God and the Source of Morality — Part I

Is what God wills right because he wills it, or God wills what he wills because it is right?

“Either what God wills is right because he wills it, or God wills what he wills because it is right.” This is how my City University of New York colleague Michael Levin summarizes what has come to be known as the Euthyphro dilemma, after the title of one of the most famous Platonic dialogues.

And here is how Socrates himself frames the same conundrum, in Plato’s version: “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.” (Notice that the order of the two logical options is inverted between the two quotations.)

As I wrote in my Answers for Aristotle (How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life), 24 centuries after that simple question was posed the dilemma seems to impale anyone who tries to wiggle out of it, just like Euthyphro famously did at the end of the dialogue (“Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now”).

The first thing to understand about the Euthyphro is that it is not an argument against the existence of God. Socrates — despite being on his way, at the beginning of the dialogue, to defend himself from the charge of impiety, for which he was later sentenced to death by the Athenian state — was no atheist. Rather, the question being posed concerns, as Socrates himself puts it about one third into the dialogue, the source of morality itself: “And what is piety, and what is impiety?”

The second thing to understand is that Socrates’ argument applies regardless of the specific characteristics of the god(s) in question (with one caveat, to which I’ll get below), so long as one assumes that morality (“piety”) comes from such god(s). Whether we are considering the gods of the Olympus (as Euthyphro seems to be doing) or a more remote and less capricious God (the sort Socrates seems to believe in), it doesn’t matter to the trust of the argument.

That trust consists in setting up the following dichotomy: either what is moral is whatever God decrees, or God approves of certain things because they are moral.

Why, exactly, is this a problem for those, like Euthyphro, who think gods are the ultimate source of morality? Because if one takes the first horn — what Levin calls the “pure will” theory — then one essentially admits that morality is a matter of might makes right. If God decides that genocide and rape are permissible, then they are permissible, period. (This, as is well known, does in fact happens in several places in the Old Testament, but that’s another story.)

Recoiling from so uncomfortable an admission, Euthyphro tries the second horn, what Levin calls the “guided will” theory. But here the problem is that this route implicitly admits that there are moral standards that are external to God himself, so that morality does not, then, originate from him. (And a corollary of this conclusion is that we mortals may not need the “middle God,” so to speak, to figure out what is and isn’t moral, we can arrive at it via other sources, for instance by philosophical inquiry.)

Of course, all of the above is a problem if one is a moral realist, which I am not. (If you are curious, I lean toward a naturalistic type of virtue ethics, Stoic style.) In other words, I don’t think that there is a moral law that is independent of the specifics of human biology and culture, but it’s fun to play along with Socrates and Euthyphro, since plenty of people are moral realists, either of a philosophical nature (a la Socrates and Plato) or of a theistic one (a la Euthyphro, as well as anyone following a religious creed in matters of ethics).

As Levin says at the beginning of his paper, “the approved way with a philosophical dilemma is to unearth a hidden false assumption which misrepresents the alternatives as opposed or exhaustive.” Sure enough, there is a long tradition of accusing Plato of engaging in the (informal) fallacy of false dilemma.

One of the first to do so was none other than Thomas Aquinas. He conceded that something is good because God says so, but this is simply because it is in God’s nature to be good, which guarantees that his commands will in fact be moral.

This is the above mentioned caveat: Aquinas was asserting that the Christian God is good by its very nature (unlike, say, those pesky Olympian ones, with all their all-too-human foibles). But even assuming that Aquinas is right about God’s nature (one would have, again, to ignore quite a bit of the Old Testament to agree), this still doesn’t get us far enough away from the second horn: how do we know that God’s nature is good? In order to make that judgment without incurring into a circular argument (and at the same time being impaled by the first horn) it seems like we must have some independent criterion of “good,” i.e., “holy is beloved by the gods [or it is in the gods’ nature] because it is holy.”

Here is where Levin’s paper makes a novel contribution to the debate, and is worth reading in full for a fresh perspective. Michael analyzes the concept of God’s “dependence” on a given standard of value, and provides reasons to “dissolve,” so to speak, the dilemma. He begins his proposal by acknowledging that the “pure will” option is dead in the water, and he submits that the “guided will theory is not as bad as it looks.”

How so? It all hangs on the concept of “dependence,” according to Levin. He suggests — controversially, I think — that dependence can only be ontological or causal. Ontological cases are those of the dependence, say, of statues on sculptors, or of flowers on sunlight (his examples). Causal cases include a satellite (like the Moon) and its parent body (the Earth). (Levin admits that ontological dependence involves causality, but claims that there are some “clear enough” cases that distinguish the two nonetheless. I actually doubt there is any such clarity, but his argument doesn’t really hinge on that anyway.)

Levin then states — again, controversially — that ontology and causality exhaust the proper uses of the concept of dependence, and that all other uses, most crucially for our purposes here that of moral dependence, are actually arrived at by analogy with one of the basic senses, and so do not constitute real cases of dependence. Michael thinks, for instance, that when statisticians talk about dependent and independent variables, that’s just an analogy with causal cases. (It isn’t: statisticians represent hypothesized causal interactions by way of such variables.) I submit that mathematical and logical dependence too are genuine instances of the concept, and that they distinct from the ontological-causal one, but — again — not much, ahem, depends on this for the purposes of the Euthyphro.

This is because Levin’s conclusion is that “when God is conceived as independent of anything beyond himself, the (in)dependence meant is ontological and causal,” so that God is still “self-sufficient and wholly self-acting,” even if one has to choose the second horn of the dilemma. Since ontological-causal dependence applies only to “substances” (an oddly old fashioned term for a modern philosophical paper), then “the solution or dissolution of the Euthyphro problem lies in recognizing that goodness, moral standards and moral truth are none of them substances … [and] they radiate no causal power.”

That means, as Michael puts it, that “even if right acts are right in virtue of something other than God’s will, the rightness of right acts … [is] not the sort of things that could create, sustain or change God.”

Fine, but this doesn’t solve Euthyphro at all. The problem posed by Socrates isn’t about the nature of God, but about the nature of goodness (piety). Even if one buys into Levin’s clever (though debatable) argument, the dilemma remains intact, and since he has eliminated the pure will theory immediately (and so had, by the way, Leibniz, quoted by Levin), even though God is not subjected to a “guided will” (because rightness isn’t a substance), we are still left with the conclusion that moral standards are external to, and independent of, God. QED.

There are two more famous attempted answers to Plato, advanced by two modern theologians. We will take a brief look at them in the second installment of this essay. (While you wait, you may want to check out this little test based on the Euthyphro, courtesy of Jeremy Stangroom.)