A New Angle on Euthyphro

Euthyphro’s dilemma is one of the most important philosophical questions in thinking about God. It states:

“Is that which is Good, Good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is Good?”

It is a dilemma which originating in a work by Plato, where Socrates poses the question to Euthyphro (although about ‘gods’ plural rather than my monotheistic restating above). The wikipedia article does a good job (as usual) giving a general overview, so I won’t cover the history. It has come up a couple of times recently, particularly in the cross-blog discussion that I found via this post of Sabio’s, which in turn traces its genesis from this post of right-wing fundagelical John Barron.

It is a topic I find fascinating (I’ve stated previously on here, that although I’m interested in philosophy, I claim no great knowledge or understanding of its minutiae). But it normally occurs in debate in a slightly different form, better expressed as this:

“Is God good by definition, or can he be recognized as good by his actions?”

In other words, when discussing God’s morality (or lack of it), are we dealing with an a priori result? Or one that is grounded in evidence?

The horns of this dilemma map nicely onto Euthyphro but have slightly different force, and are more particularly suited to the kinds of debate I find myself involved with, between believers and atheists. If God is good by definition, then he could do anything (such as genocide, say) and that would be, by definition, good. And Christians cannot reasonably claim to have found that God is good or experienced his goodness (or if they do it is no more meaningful than claiming to find or experience that a tree has tree-ness). Or can we judge God’s morality by some consensus standard, and determine if the God of the bible is good or not? If so where does that standard come from?

In my offline life I’ve mostly found folks who believe God can be recognized as good, and who claim to have been constantly discovering the goodness of God in their lives. Online I’ve found more people who claim God could do anything and we could not judge its moral worth, that God’s actions are beyond of any human moral judgements.

If you’re a believer, where do you land in the dilemma? If you’re not, which side do the believers you interact with tend to cluster?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “A New Angle on Euthyphro

  1. I agree, that is my experience. Most people who use “God” are thinking of good things. Only when pushed to explain how bad things happen and does their God have full control do people (unwillingly backed into philosophical corners), come up with positions like: “We can not understand God” or “If God does it, it is right [for some reason]”.

    Again, I think this just points to the fact that people do not use “God” to primarily describe their philosophical beliefs but instead to describe emotional and social attachments. They do their best when forced to explain a rational theology — for they too feel that somehow they should have a rational theology.

  2. I’m sort of unclassifiable on the theist/atheist spectrum… I think there’s a divine ground of all being, but it doesn’t have a personality or a will.

    My view is that something is Good because it is life-enhancing for all who are affected by it. So if I thought God had a will, I’d say that she willed it because it was good (not that it was good because she wills it).

    The only evidence I have about how theists I know might answer this question was when I was having a conversation with a Free Christian and he said that Jesus had said something or other was good. So I said, yes but it was good because it was good, not because Jesus said so, and he agreed with me.

    (For those who don’t know, Free Christians are non-creedal Christians who are members of the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christians.)

  3. Ian

    Thanks Yewtree and Sabio. I agree on all fronts, I think it is an interesting point of departure between different people of faith, and quite interesting for those of us who don’t share their pre-eminent belief in a wholly Good God.

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