More on the non-godly origin of morality
We have seen in part I of this essay that Socrates posed a crucial question about the nature of morality to his acquaintance, Euthyphro: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” The resulting conundrum, known as Euthyphro’s dilemma, has ever since impaled moral realists of a theological bent.
Last time we have briefly examined Aquinas famous “it’s in the nature of God to be good” response and found it wanting. We have also seen a clever attempt at “dissolving” the dilemma by my City University of New York colleague Michael Levin, based on an analysis of the concept of “dependence” (as in God’s moral dependence on external sources of morality). While Michael salvaged the ontological independence of God (“the rightness of right acts … [is] not the sort of things that could create, sustain or change God”) he still cannot avoid the conclusion that morality is independent of God (the other option having been swiftly dealt with by other commentators, including Leibniz).
I have also pointed out that all of this is of concern only to moral realists, and that consequently— since I don’t belong to those ranks — this is for me a purely academic exercise. (I rather lean toward a naturalistic type of virtue ethics, Stoic style, thank you for asking.) Still, it’s a fascinating exercise, and what is at stake is actually huge: the soundness of the views of billions of people who think they can derive their morality from the gods they believe in.
What do modern theologians have to say about this? A sophisticated attempt at avoiding being impaled by the Euthyphro has been made by Richard Swinburne. It takes the form of a compromise, suggesting that moral values come in two flavors: necessary and contingent. In other words, some moral rules are universal and absolute, while others depend on circumstances. Absolute values, according to Swinburne, hold in all conceivable worlds, examples being the prohibitions against rape or murder. Contingent values, on the other hand, are not applicable everywhere and at every time — let’s say the prohibition on eating certain kinds of foods at particular times of the year.
Swinburne’s stratagem has a serious drawback: if absolute values are independent of specific circumstances, then they can be arrived at by reason (which is of course the project of most ethical philosophers), and one falls yet again on the horn of the dilemma that says we don’t need gods to tell us what to do. In this scenario, God at best gets to tell us his personal preferences in terms of minor actions, like whether or not to eat pork on which days, which hardly seems the stuff of serious moral discourse.
Finally, we come to arguably the most sophisticated response to date to Euthyphro’s dilemma, the one proposed by a contemporary philosopher of religion, Robert Merrihew Adams. Adams distinguishes two meanings of words like right and wrong: one refers to what we all mean by those terms, an understanding that even an atheist can share. The second meaning is specifically religious and indicates simply what God wants, regardless of human judgment of the morality of such wants.
The crucial move, according to Adams, is that God is by nature good, which is why the two meanings of right (or wrong) actually coincide (this is, of course, reminiscent of — though not identical with — Aquinas’ attempt, which we considered and rejected in part I). But, according again to Adams, God could decide to command differently, thereby separating the two meanings of right by making, for instance, rape, murder, and pillaging “moral” in the second sense.
This sounds to me rather like an exercise in mental gymnastics aimed at avoiding the inevitable conclusion that Plato was right to begin with. Because now, though in a very circuitous way, we are back to one of the horns of the dilemma — the admission that morality is arbitrarily defined by God and that therefore anything he says must stand simply because he is so powerful that it would be foolish to resist him. But then might makes right, as long as whoever is in charge has sufficient might to impose its will. If that’s your idea of morality, I think we’ve got a problem.
What is amazing to me about the Euthyphro is that a short, eminently readable, dialogue written by a Greek philosopher 24 centuries ago has puzzled, and keeps puzzling, some of the greatest minds who have applied themselves to the question of morality. Moreover, as mentioned above, this isn’t just a theoretical exercise, as it directly challenges a core belief about ethics held by the majority of humanity. Perhaps Alfred North Whitehead was right after all: Western philosophy really is a series of (elaborate) footnotes to Plato.
MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI IS THE K.D. IRANI PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK. HIS BACKGROUND IS IN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, THOUGH HE HAS RECENTLY DEVELOPED A KEEN INTEREST IN STOICISM. HIS MOST RECENT BOOK (CO-EDITED WITH MAARTEN BOUDRY) IS “PHILOSOPHY OF PSEUDOSCIENCE: RECONSIDERING THE DEMARCATION PROBLEM” (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2013). HIS OTHER WRITINGS CAN BE FOUND AT PLATOFOOTNOTE.ORG.