Religion can help us understand morality and can help set moral guidelines for us to follow; yet the morality of an action depends on more than whether a God commanded it. We can see why the fact that a god has commanded us to act in a certain way may not make that action useful by examining Socrates’ (or Plato’s) arguments in Euthyphro.
Is an Action Moral because the Gods Love it or does God love Actions Because They Are Moral?
Euthyphro finds himself in a state of confusion when he claims that pious actions are actions which the Gods love, but cannot decide whether an action is pious because the Gods love it or loved by the Gods because it is pious. Is murder wrong simply because a God has forbidden it or do Gods forbid it because it is inherently wrong?
Disagreements Among Gods
The problem becomes even more complicated when Socrates points out that different Gods say different things and that Gods may be at war with one another. “The same things then are loved by the gods and hated by the gods, and would be both god-loved and god-hated.” He declares.
While many of the world’s major religions are monotheistic today, this argument remains relevant in today’s world. God may say one thing in one religion which is in direct opposition to what he says in another. Jesus, for instance, may tell Paul that eating certain unclean meats is clean, but because the father God told Jews that eating such meats was sinful, it is hard to say which action is more pious.
Euthyphro answers this objection by declaring that only what all of the Gods agree on is pious. Today, we could make a similar claim by suggesting that moral actions were those which all gods agreed on. It might, however, be hard to find a consensus among every God among every religious group. Some Gods, for instance, frown on promiscuity, while others are honored by ceremonies featuring sexual acts. Ancient Greek Gods, too, disagreed and were sometimes fickle. Murder might be wrong in some cases, but they actively engaged in it others. It would have been very difficult than for a Greek to find real consensus.
Divine Command Theory
Religious scholars outside of Euthyphro’s time have attempted to answer Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Richard Joyce, for instance, writes that those who believe in “Divine Command Theory”, believe that something is good “if and only if” God commands it to be so. This theory finds support in the bible, where God forbids men to murder, but sanctions the killing of different individuals, including the firstborn sons of many Eyptians via the angel of death. He also commands his people to wipe out the Amalekites. Murder, then, in the Bible, seems to be wrong because God says it is wrong in most cases – not necessarily because there is something inherently wrong with murder. Yet others have argued that God is incapable of sin and thereby imply that there are certain things which are inherently bad or good.
Euthyphro’s Dilemma suggests that a person has to pick either one choice or the other. Some schools, for instance, argue the following:
If God’s moral authority is decisive and rationally grounded, then morality cannot be defined in terms of God’s judgement. Conversely, if morality can be defined in terms of God’s judgement, then it is not the case that God’s moral authority is decisive and rationally grounded.
The dilemma presents certain other problems as well. If things are moral because God loves them, then things which we believe are immoral now may become moral later upon a whim. This is particularly true if God’s decisions are not based on rationality. Michael Lacewing puts it this way: “If God commands us to murder babies, then murdering babies would be morally right.” On the other hand, if an action is inherently moral and this morality is independent of God’s will, then killing babies is wrong even if God doesn’t command us to do it, but this means that God “must conform his will to something independent of himself.” God, then, would not be the force that determined morality.
Some scholars object to the idea that morality is independent of God, suggesting that God, who is supposed to be all powerful would be limited by moral forces other than himself.
Some thinkers have argued that the two are not mutually exclusive. Joyce, for instance writes that Euthyphro should have answered something like, “Something is beloved by the gods because the gods love it; it is not the case that the gods love it because it is beloved by the gods.” He further explains that something might be good because God loves it, but this may not be the reason that God loves it. God’s reasons may be anything, he says. They might, for instance, be utilitarian. God’s reasons may be utilitarian. Perhaps he loves certain things because they “maximize his happiness.”
Furthermore, the dilemma fails to take into account the role of God in the universe. Even if good and bad were determined by something other than God. God might well have created an independent system by which good and evil could be discerned from one another and allowed it to operate independently of himself; yet this system might well have been designed according to his preferences.
The Euthyphro dilemma suggests to us that religion may offer us a framework through which we can understand morality, yet it can also leave us confused. Euthyphro’s religion, in which some gods favored some acts and others favored other acts, left him unable to really tell whether his actions towards his father were really pious. Indeed, he used religion to justify an act that Socrates seemed to find abhorrent – the betrayal of his father. While religion may not always offer us clear explanations of why things are moral or what is moral, it is inseparable from morality. It relies on the codification of moral laws, the observation of moral laws and rituals and also consensus about moral issues.
While religion cannot exist independently of ideas of morality, we can make moral decisions based on logic and concepts such as utilitarianism, which are free of religious influence. We can also make decisions based on social interactions. We can use Darwinian thought to reason that people will be less likely to trade and interact with us if we cheat them. Nevertheless, just as not every religious person will agree on what constitutes a moral action, it may be difficult to convince every person, religious or non-religious, to adopt the same kind of moral reasoning. Some may believe in Kant’s moral imperative, others may believe that the survival of the fittest means that it is moral to engage in cutthroat business practices, while others may stress the importance of altruism. Religion can offer people central concepts upon which they agree. It can provide them with places to meet and consequences for breaking moral laws. It can be a useful tool for creating consensus, but it cannot, alone, tell us where morality comes from.
- Bagget, David. “THEISTIC ACTIVISM And THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA.” 18 March 2002. Liberty University. Internet. 16 December 2016.
- Grube, G.M.A. “Euthyphro.” n.d. University of Toronto Libraries Syllabus Service.
- Joyce, Richard. “Theistic ethics and the Euthyphro dilemma.” Journal of Religious Ethics 30 (2002): 49-75. Journal.
- Lacewing, Michael. “The Euthyphro Dilemma.” 2014. Routledge Taylor Francis Group. Internet. 16 December 2016.