What, ho–Euthyphro!

A recent philosophy grad asks about the Euthyphro Dilemma (so called from the Platonic dialogue), and whether it shows that religion and morality are unrelated:

The dilemma is as follows: is good simply whatever God commands us to do, or is there some external standard of goodness that God must adhere to when he commands us to do good? If it is the former, then God could command us to commit wanton murder or other actions the vast majority of us intuitively know to be evil on face. If on the other hand, God must adhere to an external standard, then God is not the ultimate source of morality.

The Dilemma then served as a springboard for questions and comments on liberalism, conservatism, secularism, and what not else. My comments:

I don’t see the Euthyphro Dilemma as such a big deal, unless you’re talking about the Greek gods. They weren’t the explanation for why things are as they are but were part of a general system of the world that didn’t depend on them. The Christian God is different though. He’s the Creator of all things and the Most Real Being, so to draw a distinction between what is good and right on the one hand and God’s will on the other, which you have to do in order to wonder which comes first, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

When we say things are good and right it seems we’re saying they’re connected to a system of purposes that’s somehow objectively valid and so implicit in the way things are. To make sense of that situation I think you need God as creator. In such a setting the distinction between the good and God’s will seems to arise only if God could create a world in which everything is ordered toward X even though God doesn’t like X and doesn’t want anyone to do X, in other words if God could create a world he doesn’t really mean and presumably doesn’t much like because he hates its whole orientation. Does that make sense?

The Euthyphro Dilemma and similar lines of thought like the Divine Command Theory of morality display a tendency to treat the transcendent as an add-on rather than a constituent element of the this-worldly. You can’t divide up reality that way, though, because the lower depends on the higher. The same erroneous tendency to treat the lower as self-sufficient crops up in liberalism. Liberals want to limit the concerns of the state to a few secular topics like freedom and equality and say they can do so without putting other concerns like religion in question. To the contrary, however, the state has the rightful power of life and death, so it’s extremely authoritative, and its actions have pervasive effects in all social relations. If that’s so then it’s impossible to limit the concerns of the state to one narrow set of topics without causing it to act blindly and therefore destructively.

The principles on which the state is founded matter a great deal. The state’s concern is the public good, and man’s public good can’t be understood without reference to the nature of man and his good in general, because the higher permeates the lower. Reason is public by nature, for example, so in the long run we will not be able to appeal rationally even in private life to principles that in principle have no right to public authority. If a principle is just my say-so, why should family and friends pay attention to it?

So it seems to me that the political order always reflects some general understanding of the good and therefore some particular answer to religious questions. That doesn’t mean that the state is necessarily large and active, or that utopian theocracy is a sensible goal. Politics is necessarily imperfect and you can’t demand too much of it. It does mean though that you can’t in principle exclude transcendent concerns from politics, as is now demanded throughout the West. To do so is a recipe for tyranny, since the effect is to turn abstractions like freedom, equality and secularism into absolutes.

My correspondent also asked why I sometimes say “yay conservatism” and other times talk gloom and doom and predict the collapse of public life into a neo-Levantine order of inward-turning ethno-religious communities set in a crude militarized and dynastic public order. My response:

It seems to me the future is hard to predict. The role of conservatism is to maintain connection and continuity, between the past and future, the formal and informal, the explicit and unspoken, the secular and transcendent. It therefore opposes liberal and other ideologies that try to turn everything into a perfect machine running on fully explicit rational principles. Whether it will be able to preserve enough continuity for social functioning to continue in a more or less peaceful, rational and tolerable way is anybody’s guess. Things don’t look good but who knows. If things don’t go well then I think the tendency will be toward a neo-Levantine form of society since the perfect machine won’t work and neo-Levantine seems what you’re likely to get when public life becomes radically incoherent. Life after all must go on somehow, and if civilized public institutions don’t work then people will fall back on more basic and sometimes rather crude connections.

1 thought on “What, ho–Euthyphro!”

  1. Euthrypho Dilemma
    I agree, the Euthrypho dilemma only works with regards to the Greek pantheon (or a similar concept), not with the God of classical theism. Those who attempt to apply it to God as understood in the Christian tradition do so in a foolhardy attempt to separate theology and ethics. Is what God commands good because God commands it? Or does God command what is good, goodness being something external to Him? The answer Christ gives us is simple: ‘God alone is good.’ God is perfect goodness, therefore what God wills is good, because God only wills the good. The false ‘dilemma’ disappears.


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