When we make arguments in support of a Christian view, those arguments can avoid accusations of question-begging by appeal to sources other than Scripture. Given that the Euthyphro Dilemma, which has been wielded against the idea of God as a source of morality, originated with Plato, what if Plato already had within the Euthyphro the answer, or the beginning of an answer, to the Dilemma that in fact supported the Christian perspective?[1]

Socrates’ Disagreement with Euthyphro

Plato’s Euthyphro is a dialogue between Socrates, who is about to be tried, in part, for impiety, and the younger seer Euthyphro, who claims to know all there is to know about religious matters. Socrates seeks to learn what piety is from Euthyphro.

There are a number of important events that take place in the dialogue that impact the way that we should approach the Dilemma. First, Euthyphro is a know-it-all, in the bad sense. Second, the entire episode must be read as driven in large part by force or coercion. What I mean is this: Socrates is driven to this setting (that is, the king-archon’s court, which determined whether issues of religious pollution, such as impiety or murder, should be sent to court) by accusations of wrong-doing by those who were angry at him. In turn, Euthyphro is at the king-archon’s court to accuse his father of murder, due to a complicated situation in which the father (perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not) caused the death of a servant (who himself had killed another servant). In both cases—Socrates’s accusers and Euthyphro—they were using legal compulsion to cause some change in the accused.

Third, while Socrates spends most of the dialogue, as with most of his conversations, simply drawing out the implications of Euthyphro’s own claims, there is one point at which he directly disagrees with Euthyphro.[2] Such a direct disagreement is rarely heard from Socrates, usually appearing no more than once in a dialogue. And that should draw our attention. This disagreement is where we’ll begin to see how Socrates the character[3] (and Plato the author) possesses a view similar to Christianity, and how the arrogant Euthyphro does not.

The disagreement begins with Euthyphro’s justification of his own prosecution of his father by reference to the gods’ activities. After all, Euthyphro claims, “Zeus is the best and most just of the gods, yet…he bound his father because he unjustly swallowed his sons, and that he in turn castrated his father for similar reasons” (5e-6a). Socrates responds, “…I find it hard to accept things like that being said about the gods…Tell me, by the god of friendship, do you really believe these things are true?” (6a-6b).

Already here, we should feel a kind of kinship with Socrates: “…that there is really war among the gods, and terrible enmities and battles, and other such things…” (6b) we, too, would reject. In part, because we’re not polytheists, but also because it does not seem like something worthy of a god to act in such a way. Nevertheless, Euthyphro embraces such stories as true. Socrates, who is trying to draw out of Euthyphro what he believes, simply agrees for the sake of argument, and moves on to talk about piety. Thus begins the usual Socratic dialogue of Euthyphro giving a definition of piety, and Socrates showing how that definition leads to a conclusion that Euthyphro himself cannot accept, and thus asking Euthyphro for another definition. Rinse and repeat, until Euthyphro gives up in frustration and leaves.

Why the Disagreement Matters

The definition that Euthyphro gives that leads to the Dilemma is this: “[T]he pious is what all the gods love” (9e).[4] What could be wrong with this definition? Remember that the gods warred with one another, and that such wars surely arose from disagreements over what is in fact dear. This suggests that they had differing views on, say, what was just and unjust, over what was good and evil, and so forth. If so, then their loving of the same thing was purely a matter of chance. If they could not agree on the good, then why would their unanimous love mean anything except that they happened to all like the same thing. We in the U.S. have managed to be in enmity with one another over everything from politics to how we refer to our dogs[5]–meanwhile, we are borderline unanimous in our love of pizza. Does that make pizza a morally good thing, and eating pizza a virtuous act? If not, then neither would the affection felt by the gods—who seem to have an understanding of the Good that is not qualitatively different than ours—make something good or virtuous.

Socrates capitalizes on this problem by formulating his Euthyphro Dilemma. Now, in fact, it would have been possible for Euthphro to avoid the dilemma had he not agreed to some of the statements made by Socrates that led up to the Dilemma. Most importantly, Socrates makes this series of claims about something being carried and being a carried thing, that sounds rather strange. But his point is something like this: If “piety” simply means “a thing being loved by the gods,” then saying “the pious is that which is loved by the gods” means nothing more than “a thing being loved by the gods is defined as that which is loved by the gods.” You’ll recognize that this definition doesn’t seem helpful in determining what kinds of actions would be pious or impious. And thus it leaves us without any knowledge of what piety could be.

And this problem is not solved by saying that the love of the gods makes something pious. For the gods of Euthyphro, as we’ve already seen, are at war over what constitutes the just and the unjust, and other matters of central important for understanding the good and the virtuous. Therefore, the only method we’d have for determining what is pious is by a poll of the gods at any point (for what they hold as good and evil might change from time to time as well).

The Start of a Solution

Is there a solution to the Dilemma? There are two solutions. Either define morality apart from the gods altogether, or go back to the disagreement and reject Euthyphro’s view of the gods.

As Christians, removing morality from God seems wrong. So, let’s see if there is a solution by going back and rejecting Euthyphro’s view of the gods.

Firstly, we obviously reject his polytheism. And this leads to, secondly, the claim that there is no division within God about what is just and good—God is not at war with Himself, nor are Father, Son, and Spirit at war over what is right and good.

Does this solve the problem? It’s the beginning of the solution, but it does not quite finish the job.

We’ll see further how Plato, and a fan of his, Augustine, can help us finish solving the contemporary form of the Euthyphro Dilemma long before it was ever formulated. We’ll get to that next time.

[1] Of course, I haven’t tried to define “the Christian perspective” on the relationship between God and morality. Let me simply say that I think most Christians believe morality comes from God, but also want to avoid the problem of apparent arbitrariness exposed by the Euthyphro Dilemma.

[2] Such singular disagreements takes place in a number of the dialogues, and, just as in the Euthyphro, mark a significant turning point in the conversation. A couple of the more obvious examples, in case you’re interested, can be found in Republic II, 372d-373a and Meno 86d-87a.

[3] Socrates was very likely a real person, but I refer to him as a “character” here because we are reading here Plato’s presentation of Socrates. How accurate to real life is this depiction? Did these events in fact take place? We can’t be sure.

[4] This specific definition follows from Euthyphro saying that the pious is what is dear to the gods, without specifically claiming that it is what all the gods love. Given that the gods were at war and enmity, and that such strife arises from differences of opinion about important matters, such as justice, beauty, the good, what is dear to the gods (piety) could change from god to god. Thus, something could be both pious and impious (dear to, say, Zeus, and hated by Athena—like the situation faced by Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ tragedy, where two gods demanded opposing actions). The solution for Euthyphro was, therefore, to say that piety is what all the gods agree is good.

[5] If you have a “fur baby”…well, I’ll not comment.

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Wm. Travis Coblentz

Author Wm. Travis Coblentz

Travis Coblentz is the Executive Director and philosopher for Tactical Faith. Dr. Coblentz sits on the board and is a great asset in the Birmingham, AL area. He is also an Adjunct professor of philosophy at UAB.

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