Euthyphro’s Dilemma: A Historical Approach
Is something moral because God says that it is, or does God say that something is moral because it is? This is a common objection to Theism. If something is moral because God says that it is, then morality is arbitrary. If God says that something is moral because it is, then morality is autonomous and is not contingent upon God. Seemingly, the theist is stuck in Euthyphro’s Dilemma.
Before jumping to such a hasty conclusion, let us examine Euthyphro’s Dilemma and look at Socrates’ enunciation of the dilemma within the context of Platonic ethical theory as well as the ethical climate of Pre-Socratic ancient Greece. In other words, how was Plato using this argument and against whom? One can then correctly understand which ethical theory is subject to the dilemma.
It is imperative that one have an understanding of the worldview of ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks were polytheistic but to the Greek mind, the gods were still a part of the material world. They lived on Mt. Olympus. They were often subject to the same shortcomings as humans were. They were considered eternal but that is because the Universe was believed to be eternal.
Pre-Socratic philosophy was particularly materialistic. Beginning with Thales, most Pre-Socratics attributed a natural substance as the fundamental essence of the Universe (water, air, fire, earth). They were natural philosophers albeit primitive and speculative. The materialistic philosophy of the Pre-Socratics culminated in the Atomists who theorized that the essential substance of the Universe were an innumerable amount of indivisible units spinning through space. Once enough of them collided together, material objects would form. Thus, the Universe was purely mechanical and material.
There was a pendulum swing reaction to this materialism—Sophism. Sophist philosophy turned the attention from the external to the internal; from the object to the subject. The Sophists were not concerned with absolute truth but with the practical interests of self. Therefore, morality was relative and man was the measure of all things. The materialism of the Atomists caused the relativism of the Sophists. Sound familiar? It was out of this materialistic & relativistic climate that Socrates emerged.
Grasping at transcendence
Socrates was primarily a moral philosopher. At a minimum he was dissatisfied with the moral relativism of his day. Aristotle stated that, “Socrates occupied himself with the excellences of character, and in connection with them became the first to raise the problem of universal definitions.” (Copleston) He could not shake the conviction that there must be something more to morality than what his contemporaries taught and thus there must be something more to the Universe than what his predecessors believed. Socrates was in search of a transcendental universal upon which to base his ethical theory.
It is with this understanding that we must interpret and apply Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Throughout the dialogue Socrates tries to get at the nature or form of morality. He asked Euthyphro to, “Tell me then what this form itself is, so that I may look upon it, and using it as a model, say that any action of yours or another’s that is of that kind is pious, and if it is not that it is not.” (Cooper) The form of morality would establish the universal basis upon which to determine what individual actions are moral or immoral. Euthyphro, echoing the moral theory of his culture, considered the gods to be the basis for morality. Socrates criticized this position first by pointing out the conflicting views on what is moral amongst the gods. He stated that, “different gods consider different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad… The same things then are loved by the gods and hated by the gods, and would be both god-loved and god-hated… And the same things would be both pious and impious, according to this argument.” (Cooper) Socrates disagreed with Euthyphro’s view due to the contradictory nature of its relativism.
He then proceeded to present Euthyphro with the dilemma by asking, “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” (Cooper) Socrates questioned whether the gods can be the basis for morality. It is a mistake to assume that Socrates is questioning Polytheism as a sufficient basis for ethics. Remember, the gods were a part of the material Universe. Essentially, Socrates was questioning whether material beings can be the basis for morality due to the fact that this leads to contradictory relativism. Something is not moral because it is loved by material beings but rather, something is loved by material beings because it is moral. Therefore, the basis for morality must extend beyond the material world. Socrates was actually challenging the ethical theory of moral relativism that arises from a materialistic understanding of the Universe.
As far as we know, Socrates never found the transcendental universal that he sought so diligently after. We know about Socrates primarily through Plato. Plato records the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. The historicity of the dialogue is irrelevant to the argument itself. We know that Plato uses the argument as a part of his ethical theory. The argument belongs just as much to Plato as it does Socrates, if not more.
Unlike Socrates, Plato did have a developed ethical theory that was founded upon a transcendental universal—the Good. Plato believed that morality proceeded from the Good. Individual instances of morality are mere reflections of the “form” of morality that finds its essence in the Good. Therefore, the essence of morality extends beyond the material world and any individual’s perception. Material beings-including the gods-do not determine morality. They simply apprehend it.
Euthyphro’s Dilemma is a false dilemma when it is used against Christian Theism because Christianity teaches that morality is based upon the character & nature of God. Thus, morality is neither arbitrary nor autonomous. The belief that morality proceeds from the nature of God is not unlike Plato’s belief that it proceeds from the Good. Euthyphro’s dilemma could not possibly have been an argument against Theism because then Plato would have been refuting his own ethical theory. Any attempt to use it as such is a misuse of the argument.
The dilemma was a dilemma for Euthyphro, not Socrates or Plato. It is a dilemma for the materialist. If morality is determined by material beings then it is arbitrary and contradictory. Therefore, morality exists apart from material beings and finds its essence in a transcendental universal. As it turns out, it is the materialist who is trapped in Euthyphro’s Dilemma.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1993.
Plato. “Euphyphro.” Edited by John M. Cooper. Plato Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.