Sunday, May 03, 2009

Euthyphro's False Dilemma

Euthyphro's Dilemma is a classic problem of religious philosophy -- Is something good because God commanded it? If so, anything can be good if God commands it. This seems to undermine our innate sense of morality. Or, is something good in and of itself and God commanded it because it is good? If so, you have to wonder why God even bothered commanding it.

Plato presented this as a question Socrates asked Euthyphro, although within a polytheistic framework that I translated above into a monotheistic dilemma.

Here is what Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks wrote about this (To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, p. 164):
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Plato's dilemma is elegant because it forces us to make a choice between two invidious possibilities: religion is either opposed to ethics or superfluous to it. In fact, however, Plato's dilemma belongs to a particular time and place, Athens in the fourth century BCE...

In Judaism, the Euthyphro dilemma does not exist.[5] God commands the good because it is good. Without this assumption, Abraham's challenge over the fate of Sodom -- 'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?' -- would be incomprenesible. God and humans are equally answerable to the claims of justice. But the good is what God commands because God-the-lawgiver is also God-the-creator-and-redeemer. Morality mirrors the deep structure of the universe that God made and called good. Plato's challenge arises because the Greek gods were not creators. Matter was eternal. The gods had no special authority except for the fact that they were held to be powerful. Plato was therefore correct to challenge the popular cults of his day by, in effect, drawing a principled distinction between might and right. The gods may be strong, but that is no reason to invest them with moral authority. For the Bible, however, God who teaches us how to act in the world is also the maker of the world in which we act. To be sure, there are occasions -- most famously, the biding of Isaac -- in which God seems to demand pure obedience; but this itself suggests that the story may be more subtle than it seems.[6] Taken as a whole, Judaism embodies divine faith in the moral capacity and literacy of humankind.
[5] Needless to say, I am here stating my own position. There are other voices within the Jewish tradition. For two recent treatments of the subject, see Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman, Religion and Morality (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995); Michael J. Harris, Divine Command Ethics (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003).
[6] I address this subject in my forthcoming book, Making Space.

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