Does morality stem from God? Or does it exist independently of his presence, not subject to arbitrary decisions? The first discussion over these questions appeared in Plato’s Euthyphro, in which Plato chronicles the proceedings of a highly repetitive argument between Socrates and Euthyphro, a prophet and holy man, over the nature of piety and holiness. The questions produced in this dialogue have been expanded to remain relevant even in a modern religious context. It has achieved so much fame that the core question presented in this dialogue is now known as the Euthyphro Dilemma.
In the dialogue, Socrates presents Euthyphro with a choice, “Is what is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved [by the gods]?”(Plato 10). I will defend the first view: the idea that there are independent moral standards, separate of any deity or their commands, and that there is a sovereign framework by which God understands what is moral.
A dilemma is the concept of forcing a choice between two options that are either equally unfavorable (or favorable). To understand why each of the options set out above are objectionable for Euthyphro, we need to comprehend the implications of both. In order to make my argument, I will substitute the word `God’ for Plato’s ‘gods’, and the word ‘moral’ for ‘holy’. These changes will not affect the strength or cogency of the argument, and will make the dilemma more relevant to the modern reader.
The dilemma faced by Euthyphro is this: if we maintain that certain actions are moral only because God approves them, then it seems that the distinction between moral and immoral actions is simply arbitrary; for no predominant reason can be given for why God should favor one kind of action over another. The distinction is simply a matter of God’s whims, just as it is up to me to prefer pencils to pens. As there is no reason provided for why God should favor integrity and generosity, he might equally have favored dishonesty and selfishness, and we must accept his commands as moral. This concept is known as the Divine Command Theory of ethics, where moral actions are mandatory simply because God commands people to do them. According to this theory, there are no moral standards that exist without God’s will, and without his commands, nothing would be right or wrong. God is omnipotent, and therefore, morality itself is derived from God’s nature. Without God, there is no basis for our moral structure and under this, what is moral is so because God has decreed it as such.
This theory would stress the complete sovereignty of God’s will, and the concept that morality exists based not on reason, or any logical basis, but simply due to the arbitrary nature of God’s commands. This theory proposes that there is no rationale, moral or immoral, behind divine commands, and hence renders both his commands and morality subject to his whims. On this theory, God could have commanded, for example, for one to kill an innocent child, and it would have been mandatory for a person to do it. Abhorrent acts, or ones we would consider as such, are automatically pious, simply because God has decreed it, though many, including those who might be inclined to side with the this theory, would agree that they are abhorrent. The theory also rules out the option of assuming that God is just an agent of morality, not its progenitor, leaving the devotee with a puzzling quandary.
On the other hand, rejecting the divine command theory, and accepting that moral principles exist independently of divine interpretation, destroys the idea of God’s omnipotence. Contrary to common belief, divine power would be restricted to actions allowed by ethical principles, and God would not be permitted to act, or offer commands, outside of these restrictions.
I reject divine command theory in support of the idea that there is an independent moral framework, and that is what dictates whether or not something can be construed as being ethical. My findings are supported by the words of Socrates himself, when he is engaged in a discussion with Euthyphro:
SOCRATES: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro. Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?
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?
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?
SOCRATES: Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthyphro, is not holy, nor is that which is holy loved of God, as you affirm; but they are two different things.
EUTHYPHRO: How do you mean, Socrates?
SOCRATES: I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved.
EUTHYPHRO: Yes. (Plato 13-14)
In this excerpt of the dialogue, Socrates leads Euthyphro to the conclusion that something is holy, or in our case, moral, prior to it being loved by God. It does not become such after being acknowledged by God. The Euthyphro concludes that morality cannot be identified by what is loved by God, as that would leave it an empty concept. If we decide to follow the second horn of this dilemma, then we must accept that God is simply a messenger for morality, not the source of it. He understands what is moral, and what is not, but doesn’t directly have the power to change it. Another reason I am convinced of this horn is that this form of morality can exist without the presence of a religious deity. If morality exists indecently of God, then if there is no God, we still have a basis for morality, though that basis may be unknown.
My argument is not made to discredit the presence of a religious figure, or to offend those who believe that morality stems from God. It may very well be that this is the case, and that God is truly an omnipotent being who decides what is, and is not, moral, in his all-encompassing wisdom. I only attempt to explain my belief that the second branch of this dilemma is the one I find to be more convincing, and to present evidence explaining my interpretation. I would like to argue, as a closing remark, that humanity’s morality should be based on rational dialogue and a reasonable understanding of the consequences of one’s actions. It can be boiled down to the concept of act utilitarianism, or the idea that morally justifiable actions are ones where net happiness gained outweighs net happiness lost, though concrete standards for measuring such changes in happiness are not at all possible.
“I pledge my honor that I have neither received nor provided unauthorized assistance during the completion of this work.”
Plato. Euthyphro; Plato’s: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo. Trans. Benjamin Jowell; Rev.
Albert A. Anderson. Millis, MA: Agora, 2005. 1-18. Print.