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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Euthyphro's Horns

I found this post over at Daylight Atheism entitled Defending Genocide, Redux

It reminds me of a topic I teach in my ethics class called Euthyphro's Dilemma (when I teach-- it's been about a year). Many may be very familiar with this topic. In any case, here goes my simplified version:

Euthyphro is an ancient Greek know-it-all whose ego is bigger than his brain. He sets out to answer the question:

What is god's relationship to goodness?

He comes up with two thoughts about what this relationship could be. Both of these ideas presume that goodness and god are related in an important way. Some agnostics (such as myself), atheists, and theists won't want to assume this, but we'll do so for the sake of argument.

Euthyphro's First Horn: God loves goodness because it is good

In this case, the quality of goodness is out there floating about in the universe like a delicious ice cream sandwich. God says hey, check that out. That is a fabulous desert entree. I recognize its inherent wonderfulness, and I hereby affirm "it is good".

The problem with this is that god doesn't really have anything to do with whether the ice cream sandwich is good. He just appreciates its inherent goodness, and places his stamp of approval on it. The same is true of actions such as generosity to strangers. God checks out the Samaritan, sees him taking care of the sick road dude, and just *sees* the inherent goodness of John Samaritan's actions. God's approval or disapproval of the actions doesn't make it good-- it's good all on its own. In other words, goodness is above god.

The positive thing about this horn is that we get to exercise our moral judgment muscles as we go about the world. If something like torture "seems" wrong, we can at least come up with a story about why that is. However, this horn of the dilemma doesn't tell us anything in particular about the character of goodness-- that is, what makes good things good? It only tells us that one of the characteristics of goodness is that god likes it.

Euthyphro's Second Horn: Goodness becomes good because god loves it
(otherwise known as Divine Command Theory)

In this case, god goes about the universe dubbing certain activities (and lunch items) good. So for example, faithfulness to one's spouse is good-- irrespective of the quality of that action in itself. Eating shellfish is bad simply because god says so. If god says that murder is good, well by golly, it is! If god says "Hear ye- go kill the Cannonites and their children", well then that's the good, and woe to she who blogs differently.

There are two problems with this horn. One is that god arbitrarily decides what is good, without an external measuring stick. This means that however "wrong" god's judgments may seem to us, that merely tells us what bad judges we are of morality.

Additionally, some might find this horn morally repugnant, since it takes away our ability to make moral judgments for ourselves and forces us to regard any old nasty behavior as "good" just because god says so. It also gives terrorists the ability to justify their own immoral and disgusting actions because, "God says that what I'm doing is good." Now they may be wrong about what god says, but any of us could be. Therein lies the danger.

Those are Euthyphro's horns. Each horn has some points in its favor, and some against. If you believe that one of the horns is correct, you've got to either "bite the bullet" on the consequences of that horn (ie you've got to accept them), or argue that they aren't really consequences of that horn.

For example, if you go with the first horn of the dilemma, you could "bite the bullet" and agree that goodness may be a quality that is above god, but that's really not so bad (for whatever reason). Or you could say that although that horn is the correct one, that doesn't really mean that goodness is above god (though that's a tough argument to make, and many a student of philosophy has tried and failed).

Back to our original topic. The apologists referenced at Daylight Atheism are trying to make sense of the fact that the Bible depicts instances of god-endorsed genocide and (what seem to be) morally objectionable behaviors (such as stoning children for not obeying their parents, or women for engaging in premaritals). Many of them take Euthyphro's second horn of the dilemma, and bite the bullet on god's arbitrary decision regarding what is good. For example, one commenter states:

I was saying, the Amalekite [genocide] was done for a purpose, and the Holocaust was allowed for a purpose. Without knowing what that purpose is, no human is in a position to impose a moral judgement for either.


In other words, these seemingly horrible events will end up being good according to god's plan, just because he (god) says so. God may or may not have reasons that seem morally appropriate given our standards of goodness, but phooey on us and our standards.

With the second horn of Euthyphro's dilemma endorsed in this way, we can see what a difficult bullet the Divine Command Theory apologist has to bite. God's arbitrary judgment regarding whether Biblical genocide is good makes him a god that many folks would not, ceteris paribus, choose to worship (not to mention Problem of Evil).

Euthyphro's horns both have objectionable consequences. Endorsing the second horn leads us into the unfortunate position of having nothing further to say about the morality of seemingly horrible atrocities, which is not a comfortable place to be when defending a theory of morality.

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