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Essay: The Euthyphro problem (the second hornist’s position is stronger)

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  • The Euthyphro problem (the second hornist’s position is stronger)
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The Euthyphro problem has been central to the discussion about morality and its relationship with God. We will first outline the dilemma before presenting problems with both sides. Ultimately, this essay will argue that the second hornist’s position, that God wills things because they are good, is the stronger but that the conception of God that this view entails is still a somewhat unsatisfactory one.
Plato outlines the problem neatly in his dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. In discussing what it is that makes an action holy- here, specifically the holiness or sinfulness of Euthyphro prosecuting his own father for murdering a murderer- they seem to arrive at a fairly intuitive general definition. After overcoming the initial stumbling block of their society having multiple bickering gods, Euthyphro agrees that “whatever all the gods love is holy, and that whatever they all hate is sinful”1 (Euthyphro, Plato). Here, ‘holiness’ and ‘sinfulness’ can be used interchangeably with ‘good’ and ‘bad’. However, Socrates draws out a problem with this standard:

“We talk about things that carry, and things that are carried, things that see and things that are seen, things that bump, and things that are bumped. [In each case] it’s not the case that people see things because they’re ‘seen’. It’s the other way around. Things are ‘seen’ because people see them. And people don’t bump things because they’re ‘bumped’; they’re ‘bumped’ because people bump them. And people don’t carry things because they’re ‘carried’; they’re ‘carried’ because people carry them.”2 (ibid)

Indeed extending this logic to things that are loved; God (switching back to monotheism merely for ease of use) doesn’t love something because it is a loved thing. It is a loved thing because people love it. Quickly, ‘holy’ or ‘good’ can become detached from ‘god-loved’. If ‘god-loved’ (or ‘god- willed’) were to mean exactly the same thing as ‘good’ then it would follow that if God wills something because it is good, then He must also will it because it is god-willed. Yet, as we’ve established that second statement is incongruous with the other types of action we’ve discussed (carrying seeing, etc.). By contrast, if what’s god-willed is merely god-willed because God wills it, then what’s good should also be good merely because god wills it. This second statement, again, seems out of touch with our common intuitions. Hence we arrive at the titular problem, ‘Is something good because God wills it, or does He will it because it is good?’. There are defendants of both possibilities and this essay will demonstrate the problems of each.

The first horn, that something is good because God wills it, is open to a number of objections. First, there is the ‘anything goes’ argument. That is, if God so wills it, anything can become good. Torture is the classic example. If overnight God decided so, then conceivably torture could be decreed as good and thus encouraged. In fact, it could become morally wrong for us to do anything but go around torturing strangers. Such a possibility seems heavily counterintuitive. A theist might naturally say that God would never do such a thing, yet, simply the unlikelihood of such a state of affairs materialising seems a fairly unconvincing retort. Of course, one could point to an omnipotent God as responsible for those intuitions and accordingly, we could assume that were he to take such a course of action he must be doing it for some higher purpose beyond our comprehension. It’s important to note here that God’s benevolence and omniscience must be our motives for following him. As Williams notes, “if it is his power, or the mere fact that he created us, analogies with human kings or fathers […] leave us with the recognition that there are many kings and fathers who ought not to be obeyed”3 (Morality – An Introduction to Ethics, B. Williams, Chapter 8, p. 63). Indeed, an all-powerful ruler who created everything is not necessarily more worthy of obedience but simply harder to disobey. This benevolence, stemming from God’s omniscience, presents a pitfall for the first hornist.

For, while God’s willing of acts making them moral maintains his omnipotence, it removes the sense of compassion, care and love that God has thus limiting him in another way. If whatever is willed is good, then God’s goodness is determined by his own submission to his will. However, this undermines the good of God himself, his nature. Having a will that arbitrarily legislates things as universally good seems more like the profile of a tyrant rather than a prudent, loving God, yet since whatever he wills is good, his goodness is also subject to his own arbitrary commands. Of course, the theist will respond that the commands of the all-loving and all-powerful are not arbitrary or in any way like a tyrant but the problem is how one explains this when there is no criteria by which to judge him, since all his commands are good. Liebniz argued that in saying things are not good by any rule of goodness, but simply by God’s will, “one destroys all the love of God and all his glory”. Indeed, praising God and his actions seems a hollow concept if he would be equally praiseworthy for doing the opposite. Thus “this opinion would hardly distinguish God from the devil”, as God’s goodness is dismissed, making it impossible to explain the difference between an omnibenevolent God and an omnipotent sadist. As Lewis puts it, “if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘righteous Lord’”. The idea is that what makes God good is his omniscience and that what he wills is well-considered and prudent, but something cannot be prudent if there are no values on which to decide what to command, and therefore God’s commands are necessarily arbitrary. An attitude towards God which insists on his following because that is what we ‘ought’ to do, would seem in the way Kant insisted to be making morality prior to God.

Yet, the proponent of this second horn, that God commands what is good, holds a position that seems similarly tenuous. The central problem with this approach is that by limiting what God can command to what is already good, one places a restriction on God’s power, which contradicts his omnipotence. A defence of such a proposition might broadly resemble this: moral truths are necessarily true, not being able to do the logically impossible is no restriction of power, no less than being able to make a bachelor a married man is. Under this objectivist framework, one argues that “moral judgements such as that an action x is a right action or that it is morally better than y, or that actions of type A are never morally good, are statements which are true or false”4 (4 The Coherence of Theism, R. Swinburne, Chapter 11, p. 207.). Indeed, that is not to say that there are no times when two choices are morally level, merely that sometimes this is not the case- some lifestyles are indeed morally better or worse than others. Thus statements affirming such an action have a truth value. By extension, “an omniscient person […] will know of any action, the characteristics of which are fully set out (e.g. that it is done by a person of such-and-such a kind in such-and-such circumstances), whether or not that action is morally good or bad”5 (ibid., p. 208). Thus God will necessarily do those actions he sees as good and avoid those which are bad and in doing so will still be omnipotent. His unflinching commitment to moral law can best be seen when we imagine the opposite. A God who “does not care to support with his will the moral principles that we believe are true” thus either “opposes some of them, or does not care enough about some of them to act on them”6 (‘Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief’, R. Adams, Part 4.). Indeed, as Adams explains, “if we really believed there is a God like that, who understands so much and yet disregards some or all of our moral principles, it would be extremely difficult for us to continue to regard those principles with the respect that we believe is due them”7 (ibid). Given we believe that we ought to pay them respect, there is a great moral disadvantage to belief in an immoral or amoral God.

There are, of course, problems with the second hornist’s perspective. First, in creating the world, is it not possible that God also created logic and, with it, logical and moral necessities? That is, while we may struggle to conceive of such a world, it seems perfectly possible to claim God existed before conceptual necessity and that it was brought about merely as another construction of his. A truly all-powerful God then could surely create a world without such necessity. If moral necessity does not exist outside of God then we may ask again whether God introduced such necessities because they were good or are they good because he willed them.

The second issue is that the idea of moral necessity demands more development than Swinburne gives it. The idea that torture or inducing agonising pain in someone is necessarily morally bad seems only to be linguistic or intuitive rather than metaphysical. If the word agonising means causing an evil level of pain or the thought of torture is so untenable, then there is a sense in which these actions might seem like moral necessities phenomenologically. But where in any of this, is there any evidence of such actions actually being metaphysically necessarily moral or immoral. Any attempt to describe them as such, using the language of ‘so bad’, invariably rests on a hidden premise that is utilitarianism or some other deontological theory that needs to be elucidated to give the action its necessity, otherwise epistemologically we cannot know any moral necessities and as such there is no evidence for their metaphysical existence. It just seems to be asserted that moral necessities exist, but there must be something that has given, or is justification for their necessity. In absence of a reason, and without being able to use God since that takes us to the first horn, an explanation of their necessity is still begging. In this sense, here is a problem both in Swinburne’s conception of moral necessity as something that can restrict God, as well as the idea that there actually are any moral necessities.

Another aspect of this theory is the idea that certain contingent actions might be good because they are commanded by God. This might include say, beating someone over the head, because the badness of that action is contingent on our physiology and the fact that it might kill or injure us, rather than an alternate world in which beating over the head produces more brain cells. The distinction here is that beating over the head is contingent, whereas as the outcome in our world, agonising pain is necessarily bad. Yet, if God’s only reason to make a contingent command is because of his realisation of a necessary good or bad, then this doesn’t really seem to give him much power at all. Effectively, the picture is that God is bound by certain conceptual necessities, but can create the world in such a way that he can command an entire range of things depending on the world he sets up. He can command beating over the head in a world where beaten heads create brain cells or he can command protecting heads where head-knocks cause brain damage. However, such a conception of God seems, at the very least, to be a sorry one. Indeed, God is still ‘omnipotent’, “since the claim that God acts in a morally reprehensible way is logically contradictory”8 (8 ‘Omnipotence and God’s Ability to Sin’, N. Pike, from American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 6 (1969), p. 214.) and thus does not constitute a limitation of power. Yet, his existence is no longer as grand as we might have wanted to believe. He can shape the world in whichever way he pleases but is constrained in his inability to affect what actually matters, that of right and wrong. Such an argument might not command any real logical weight but the notion that moral necessities exist independently of God, while not incoherent, is at the very least frustrating.

In conclusion, the second hornist’s approach, that morality exists independently of God, is the more likely of the two possibilities. However, while it is in no way logically flawed, the conception of God that its belief entails is a frustratingly powerless one.

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