Moral Arguments IV: The Sophist-icated “Euthyphro Dilemma”


Perhaps a quick summary of the argument so far is in order. The primary focus of this series is the Euthyphro Dilemma, which has been adapted by contemporary thinkers to argue that a divine being or beings cannot be the source of morality. The adapted Dilemma states, in short, either God is the source of all good, in which case we have no standard by which to determine God is good (and thus all good is simply arbitrarily good), or there is an external standard that God too obeys (in which case, God does not seem to be the ultimate being). We have examined the problem and the original source of the Dilemma, Plato’s Euthyphro. We have attended to the major disagreement between Socrates and Euthyphro regarding the morality of the gods, and have noted how that disagreement sets the stage for the Euthyphro Dilemma.[1] In the last installment, we simply examined the possible relationship between power and morality. Plato and I agree here: Might does not make right, even if that might is infinite.[2]

How then can God be a source of all good while avoiding the Euthyphro Dilemma, particularly the good-is-arbitrary horn of the dilemma? Let’s again follow Plato’s reasoning.

Plato vs. the Sophists

To grasp where Plato is taking us, we need to understand his primary enemy: the sophists. Euthyphro himself reflects a sophistic idea of piety. So, who were the sophists? Well, they weren’t a solid group who shared all the same ideas, but we can get a sense of what Plato was attacking by looking at how Plato represented them. Their names are scattered throughout Plato’s dialogues: Gorgias, Protagoras, Hippias, Prodicus, as well as some less obvious examples, such as Thrasymachus, Meno, and, of course, Euthyphro. Indeed, one takeaway from Plato may be this: One is either a philosopher or a sophist. There are no other options.

OK, but what did the sophists believe? I’m glad you asked! They believed in the importance of rhetoric and the ability to debate, in the importance of convincing others that you were right and good—a terribly important skill in the democracy of Athens—they were less concerned with being right and good.

To understand why, one need only look at their view of human nature.  A creation story told by Protagoras—a story I refer to a lot in teaching and writing because of how well it reveals the basic differences in our understanding of human nature—can be found in the dialogue named after him. In Protagoras 320d-322d, the eponymous sophist tells a creation story, which I’ll sum up quickly:

There was a time when all creatures had been created by the gods, but had not yet been brought forth onto the earth. They still had to be given natural powers (speed, flight, fur, claws, ability to hide, swim, etc.). The foolish Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, handed out the powers, and had run out of them prior to coming to humans. Thus, humans were left without the power to overcome nature and would quickly die from exposure and being killed by the other creatures. Prometheus stole fire and cleverness to help the humans, and this helped a little, but we were still going to go extinct because we could not maintain communities to protect and help one another. Finally, Zeus stepped in and sent Hermes to give justice and a sense of shame to all humans. This allowed humans to form groups and cities, because only in the relatively stable bonds of civilization could humans live and flourish.

What is the message? Nature is amoral, without concern for justice, or good or evil in general. It desires food, drink, sex, power, pleasure. Human nature is no different. Not even cleverness gets us morality. Rather, we receive a sense of morality, but it is at two removes, we might say, from our nature—and we are given morality simply so that we might not die out.[3] We need morality to survive. Otherwise, as another sophist says later in the dialogue, “…convention [Greek: nómos]…tyrannizes the human race…constrain[ing] us contrary to nature [Greek: phusis]” (Prot. 337d). This does not mean that morality—termed by the sophists as “convention”—is not at all within us. It is. But it is not fundamental to our nature. It is like wearing a coat that one must wear to survive the cold—if you take it off in the cold, you’ll fairly quickly feel a need for it—but it constrains one’s movement. And if you wear it too long, you eventually lose even the capacity for full range of movement. You’ll take it off as soon as the cold passes, though. Because it is not comfortable to wear all the time. So, too, we remove our morality once no one is watching, because morality, as the sophists say, “constrains us contrary to nature.”

Is this what morality is? Not according to Plato. And not according to Christianity—I say “Christianity,” not “Christians,” because despite the beauty and richness of Christianity, most of us Christians still feel, even if we don’t consciously state it, that morality is contrary to our nature. For what makes one happy is that which is according to one’s nature. What makes one unhappy is what is contrary to one’s nature. Isn’t sin the experience of happiness? Isn’t holiness constraining and empty (even if it leads to good things later on)? It may seem so, but that is not the message of Christianity. It is not the claim of Plato, either.

Plato, Augustine, and the Final Piece

According to Plato, the source of all being is the Good (capital “G”). We’ll not dive deep into Plato’s metaphysics here, but simply understanding that all that exists somehow connects to, participates in, the Good is enough to grasp the point. Augustine was rescued from his younger heretical attraction to Manicheanism by discovering Platonic metaphysics.[4] Existence itself is good. To be is to be good.

What then is evil? And how are we, who exist, evil? Evil is, according to Augustine, a lack, like a hole within something. Evil has no real being, it is only a corruption, a bending-out-of-shape of the good. Thus, for example, no desire is, at its root, evil. It is only a good desire bent out of shape.

How then can something that exists be evil? Because we are incomplete beings, or, to put it another way, not wholly perfect. If we were perfect, we’d be God. We were made out of nothing, and, in a sense, that “nothingness” still draws us.[5] What, in fact, could it mean to oppose the Creator God than to act against being itself?

The sophistic view of human nature is built upon the idea that human nature, and nature itself, is amoral. Morality is an added affect developed by a god or gods, or by natural selection, that benefits humanity’s survival through the development of relatively stable groups, but on the other hand constrains us so that we cannot, within morality, find the fulfillment/happiness that nature desires. It is no wonder that under such a view, morality being determined by the gods seems necessary, based upon a “might makes right” perspective. And it makes sense that Socrates—who disagrees that the gods themselves seem amoral in their natures—would employ whatever argument possible to show how such a view in fact falls apart.

The Platonic, and I think Christian, view of human nature is built upon the idea that human nature, and being itself, comes from that which is wholly good. Good and Being are in fact basically synonyms. Morality is not merely an added layer on being, but is essential to existence itself. So, too, fulfillment and happiness arise only as one becomes good, for only in becoming good does one truly become what one really is.

This effectively shuts down the Euthyphro Dilemma. For, as concluded in the 2nd of these posts, God is not divided against God (like Euthyphro’s gods), and God is pure Being (“I am who I am”), and all being is given by Him. Our existence is maintained and grows only as it resonates, harmonizes, with His Being. To turn against Him means turning against ourselves. Of course, we can flip this around: God is for us, because He is for Himself.

And with that, all problems with arbitrariness, of an evil god who would abuse or attack the nature of his creatures, falls away.

Any (Other) Takeaways?

I’ll add one more piece (or two, if it gets long) to this series, which will offer some takeaways from the claims made. Does this examination of the Euthyphro Dilemma in fact give evidence that there is an all-good, personal God who created all things? Does this bit of reflection support the idea that to believe in morality one must believe in a moral divine being? Are there still sophists running about trying to convince us that morality and nature are not related in any essential way? What does our nature being tied to the good really even mean? What was Plato’s goal in the Euthyphro—and is that goal consistent with Christianity so that we can use the conclusions in our discussions with unbelievers?

[1] There have been a series of articles arguing that the Euthyphro Dilemma does not in fact follow from Euthyphro’s claims, but rather that Socrates led Euthyphro into it by some bad reasoning. The articles seem to me to be correct as long as one ignores the context of the reasoning, most notably the disagreement about the morality of the gods. The disagreement leads to some important conclusions that, if held consistently, must necessarily lead one to the Euthyphro Dilemma. This philosophical ignoring of the context and genre of Plato’s writings has led, in my mind, to a host of exquisitely brilliant nonsense about Plato. Perhaps the worst part is that such an approach to Plato makes him painfully dull.

[2] There’s a motivational component to this claim as well that we did not look at in the previous post. Consider that having the power to mete out rewards and punishments is never sufficient to cause one to love what is right. If God has infinite power to punish me horrifically for eternity, and infinite power to reward me wonderfully for eternity, that does not cause me to love the good except as a means to a selfish end. In addition, it is unclear how morality (in terms of obedience to avoid punishment/gain reward) could ever develop into love for God. Such a view that God can make morality by virtue of His power contains all the hallmarks of the view of the sophists, described below. As a possible, but rather fearful, counterexample, we can consider the case of O’Brien’s torturing of Winston (on behalf of “Big Brother”) in Orwell’s 1984, that led, through serious psychological damage and twisting, to Winston’s love of “Big Brother.” But I cannot imagine a Christian who would embrace “Big Brother” or O’Brien as good images of the God whose Son Jesus is.

[3] This should sound familiar, though it appears in different garb today. The idea that morality is an evolutionary development is perfectly in keeping with Protagoras, just minus the gods. That is, we humans are weak with regard to almost all powers, except intelligence (cleverness). But even as clever beings, we still are rarely a match for the natural world on our own. We need to band together in groups, and so natural selection led to those who have a sense of morality that allows for groups to form to out-reproduce those who did not. The implications about morality and nature from Protagoras’s story of human nature and the evolutionary story seem to be essentially the same.

[4] Technically, it was Neo-Platonism, but that distinction is immaterial to the point here.

[5] Put perhaps a little unadvisedly, we could say that humanity has two metaphysical “parents”: God, who actively brought us into being, and nothingness, which passively was given form and substance. We live as children of both—drawn by God, Being, the Good, as well as by nothingness, death, and sin. That is what gives us the sinister capacity to rebel against God, and it is why rejecting God (sin) always leads to death. Understand that this does not mean that there is a another eternal principle alongside God that we call “nothingness.” It really just means that God did not make us uncreated, perfect, eternal beings (that is, we are not God). This idea of parentage is simply a kind of analogy to help explain something about our motives.

Two Kingdoms I

Cultural Deviations

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