One commenter, Brad Lencioni, engaged more than perhaps anyone else in the discussion side of this comment festival and has written up a short scene, like a play, about this discussion to showcase what was going on. He has asked me to present it here as a guest post, and so it will be the bulk of this (long) blog entry. It's worth reading if you, like Brad, are frustrated with the disingenuous attempts by theologians to skirt around the Euthyphro Dilemma or if you want to know more about the dilemma itself.
Before presenting Brad's piece, I'll note that I feel like the apologists who showed up on the comments sections of those posts are an excellent (though frustrating and exasperating to read) example of the points of the posts I wrote. That point is that however good a tool philosophy is at dismantling religious arguments, it is a door for theologians and apologists to keep trying to argue because theologians and apologists use philosophical-style arguments (if not outright corrupted philosophy) to make their case, and the Sophisticated Theologians(TM) among them often consider themselves to be philosophers.
I thank them for making my point for me, and now I'll turn the rest of this over to Brad's play, which I have not edited from his original phrasing, though I had to do a little formatting on it. My prediction is that the theist mentioned will probably blow up over this in the comments.
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The scene is a modern 21st century internet blog forum—a typical hub of debauchery and intellectual sin which makes up humanities monument of corruption, the internet. In this forum of discussion, a heretic dullard, whom we shall simply refer to as “Pagan”, joins a discussion about science, God, and the nature of morality. Whereby, his thoughts and inquiries are revealed for the idiocy and uselessness that they could not but consist of (given the heretics Godlessness) by a pious Christian religious zealot, whom we shall simply refer to as “Theist”.
Pagan: A function for determining what behavior a person OUGHT to perform is one which necessitates the input of facts, i.e. “is” statements. While, as Hume demonstrates, one cannot logically deduce a statement with an “ought” predicate from statements with “is” predicates (i.e. is-statements), one likewise cannot derive an ought statement without facts and is-statements. And the rational sciences represent humanities greatest and most successful effort for discovering what is true about our world. So science is of necessary import to ethics, it seems.
And what is true is that there are physically, psychologically and socially healthier and unhealthier, better and worse ways to go about living. And if a person maintains that these facts do not constitute the subject of “Morality” and ought to inform us in our decision making, then I do not know what a person means by the word ‘moral’.
Therefore, to sum things up: (1) Observation tells us that there are physically, psychologically and socially healthier and unhealthier, better and worse ways to go about living. (2) Ethics is the study of this, with the goal of deriving principles for how the former states of being might be maximized over the latter. And (3) one is said to be conducting their life “ethically” (or “morally”) if their decisions and behaviors are consistent with such principles.
The details of this are quite complicated, for sure. But I think that the idea of a metaphysical, objective moral framework of the universe that many theists are obsessed with is incoherent and not part of these details.
Theist: What a vile dullard you are, Pagan.
You have given us a bunch of Godless assertions which do not explain the foundation of those “principles” of morality which we seek in producing a meaningful theory of ethics. Nor have you given a reason for why one should desire to conduct their life in such a “moral” way. And you cannot possibly succeed in doing so, you fool, without my conception of God: a necessarily existing bodiless person who lives as a spirit outside of and prior to the physical construct of space-time and who necessarily is eternal, immutable, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things!
For if God does not exist, then moral terms are actually incoherent, our moral intuitions are nonsense and untrustworthy, and there does not exist objective moral principles—or anything at all, really. God is the Authoritative Lawgiver, who has created us all for a purpose. We are not compelled to obey him though, as you aptly demonstrate in your heathen ways, Pagan. Because we were all created with a freewill to choose either to accept to live as we should and as God has commanded—commands which come through ancient prophecies and revelations and which are recorded in this book of sacred scripture, the Bible— or to choose to reject these scriptures, God and His laws.
This is the nature of morality, Pagan. Those actions which are “good” and “right” are the ones which are commanded by God; and those actions which are “evil” and “wrong” are those forbidden by God. And the imperative to obey God exists in an inescapable final reckoning: where everyone will be held accountable and Judged.
Science doesn't tell us to do anything—though you Godless heretics still act like you have some sort of magical ultimate goal you “ought” to fulfill. But you are all deluded in your purposeless, valueless, non-rational, unintelligent, unconscious nature-did-it mechanism worshipping. And you will be punished for your immoral false idolizing, Pagan.
Pagan: Holy cow! You have me very concerned, Theist. For these are some serious claims you are making, and it seems that one of us is direly confused...
There seems to be really only one thing for us to do. Let us see, Theist, if we cannot inquire further into the nature of morality and make sense of our apparently wildly diverging views. There must be a confusion somewhere in our thinking which is responsible for our disagreement.
So to begin: First, let us assume that your God does exist and your scriptural sources are coherent and reliable.
Theist: Yes, now you are beginning to think clearly! You just may end up getting saved after all, Pagan.
Pagan: ...Okay. For the sake of our inquiry, we will continue to operate under this assumption and see if you have not provided as sound of a basis for morality as you have preached: In the definition of ‘God’, one of God’s properties is “perfect goodness.” But then you claim, Theist, that to be “good” and moral is to act in accordance with God’s commands and purpose. I hope you will please excuse my ignorance, but it is not clear to me what you actually mean with the term ‘good’. In other words, your definitions seem circular and arbitrary, where “to be good” is to behave as God wills, and where God is thought to be “perfectly good”—presumably because he can behave in no other way.
So what I would like is for you to clear up the following dilemma for me, which seems rather troubling: Is something good simply because God says so, or does God command what is good for the reasons that such things are good? Or, put another way, God either has no reasons at all for what He commands, or He has at least some reason for why he decides to command what He does. This is a necessarily true statement which is of the form: either A or not A. One of the statements disjuncts must be true.
I hope you might clear this up for me, Theist, because this dilemma has some apparently serious consequences for what you originally claimed: The first horn of the dilemma entails that ‘good’ means whatever God commands, where God has no reasons for why He commands one thing and not another. So His decisions (commands, creations, etc.) are random and His “perfect goodness” is meaningless in this case. This surely is not consistent with what you originally claimed, Theist. Surely this is not what you think.
The second horn of the dilemma seems to be what those of faith intend. In this case, God does indeed have reasons motivating His decisions and commandments. He commands, with His perfect wisdom, that people behave in particular ways (e.g. to be charitable and to not commit murder) for the reasons that those behaviors are morally good (e.g. because such behaviors produce personal and social prosperity and inhibit self-destruction).
However, a second problem now exists. While it is no longer meaningless for God and His commands to be good, in providing God’s will with reasons outside Himself we have rendered your conception of God, Theist, to be unnecessary and superfluous to our theory of morality. What ultimately explains an actions moral quality and defines what is ‘good’ are those very same reasons God would refer to in formulating His commandments.
So now you see my concern with what you have claimed, Theist. A moral rationale independent to the conception of God must be accepted.
Theist: I see how you could be confused by this, Pagan. Your ignorance is a product of the fact that your cognitive faculties have become entirely corrupted by sin. Oh how I pity you and your foolish blindness and false intuitions...
Your “dilemma” originates from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and his dialogue titled “Euthyphro.” It is an exceedingly boring argument, which has been thoroughly destroyed by theists ages ago. I don’t know how anyone can still find this simple minded and meaningless dilemma relevant. But it would please me none the less to take down this horrible objection to God for you, Pagan.
The problem is that you have presented a false dilemma! God’s character, or being, is immutable. Thus, He cannot arbitrarily command one thing and then another. So this denies the first horn of the dilemma. But God’s character is also necessarily good! Thus, God’s commands are necessarily non-arbitrary and morally good for the reason that they are determined by (or rooted in) His immutable, perfectly good character. And this denies the second horn of the dilemma. Therefore, God’s commands are not arbitrary, but are good—For. The. Reason.—that His character is perfectly good. The horns of the dilemma have been split, and morality is not anterior or prior to God.
Now can we get to discussing things more theologically important and less boring, such as how many angels can actually sit on the head of a pin? Or maybe how many pins there will be prodding you and your forsaken brethren in the ass upon Judgement? Uh-hahahahaha...
Pagan: Not quite yet, Theist...
I still don’t think you have successfully demonstrated the coherence of your thesis, nor do I think you have split the horns of the dilemma and meaningfully told me what ‘good’ means in a theological sense. Please excuse my building exasperation, Theist, but you speak with such conviction. Yet you seem to me to be playing rhetorical games rather than answering the question.
I accept that you may reject the first horn of the dilemma by defining ‘God’ as a character of immutable moral quality. God’s commands would then indeed be non-arbitrary and necessarily trustworthy (so long as you can get them straight from the source). But I do not accept your claim, Theist, that you have successfully rejected the second horn. Merely referring to the definition of ‘God’ as a perfectly good being begs the question to—and so does not rationally make meaningful—why God and His commands are “good."
Theist: You are the one who refuses Truth, imbecile. There can be no moral standards independent of God. Such a god that would have an obligation to some external moral standard would not meet the definition of ‘God.’ It is true that God’s commands – far from being arbitrary – are in accordance with God’s necessarily good personhood. So when God acts, he simply does what is right.
Therefore, I have eviscerated this over blown objection!
Theist: My goodness, man. Do you really still want to press this???
Pagan: If you insist on explaining the goodness of God’s commands and character, Theist, by referring to the definition of God as an immutably and necessarily good being, then you have not provided the term ‘good’ with a meaning and, as a result, you have not provided God with adequate reasons for His commands. And without such reasons, you have adopted the first horn of the dilemma.
You have not proven the dilemma to be false, Theist! Rather you are jumping between horns, dodging the threat of one by hoping to the next while engaging in circular reasoning:
If you would provide ‘good’ with an independent definition, Theist, then what you say would no longer be meaningless. But then, with such a definition, you will have provided a meaning to moral terms and a standard of ethics independent to your conception of God.
Theist: If God has to be held to some outside standard, then I don’t see why we should call this being ‘God’ at all. I don’t see how such a god could possibly be worthy of the definition, because for all we know there could be a spirit that does ground ethics. And this being is what I am referring to as “God”—not this weak god that you are discussing.
Never the less, Theism has demonstrated this dilemma to be egregiously absurd. In fact, the dilemma has made my faith even stronger! So thank you—this is surely the reason why God has introduced me to you and your wicked tongue, Pagan.
Pagan: There could not logically be such a spirit which grounds morality in the way you claim, Theist. Unless, are you dismissing logic? If so, then surely the dilemma would dissipate—but, obviously, not without some serious consequences.
But if not, then you must provide reasons outside of your conception of God, Theist, for moral terms to have any non-arbitrary meaning. But doing so renders your conception of God unnecessary to the meaningfulness of ethics. And since it is unnecessary, Theist, you were wrong in your claim, “If God does not exist, then moral terms are actually incoherent, our moral intuitions are nonsense and untrustworthy, and there does not exist objective moral principles.”
Furthermore, you were wrong in holding yourself above my atheistic and scientific conception of the world, and berating me for its lack of meaning and purpose. I expect that you will not continue in this insulting behavior, Theist.
Theist: Well I can turn the dilemma back on you! How would the atheist fare any better in providing an objective metaphysical standard of ethics?
Pagan: Now you are coming to understand what I initially said about morality, Theist. And what I said was that I did not think such a metaphysical conception of morality is coherent; metaphysically, I think everything probably must reduce to arbitrary randomness (i.e. the first horn of the dilemma). But there are higher level (emergent?) facts than this—including those about physically, psychologically and socially healthier and unhealthier, better and worse ways to go about living in this world. And we can derive epistemologically—epistemologically, I reiterate—objective principles for maximizing healthy living. This is what ethics is really about. And what obligates a person to follow these principles is, not a fear of Judgement and hellfire (or at least it shouldn’t be), but pain and death.
In other words, the world naturally inhabits itself with those who behave according to such principles—no metaphysical spirits needed. Those who are not geared to fundamentally value wellbeing and life—and include this value in their decision function for determining oughts from is-statements— die out and do not propagate. And so will their ideas of ethics die out, as they will reveal themselves to be useless or non-optimal to those who do value life and wellbeing.
Theist: Now don’t tell me you believe in unguided evolution!
[*Note: It has not been my intention to imply that all theists are so unpleasant, nor that all atheists are so well behaved. Rather, the dialogue was a characterization of some common conversations I have had about the philosophy of ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma.]
Cornell Anthony. “’Scientism’ is a harmful distraction: comments section” God Doesn’t;We Do. Blog operated by author James Lindsay: goddoesnt.blogspot.com
Herman Philipse. God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason. Oxford University Press. 2012
James Rachels. “Does Morality depend on Religion?” Online Essay.
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