interesting variations that I've heard is:

1. The Jewish answer, that God set them apart, and there are laws for them to follow that the rest of the world doesn't have to. (Not just Jews use this answer, of course.)

2. The liberal Christian answer, based on 1 Cor 10:23, that just because something isn't immoral, that doesn't make it good for you. That is, "right and wrong" needs to be decoupled from "good and bad".

I agree with you on the coincidence , though. One common theme is that theists are often of the opinion that precisely what God says is right happens to align perfectly with their own personal biasses. If they find homosexuality (or practice... hell, you know what I mean) icky, for example, then by goodness, how about that, God just thinks it's the worst sin ever! If they don't, then oh, don't you know, those verses are misinterpreted, and God doesn't mind it at all!

It's a rare, and precious, thing, when you find a theist whose god disagrees with their own personal prejudices on what is right, because a lot of self-examination results.

L.L. Barkat said...

Ouch, Lynet, on the God killing babies thing. That probably needs some context so as not to be a sensational statement.

Anyway, brava to you for standing up to the God who perhaps created an entire universe and is perhaps amoral or immoral (not that I think so, as you know). Rather courageous in its way.

Lynet said...

Sorry about the killing babies thing, LL. Mind you, I'm not sure what context could soften it. Would you prefer me to say that it was God commanding genocide, with killing babies as merely a subset of that? Maybe I could say something like "attempted genocide was par for the course in those days". That might soften it a little, but there's a hint of historical relativism in the idea that genocide was somehow not so bad back then; it doesn't speak well for the constancy of God's morals.

I use that example not so much for sensationalism as to demonstrate the, well, complete and utter relativism of that second notion of the relationship between morality and God. Anything at all can be morally compulsory if God says it is, even the things that we ourselves would find most deeply repugnant. The best way to demonstrate that consequence is to go for the clearest example.

There are Christians who reject the idea that God commanded genocide -- this set of book notes on this site advances the proposition that:

The Bible ought to be authoritative for every Christian until he finds a passage which, after careful study and for good reasons he cannot accept.

The author of the book which the site owner is summarising considers the idea that God would have commanded the complete slaughter of the Canaanites to be one of those things that a Christian would have good reasons to reject (and the site owner, writing those notes, seems to agree).

I always find myself liking Christians who keep a hold of their reason and moral sense in that sort of way. I guess that partially explains my enthusiastic reaction to Higgaion.

Lynet said...

I suppose I should add:

I always find myself liking Christians who keep a hold of their reason and moral sense in that sort of way.

Not that I don't like you, too, whatever your view is!

L.L. Barkat said...

Mostly I figured it would be good to say exactly what was meant, from the particular context you found it in. In other words, if the text says, "And I tell you to kill babies," then we would want to see that spelled out with its source. Otherwise, it becomes a bit of sensational journalism aimed to catch the eye of the next person standing in line.

On another note, I would not ask you to soften anything or purposely misquote. Otherwise, there'd be no way to honestly engage with the text and the history. I would, I think, ask for the broad context of scripture as an underpinning. In other words, a lens through which to interpret. But then that's perhaps where we will find ourselves parting. For I know that my lens is "grace".

(Perhaps some of this is addressed in your links here? I didn't have time to click through.)

L.L. Barkat said...

Different track here. I just saw this quote and I thought of you...

"...notice the self-referential quality of wisdom...Part of what it means to be wise is that a wise person desires and seeks wisdom. This is something like sentence G in Godel's proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic."

I really love when someone can take mathematics and apply it to different parts of life. Now, whether this is an accurate kind of comparison in the quote... you'd have to tell me. (Since I'm only a math admirer and not a math whiz!)

Lynet said...

Yeah, okay, there's something in that reference to Godel. Essentially the claim would have to be that you cannot achieve maximum wisdom because wanting more wisdom is part of what it means to be wise. Which is cute, and true in practice, but actually not true theoretically -- it's not true for God if you believe in such an all-wise being! So it's only a partial analogy. But it's still cute, because the ideas on both sides are rather pretty.

Don't worry about the links; they're footnote-type, to give evidence for what I say, rather than being things I'm asking you to read in depth.

Genocide in context:

The text says (1 Samuel 15:3) "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." Infants are included, you will note, although they are not the specific object. God's reasoning is given as "I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt." Presumably this is going a little further than 'an eye for an eye', since the Amalekites could not have slaughtered all the Israelites or there would not have been any Israelites left.

The bit about the Canaanites mentioned above is (Deuteronomy 20:16-18):

"But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God."

L.L. Barkat said...

Thanks! This is, of course, very strong stuff and must be wrestled with. I'm thinking I'll have to do a post, because my thoughts are just too big for the comment box. But it's going to have to wait until after the holidays. Hope that's okay with you?

Lynet said...

Of course! You are not obligated by me to respond in the first place, and if you wish to respond of your own accord, you have every right to do so in whatever time frame suits you.

OneSmallStep said...

I think the verses you referenced should hit anyone hard, and make believers contemplate their religion. If they can easily dismiss them, then I'm disturbed, because how would I expect them to find today's horrors wrong?

But the question should really be: should those verses be justified? If those actions can be justified, then would we ever have a right to protest other wrong actions? If you can exterminate one race, then why find the Holocaust wrong?

L.L. Barkat said...

I have not forgotten our conversation here. Thank you for all your thoughts! I will be quoting some of this post for a full-length talk I need to deliver in late January. When the link is available, I'll let you know.

In the talk, I describe you as a "friend" and that is indeed true. For friends can discuss their commonalities and their divergences, yes, and still shake hands at the end of the day.


Lynet said...

Thank you. You've made me very curious, but I guess I shall simply have to wait and see what you say after you've said it :-) Thanks for giving it some thought.

Paul said...

Hello. I thought everyone might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).