Does morality depend on religion? In Plato's early and fun (and short!) dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates questions Euthyphro (who's on his way to go and file murder charges against his own father) about the meaning of "piety." Is an action (like turning in your dad) pious because it's the kind of thing that the gods love? In modern terms, are pious actions justified just because of the commands (or, more in the absence of specific commands, the attitudes) of God? Socrates argues that this isn't the case: conceptually, "good" doesn't depend on these commands or attitudes of God; it's rather that God (or "the gods," taken together re. whatever they might all agree about) desires of us the actions He does because those actions are good.
Mark and Seth are joined by Dylan and by our former U. of Texas classmate Matt Evans, currently an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, to lay out the dialogue and discuss the extent to which it actually bears on this more modern debate about the relation of morality and religion. A divine command theorist argues, contra Plato, that since God is omnipotent, there's no sense in which morality can be metaphysically prior to his commands (or his disposition, or his nature). On the other side (which is, you should note, also a theist side, Swinburne being a good example), to avoid morality being an arbitrary matter depending on God's whims (meaning he could have declared child torture to be good), a Platonist would argue that like the laws of logic, fundamental moral truths have to come first in some sense: God only commands right actions because He recognizes them to be right; they don't magically become right just because he says so.
Is this just a dispute internal to religion? No. If Plato is right, then this means we can legitimately theorize about moral truths independent of reference to God; we don't even have to assume there is (or isn't) a God. Theists and atheists are thus able to have a productive ethical discourse based on a common ground, and religious people who claim that atheists aren't or can't be moral are stymied good and hard.
Buy the book (this translation by G.M.A. Grube is the one Matt recommended) or read a free translation online.
Seth recommends the Wikipedia entry on the Euthyphro dilemma. Some of the last part of our discussion focused on the place of the dilemma in Judaism. For a good, Swinburne-esque discussion, listen to this Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot interview with David McNaughton.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I realized I promised someone that Sartre would be next; we had a scheduling issue, and will be recording that one next. This Euthyphro discussion was already locked into its date to accommodate our Plato-scholar guest, so we went ahead with that.
“Is this just a dispute internal to religion? No.”
As an atheist, I’m having a hard time translating this dilemma into terms that remain compelling. Once I’ve excluded all the god-talk, I can’t see at the moment how there’s anything very interesting left. From here, it looks like a non-dilemma.
On my perhaps naive and ill-expressed view, our moral laws/guidance/conventions/feelings/instinct/whatever are derived from our best available individual and collective guesses about how we can create & sustain a community that maximises whatever that community regards as its most noble goals. No gods or other wacky ontologicial commitments required. Over time, the initial guess-work is solidified & codified into moral/legal/religious/social-convention frameworks, within which further debate about goals & methods is often discouraged. The choice of noble goals & the preferred methods to achieve them vary over time & between communities – hence, so do the moral laws/conventions/instincts/frameworks/whatever.
Call me a relativist. I’m happy with that. The communities are flexible & overlapping, and to a limited extent we’re free to choose which ones we belong to. But to really belong to them, we need to follow their rules – it’s the criterion for membership. If we transgress, we’ll be subject to whatever sanction the community has agreed is merited.
Looking out from our little corner of the world,
we might object very strongly to the things that go on within another community, and from time to time even cross the border to intervene on their turf – with more or less coherent justifications. The justifications will look more convincing if we can claim joint membership in some wider community of which we and our antagonists are both subsets, and whose jurisdiction we might claim favours our position. The wider community of last resort would be at the level of the entire species (maybe even wider), but I don’t think there are all that many rules applying at such a wide level that will help in adjudicating specific disputes.
In those terms, theists & atheists belong to different communities. No surprise that they’ll disagree over what the rules are, or how/why we come to have any rules. But some theists & some atheists will have other community memberships in common – they might be citizens of the same country, for example. So on a lot of day-to-day stuff, they can agree. But in other (more fundamental?) areas, they’re playing a roughly similar game by quite different rules.
Evan Guiney says
I think the Euthyphro is one of the most important pieces of moral philosophy ever, including for atheists. You’re a sort of relativist (so am I) but many atheists believe in objective moral truths. For example, apropos of last week’s episode, Sam Harris believes science can objectively discover moral truths.
But a relative of the Euthyphro can be run against Sam: what if science revealed homosexuality to be objectively evil? I think many atheists would respond by saying “I dont care, I dont think its evil” much like some theists might respond to God’s definition of infanticide as good by saying “well, I dont care, I think its evil to kill my kid”.
The Euthyphro, in my understanding, is a strong argument for some form of moral relativism, because it points out that if some arbitrary/objective moral system gives us answers we dont like, we often choose to redifine good and evil.
I don’t know an awful lot about Sam Harris, I’m afraid. I know he gets mentioned here a lot, seems like quite often he’s used for target practice. There was a piece that I listened to on microphilosophy.net with him a short while ago, but that’s pretty much the limit of my exposure.
But here’s how it seems to me: Sam Harris is also a kind of theist, if I can use that word quite flexibly. He’s just using a different holy text. He thinks that by diligent study of his holy text, we can find out how we should act. OK, some parts of his text are not yet written. But he’s confident that when it’s in a more complete form, we’ll have a comprehensive guidebook that will tell us how to act.
I think that’s the wrong approach. I believe that individually & collectively, we have to figure this stuff out for ourselves. A book won’t tell us the answers. There are no objective moral truths out there waiting to be discovered, either via science or via religion or via introspection or via any other method. To find out what’s good & bad, you have to get out there in the world & engage with it. Try some stuff, see what happens. Does it turn out well or badly? Would I do that again, given the chance, or do it differently next time?
Of course, there’s a certain amount of intersubjective agreement much of the time, which we can use as a starting point. Saves us from wasting time by making basic errors. We don’t have to start from first principles every time. But each of us has the unshirkable responsibility to question the moral guidance that we’ve been given, even while we’re relying on it.
So for me, the possibility just doesn’t arise that science could reveal homosexuality to be objectively evil, or that a god could reveal that killing a child is objectively good. Both those claims would be equally meaningless in my world.
If we can support this line of thinking with the help of the Euthyphro, that works for me. But my response to the way I think the question is posed there isn’t: “what if the gods told you do crazy stuff?”. Instead, it’s this: “what are you doing listening to gods?”
While I think that Harris is spectacularly wrong when it comes to morality, I don’t think calling him a theist or saying that he’s using a holy text really captures what he believes. He just think that there values are a certain kind of fact and that the method of science can help us determine these moral facts. However, his definition of science is so open-ended that it makes it, in my opinion, almost meaningless.
jay Jeffers says
Good point, Evan (a very under-appreciated one, it seems to me).
If the Euthyphro Dilemma is compelling, then it is a challenge for, if you’ll allow, “definist” meta-ethical reductions (e.g. good is so because God deems it, good is what is natural, etc). That taking the dilemma seriously leads to relativism seems to be entirely natural. I would add that it could lead to intuitionism (a form of realism) or error theory (a form of skepticism) as well. Non-reductive naturalists would also claim to take the dilemma seriously.
But too many who take pleasure in the problems it poses for theists seem to overlook the general implications of the dilemma.
Ameet Sharma says
Hmmm… I’m surprised people think the Euthryphro leads to relativism of any kind. I think it does the opposite. Divine Command theory is relativism… the moral standards are relative to something outside of themselves…
Whenever the “ultimate” morals are relative to something whether that is a god, or a particular culture… you will get a Euthryphro like problem…. “So and so is moral because so and so deems it is moral”…
For me, the Euthyrphro dilemma illustrates that whatever the ultimate moral principles are… they must be self-evident… axiom-like… I think the axiom is pretty obvious… “Pain/suffering is bad, and pleasure/happiness is good.”
Jay Jeffers says
I suppose in one use of the word “relative” Divine Command Theory is relativism, but I think in meta-ethical discussions the term “relativism” is a bit more restricted than that.
In any case, I agree that an axiomatic system in which the bottom line is a sort of direct apprehension (or intuition) of moral truths, avoids the Euthyphro dilemma (not to say there aren’t other issue with this approach, but I don’t think the Euthyphro is one of them). I think the Euthyprho Dilemma is strongest against meta-ethical attempts to define goodness in terms of something more abstract or general, like God’s command, pleasure, happiness (unless this is simply defined as good, in which case we’ve just moved the problem around), what’s natural, or what have you.
I think the kind of relativism that also avoids the dilemma is the kind that says there’s nothing meta-physically real about moral beliefs that would solve disagreements between, say, rival cultures, but that there’s nevertheless something socially important, causally powerful, and nonrandom about morality.
Moral skepticism can avoid the problem (particularly error theory) by saying denying the existence of good altogether, washing their hands of the whole issue.
So, it’s not my view that the Euthyphro Dilemma “leads to” relativism per se. Rather, I think relativism is one way to avoid the dilemma. There may be other ways as well. Perhaps I haven’t named them all…. maybe Quietism, but that’s a sort of play off why both relativism and skepticism avoid the issue….
Jay Jeffers says
I do recognize, Ameet, that I said that the Euthyprho leading to relativism seemed entirely natural to me. I throw myself at the mercy of the court.
What I had in mind was that one might use the Euthyphro as a way of working toward relativism. I still think that makes sense. But I think your move makes sense as well. As does error theory. Now, these all can’t be right, it’s just that I think they all can avoid the Euthyphro Dilemma, so their dispute with one another will be on issues other than the Euthyprho.
Ameet Sharma says
Thanks for the reply Jay. I think we’re in agreement for the most part about the dilemma and how it can be avoided.
Isn’t moral relativism a kind of moral skepticism? If there aren’t these metaphysically true moral statements… doesn’t that mean that discussions of morality turn into discussions more of psychology/human behavior/sociology…
Jay Jeffers says
I see moral relativism as a form of skepticism, but I have seen it described as realism by at least one philosopher (Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, and it was a highly qualified/specialized use of “moral truth” he was employing in that paper).
Ultimately I do think that moral discussions are at bottom about psychology/human behavior/sociology if one is a skeptic or relativist. The skeptical position seems relatively straight-forward (at least in cognitivist form) but relativism seems to require a bit more qualification…
The terms aren’t carved in stone, but “normative moral relativism” is, I think, the crude form that we hear from time to time and which drives people like Dawkins and Harris crazy. Admittedly, it seems pretty silly. It’s usually presented like, “there is no universal moral truth, therefore, we shouldn’t judge the actions of people in different cultures.” This is either a completely unjustified leap or it relies on at least one universal moral principle as a suppressed premise, namely, toleration. If it does, then it seems like a version of robust realism with only one moral principle.
Anyway the moral relativism worth paying more attention to, in my opinion, is the relativism of Bernard Williams and Gilbert Harman, which I think is rightly called “meta-ethical moral relativism.” This shares with normative moral relativism the view that there is no universal moral truth with which to compare different culture’s diverging moral beliefs, but that within a culture moral truth plays a non-arbitrary and ubiquitously action-guiding role in the life of the society and the individuals that make up that society. In this way, there is a sense in which moral beliefs are justified within a certain tradition or from the “internal” perspective. I’m not sure if I buy it whole hog, but I think it’s respectable.
Again as for more explicitly skeptical meta-ethical views, like error theory, I think it’s pretty straight-forwardly true that discussions of morality are at bottom about psychology/human behavior/sociology.
Ameet Sharma says
Hi Jay. Thanks for clarifying relativism. Very interesting.I think I might have to open my mind up a bit and explore meta-ethical moral relativism.
I personally like Simon Blackburn’s idea of moral quasi-realism. He thinks that we don’t have any reason to believe that there’s some metaphysical moral reality out there, but also that he doesn’t think moral relativism does justice to the fact that there is actual moral disagreement out there. Saying that two people are both right in regards to their culture (or whatever) when two people disagree about morality isn’t satisfactory. Simon Blackburn talks about this idea briefly in an episode of Philosophy Bites he did on Moral Relativism.
Seth Paskin says
I remember that episode of PB and agree, it’s a very compelling point.
Whereas if you think, like I perhaps do, that all meaning is negotiated socially – not just about morality, but about everything – then perhaps it may be not quite so compelling.
If you like, you can designate _this_ stuff as real, and _that_ stuff as quasi-real, and some other stuff as imaginary or whatever. But membership of all those categories is assigned only by convention. You and I could disagree (just as vehemently) not only about states of affairs that we both agree are in the same category; but also about the existence/importance/membership assignment outcomes of the conventions themselves.
Sometimes, there might be a further convention that proves to both our satisfactions that one of us is right & the other wrong. Sometimes, but not always.
Seth Paskin says
Believing that meaning is negotiated socially doesn’t negate Blackburn’s point – which by the way is weak. Blackburn says that the mere existence of disagreement about moral issues indicates that radical moral relativism (whatever you believe is true for you and whatever I believe is true for me) doesn’t provide a lot of explanatory satisfaction. He’s not making a claim about moral realism.
I already thought radical moral relativism was untenable, I just thought his point was clever and clearly highlights how it is unsatisfactory. Explaining the dissatisfaction by reference either to moral realism or social construction would not be inconsistent with the criticism.