A Still Not Answered Question

After the Nativity stories, a bit of philosophy for a change. Socrates was loved by those who enjoyed seeing know-alls, in public, tied in infuriating knots by his probing questions. He wasn’t loved by those on the receiving end. One day, he met a young man, called Euthyphro, on his way to court to accuse his father of causing the death of a hired-worker. Socrates says he’s astonished by this, but the young man’s view is that this displays the essential goodness and rightness of his ‘piety’. 

This is too good an opportunity for Socrates to let pass. It all begins quietly and innocently. Socrates asks the young man what he means by ‘piety’, and he replies that ‘piety’ is precisely what he’s demonstrating, in prosecuting his own father. The bell goes for round one.

Round 1 – Socrates suggests that what Euthyphro has just said could certainly be called an ‘example’, but it’s not a ‘definition’, and the young man has no choice but to agree. Seizing the advantage, Socrates asks him for a definition. Euthyphro replies that piety is whatever pleases the gods.

Round 2 – Socrates asks him if it isn’t the case that what pleases some gods, may not please others. Once again, Euthyphro is compelled to agree. But that must mean, says Socrates, that some actions that are ‘pious’ can equally be ‘impious’. To his growing annoyance, Euthyphro must reconsider and try again. 

Round 3 – After some quick rethinking, Euthyphro now says that what is pious (and therefore) good is what all the gods love, and what is impious and bad is what all the gods hate. The way is now open for the killer blow. 

Round 4 – Socrates says to Euthyphro, ‘Is what is good loved by the gods because it’s good, or is it good because it’s loved by the gods?’

That’s a very good question, since both of these possibilities can’t be true. This introduces us to what’s called Divine Command Theory, which holds that goodness (or morality) is grounded solely and entirely in what God commands. But it seems that there’s a knotty problem here.

If God commands what’s good because it’s good, then he’s following a standard of goodness that’s external to himself. That’s a limitation on his supposed omnipotence, because it means that there are therefore things he cannot do, and that we shouldn’t any longer look to God for what’s good, but to what he looks to instead.

But if what’s good is good, solely because God says so, then goodness becomes arbitrary, and contingent on what God happens to think or feel or decide at any particular time. Judging by some of what happens in the Bible, deceit, theft, revenge, murder and even genocide could then sometimes be considered ‘good’.

So (having demonstrated that we’re none of us know-alls) Socrates has left us with this question – is what is good loved by God because it’s good, or is it good because it’s loved by God?

2 responses to “A Still Not Answered Question”

  1. THe story may hold good in a culture where there are a variety of gods with different adjurations. If we take the idea that God is love ie. expresses love then what Jesus identifies as the core central commandment of love of God, love of neighbour is entirely consistent with God’s nature so is not a standard external to Him. Working out how as an individual subject tending to weakness one expresses good is a rather more tricky matter. The young man in this story has shown goodness in advancing beyond mere partiality in making his decision to support the prosecution. He may well be challenged on the grounds of family loyalty being a higher virtue. That will certainly test the young man’s understanding of what one god or another is requiring him but the decision and responsibility is his -not God’s.

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  2. What’s at issue here is an idea about the gods (expressed by Euthyphro in “Round 3”) which is logically flawed, and from which emerges the antinomy exposed by Socrates. He’s not focusing, however, on Euthyphro’s ‘theology’ as such, but on the soundness and validity of his argument with regard to its premises and conclusion, which are found wanting.
    In my blog, “Divine Command Theory” is precisely defined as the idea that “goodness is grounded *solely and entirely* in what God commands”, which leads to the stated antinomy, and changing that definition by introducing additional or alternative groundings, in my view, evades rather than addresses it.

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