Euthyphro is one of the so-called ‘dialogues,’ written by Plato, between Socrates and, you guessed it, Euthyphro. The dialogue is well known because of a particular dilemma—a dilemma in the original sense between two choices—that Socrates puts to his interlocutor. Euthyphro is filled with a sense of confidence at his ability to judge a pious, or right, action. When Socrates asks his criterium for deciding, Euthyphro responds that a pious action is one pleasing to the gods. Socrates then poses the question: “Is it pleasing to the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is pleasing to the gods?”
The dilemma often comes up in discussions of the relationship between morality and divinity, i.e., that we get our morality from a divine source. Neither answer to the dilemma is particularly appealing to religious folk. If an action is pious (or a thing is good) because it is pleasing to the gods, then it appears otherwise arbitrary. The gods picked a couple things they don’t like and some that they do, but it could just as well have been another way. This choice appears damaging to divine omniscience as well as problematic for a sense of divine love and care for us. The other choice is perhaps more damaging, from a contemporary religious point-of-view. If an action is pleasing to the gods because it is pious, then the action appears to have some preexistent standing before the gods, damaging conceptions of divine omnipotence. The gods, or God, like us, is just following the rules.
As mentioned, the dilemma is used to complicate understandings of our morality coming from a divine source. Your choices are: 1) God is arbitrary, or 2) God is impotent, or at least nowhere near omnipotent. Forced to make a choice between the two, I think many Christians would choose option one. That way, you could argue that it turns out the things God chose work for us, and we go on living our happy lives. Of course it gets messy if you’re in a situation where life dealt you a bad hand, or someone else’s pleasure is your pain. In that case you might be more inclined to see that morality is unequally beneficial. Secularists, on the other hand, tend to choose option two, including Troy Jollimore in a recent article on the subject, Godless Yet Good.
Jollimore uses the Euthyphro dilemma in response to his students’ common objection that without God, morality is totally subjective. Plugging in the case of murder, either murder is wrong because God says it is, or God says it is because its wrong. In the first case, there was nothing wrong with murder until God said there was, and in the second, murder is something wrong in and of itself and doesn’t need God’s approval to be that way. The idea that the only thing preventing people from running around killing each other is God’s disapproval—a view I have heard espoused many times—is itself immoral to Jollimore. He affirms instead that murder is wrong in and of itself.
I don’t like that option either. Luckily in life, there are always more than two possible choices. Actually, I guess my option is a version of choice one, albeit one that doesn’t involve God. From the standpoint of an objective mind coming up with the best possible scenario for humanity to live by, morality is arbitrary. But from a practical standpoint, morality is not arbitrary at all, because it serves many productive purposes. The fear of arbitrariness is the fear that things could change at any time, that the rules aren’t constant. Even if it were the case, our fear is not a justifiable reason to posit the stability of morality. What we can do, however, is look at history and see that the development of moral or ethical codes is slow and unlikely to change in a day, or even a couple decades. The fear of anarchy is an apocalyptic one, and the chances of its occurrence are slim. If we were to find out this was the case—that morality is completely arbitrary and thus could change anytime—then this has been the case all along and we’ve gotten along fairly well.
It looks to me as if Jollimore shares the same fear of the religious kids in his philosophy class: morality might be arbitrary. There is much more to his argument, which goes on to contrast versions of religious and secular ethics to indicate that there is hope for the latter. He highlights particularism, the idea that the ‘right’ thing to do in a given situation depends on, and cannot be separated from, the context of the situation itself. In contrast to rational or utilitarian viewpoints, answers to moral questions are not found by simply filling in the variables on all discrete circumstances. He suggests the following:
For particularists, then, individual perception and judgment are always necessary to decide difficult ethical questions: there is no theoretical ethical system that can do the work for us. Principles are useful, perhaps, but only as rules of thumb, practical guidelines that hold for the most part, but to which there will always be exceptions. At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.
I like this as a contrast to morality given from on high, but it must also emphasize that we are born into a world that gives us a conception of morality before we can judge one of our own, and even those who go through the most radical life changes cannot completely escape their shaping by the social circumstances in which they were born and grew. What this means is that we cannot ever have the certainty that we can isolate the self from social influence in any of our dealings. But that’s okay, because no one else can either.
Morals and values change over time, and even the most venerated of them—if we took murder for example—are violated all the time. That does not eliminate their functionality, although it does tell me that exposing the hypocrisies in our moral violations, to the embarrassment of religion and government, may be stepping stones to a more reasonable morality.