Raise curtain, Socrates is sitting on the steps of a courthouse in ancient Greece, a few hundred years BC, waiting to go to be indicted by Meletus. His crime? Corrupting the youth by speaking against the gods and making his own. Enter young Euthyphro; his business at the courthouse today is of another sort. He seeks to indict his own father for murder. The victim was a servant of his who himself had taken another slave’s life in drunken anger. Socrates questions Euthyphro’s motivation. How could someone seek to bring charges against their own father for the murder of a mere servant? Especially when, on further examination, negligence rather than firsthand bloodshed is the cause of death. Euthyphro’s answer is that the only pious action is to indict the one who has committed a crime no matter who it is. This leads to a lengthy discussion to attempt to define piety. Spoiler alert: Socrates isn’t happy with the outcome and Euthyphro flakes out and rushes off.
As with much of ancient Greek philosophical thought, we are left with more questions than answers. Primarily this one:
“Consider this: Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”
Translating this into something that looks more familiar to our modern culture and way of thinking we arrive at something that looks more like this:
- Are right actions right because God commands them?
- Are actions commanded by God because they are right?
Of course this is a question of ethics, and what determines the difference between right and wrong. Most people will admit a difference between right and wrong, theist or not. In this case, let’s assume that these principles have been commanded by God, and didn’t manifest out of thin air.
The two above options seem similar, but are vastly different and imply two very different ideas about how right and wrong, pious and impious, moral and immoral, are determined.
Case one: actions are right because God commands them
God writes ten rules for Moses and his people to follow. Thou shall not kill, steal, lie covet, etc. Many of us can look at these rules and agree that it would be bad to break them. Murderers go to jail, adultery breaks up families and has negative consequences, and so on.
But what about rules that don’t make so much sense to us? “Don’t eat that fruit,” for example. Adam and Eve weren’t on the same page. Our values today may match up with the Bible for the most part, but they didn’t in the Garden of Eden. Why?
If actions are right because God commands them, is it a requirement for us to understand the rules? Clearly not. But does that make them any less right?
In addition, what if God showed up tomorrow with some new commandments? Things that would otherwise seem to go against our current views of morality. Would we suddenly give up the old ways and follow the new ones? After all, everything that God commands is right. What if He said something like: “I’m tired of seeing you guys carry on being nice to each other, forget love thy neighbor, I want survival of the fittest.” Side note: See why our moral values disprove Darwinism.
Case two: God only gives us commandments because they are right actions
I’ll admit, it’s hard to imagine God returning to Earth flipping the Ten Commandments on their head and reversing thousands of years of ethical values. So what if God only commands us to do things that are inherently right actions? Since most of us agree the commandments given in the Bible seem right to us, that would make sense. If the rules of right and wrong are universal, many issues in case one are resolved. We are then only left with the choice of which rules we chose to follow and those choices determine our piety, or moral rightness. No opinions necessary about whether or not the rule is right in the context of our society or not. Universal is universal. Cut and dry.
However, there’s one big issue: this argument negates God’s omnipotence. It implies that He doesn’t have the power to declare actions right and wrong, rather He’s just a conduit to deliver us a universal message of morality that is decided upon by some force outside of Himself.
If you’re a Christian, then case two is not really an option because we accept God as the all powerful creator of everything. Which means, He makes the rules and decides what is right and wrong. Our understanding of those rules as mere humans is irrelevant. Ethics and morality come from Him. We could even go as far as to say we are created in His image and share his characteristics, therefor we also share a code of ethics with Him. But if this is true, why do we have such a natural inclination to break the rules? How is it that none of us can live up to His standard of ethics?
As I said, more questions than answers. The Euthyphro Problem is something that has been debated since before Christ and will probably be debated long after today. In fact some of you reading this may already be forming your rebuttals. I welcome discussion in an open forum, but please keep arguments respectful. Just as Socrates showed the utmost respect to his pupils and counterparts, I expect that we all do the same. Happy thinking.