Wednesday, September 30, 2009

God, ethics and Euthyphro's dilemma

On Sat, Sept 26, 2009 at 05:29:58
Courtney asked this question:

What does the Euthyphro Dilemma Argument show about the relationship between morality and religion?

Anyone who, like me, thinks they have a moral case against God has to reckon with the moral case for God. I suspect, or worry, that the moral case for God is stronger than many believe — which is why I have chosen Courtney's question.

Briefly, in Plato's Euthyphro Socrates poses a dilemma to the God fearing but not very bright young man, Euthyphro, who is on his way to the law courts to prosecute his father for impiety. We needn't go into the somewhat macabre circumstances of the case (which today would be considered manslaughter). How sure is Euthyphro that what his father did was sufficiently bad to be an offence against the gods? 'What is piety?' asks Socrates with a wink.

Euthyphro states confidently that pious actions are 'what please the gods', and impious actions are those that displease them. Socrates replies, Are pious actions so-called because they please the gods, or do they please the gods because they are pious?

That's Euthyphro's dilemma. Substitute your favourite term of moral appraisal. Either an action is ethical because God commands it, or God commands it because it is ethical. In the former case, anything that God commanded would be ethical by definition, even if He commanded the entire human race to commit suicide. In the latter case, the reason why an action is ethical must remain a valid reason irrespective of whether God exists or not.

Hence, there is no moral argument for God's existence. Belief in God is redundant, so far as ethics is concerned.

The case looks open and shut. However, when I saw Courtney's question I recalled an essay on 'Plato's Euthyphro' I had seen many years ago in a collection by Peter Geach, Logic Matters (Blackwell 1972), where Geach accuses Socrates of tangling his hapless young victim in sophistical knots. Searching on the internet, I found a chapter from Geach's book God and the Soul (Routledge 1969), The Moral Law and the Law of God [link updated 25.11.14].

Students of the philosophy of religion are probably familiar with Geach's forthright response to Socrates (or if they are not, they should be).

Geach constructs his argument with meticulous care. First, he concedes outright what many would think is the point at issue: we do know that certain actions, like lying, are wrong without qualification, independently of any belief that God forbids us to tell a lie.

Why is lying wrong? As I argue in unit 5 of Ethical Dilemmas, the very attempt to state that you sometimes tell lies, even if only very occasionally, is self-defeating. If I tell you that I only lie 'when I am in a tight spot', then the next time you find me in a tight spot my lies won't help me. Any attempt to articulate one's policy on lying is similarly self-defeating. I conclude, 'An action which we will never freely admit to and always condemn, is by definition always wrong.'

Now Geach states his case:

The knowledge of God is thus not prerequisite to our having any moral knowledge. I shall argue however that we do need it in order to see that we must not do evil that good may come, and that this principle actually follows from a certain conception of God. If I can make this out, the sophistry from which I started will have been completely refuted; for accepting or rejecting this principle makes an enormous difference to one's moral code.
[ibid., my italics]

If you do not believe that there are any moral principles (not even the moral principle 'do not lie'), then Geach has nothing to say to you. You are beyond the pale ethically. His case is directed at someone (like me) who thinks that there are moral principles (however few of those there may be, possibly lying is the only incontestable example), but rejects the idea that God's command is required to make them work as principles.

Geach cleverly insinuates that many of those who hold principles, only do so because of their implicit knowledge of what God commands, even if they refuse to acknowledge this fact. God is the ultimate source, whether they like it or not.

Perhaps you are a moral intuitionist who holds that principles of duty are the ultimate ethical given, which cannot be further articulated. Geach's answer is that without God such a view amounts to rule worship. 'If a young Nazi machine-guns a column of refugees till he bleeds to death, instead of retiring for medical treatment, is not his Sense of Duty something to fill us with awe?'

Geach also looks at attempts by moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, to explain moral principles in terms of the idea of virtue. Such attempts fail to cover those cases — relatively rare though they may be — where a man is forced to contemplate an action which will 'damage his virtuous habits and perhaps irreparably wreck his hard-won integrity of soul', in response to the agonized plea, 'Haven't you got a hand to burn for your country (or mankind) and your friends?' When push comes to shove, for the ungodly man principles must go.

One of the main themes of my Ethical Dilemmas is that we must, simultaneously, recognize certain moral rules as principles while at the same time accepting that 'sometimes you have to go against your principles'. I acknowledge that this is a paradox. In ethics, as elsewhere in philosophy, paradoxes are not something that you happily live with.

Even if I won't own up to telling lies, shouldn't I be prepared, Geach would say, each time the choice presents itself, to calculate whether in this particular case lying would be the 'best' option (the option that leads to 'the good')? But If I believe that, then how can I at the same time hold the prohibition against lying as a principle? It is just one more ethical consideration amongst others. Then I am beyond the pale.

Why the fuss about lying? One could envisage a language game where telling lies was accepted as a matter of course, in the same spirit as bluffing in poker (cf. the notorious 1968 article by Albert Carr in Harvard Business Review, 'Is Business Bluffing Ethical?). Perhaps I don't want you to put me in a position where I am held to moral account, now and for all future time, for the things I say. 'Assume that I will always act in my self-interest,' I tell you candidly. 'It is in my self-interest, as we both know, to tell you the truth now, but I refuse to commit myself for the future. You must judge me by my actions.'

That's a kind of honesty, but not honesty from any ethical motive. I have chosen to abrogate ethics so far as our conversation is concerned, and I present this to you as a fait accompli.

The effect is to reduce human beings to more or less useful instruments for finding things out about the world. A faulty thermometer doesn't 'lie'. But even though it is not totally reliable it can still be useful (e.g. if I know that I need to tap it hard to get a correct reading). If you suspect your partner in crime of lying to you, there are ways to test a person's reliability.

But, then, why aren't people just 'useful instruments'? Why hold, with Kant, that one ought to treat others as 'ends in themselves'? — The fact is, that is what human beings do. We despise 'users', praise those who recognize the justified moral claims of others.

The strength of Geach's case is that one is not required to decide whether God exists or not. That's not what the argument is about. 'You deny God's existence,' Geach in effect says to the atheist, 'yet your attitudes and behaviour belie that claim.'

Maybe the believer in God is still, despite his belief, inclined to calculate advantages and disadvantages of telling a lie. As Geach reminds the reader, defying God is not merely imprudence, it is 'insanity'. There is no place to hide. Whatever may be for 'the best' is ultimately in God's hands, not ours. All He requires us to do is follow His commands.

I have to own up at this point: there was a time when I would have been prepared to argue for the necessity of ethical principles, along the lines of Levinas' notion of the irresistable ethical command of 'the Other'. In my book Naive Metaphysics I articulate the case for ethics as a presupposition of there being such a thing as a 'shared world' or 'truth' for me — pretty hard things to give up.

But needs must where the Devil drives.

Now, from my more sober perspective, Levinas, like Geach just seems to me one more in a long line of apologists for religion, even if Levinas is far more circumspect in introducing the God concept. And I have set my face against religion in all its forms. It is time for the human race to grow up, and recognize that we only have ourselves — as terrifying as that prospect may seem. Ethics is in the dock, and, as they say, 'the jury is still out'.


  1. I don't know this bit of Plato and don't how correct the translation is, but isn't being pious like being sanctimonious? Hypocritical?
    What was Socrates' wink about?
    He was setting up a FALSE dilemma?
    I would we say we don't have dilemmas and we just act according the the sort of people we are.
    There has never been evidence - rather to the contrary! - that religious people are moral.

  2. Dian here
    Being exposed to fundamentalist Christianity my whole life I've heard Geach's basic argument from the pulpit. Perhaps not quit so philosophically or cleverly put but the basic idea & premises contained in the article are familiar, the contingency on belief in the existence of an Almighty God:
    Now for those who believe in Almighty God, a man's every act is an act either of obeying or of ignoring or of defying that God; so naturally and logically they have quite different standards from unbelievers—
    & that particular God's meddling in the affairs of humanity: Contrary to what unbelievers often say, belief in the existence of God does make a difference to what one expects to happen.

    I concentrated on these two sentences because they illustrate the writer first conjuring up the God then attributing assets to the the God he conjures up or "believes" in. You right that this ultimately just amounts to apologism(?) for religion. I always thought it was quit clever of the early Christians to trump the gods of other people by placing their big "G" above the others small "g" gods. (I think some of these early missionary triumphs are found in the book of Corinthians, but it has been awhile since I studied the Bible). Nietzsche is one of my favorite philosophers. I love his "Genealogy of Morals"& his discussions of slave/master morality & how Western concepts of morality grew out of Christian concepts which Nietzsche so aptly turns on their head & shows them to be perverse & reactive.
    Like you I've set my face against religion. When people ask me about my atheistic tendencies. I tell them I simply do not enter God into the equation. I live as if there is no God. I have found, It's not difficult to do & still be a kind compassionate & morally responsible person.
    My favorite response to people that question my ability to have morals is that the percentage of Atheists in prison is basically the percentage or lower then the percentage atheists in society.