In the 4th century BC, Plato wrote a parable about his instructor Socrates engaging in a dialogue with a man named Euthyphro, who is on his way to court. Euthyphro’s father is being tried for manslaughter for one of his employees dying from poor work conditions, and Euthyphro is testifying against his father in court, claiming this pursuit of justice is the pious (holy) thing to do. The law usually only permits the dead’s estate from suing, making Euthyphro’s testimony against his father a legal anomaly; still, he maintains this is what a pious person does.
Socrates challenges Euthyphro with this dilemma: Is something pious because the gods like it, or do the gods like it because it is pious? This is still a living argument, especially in the philosophy of religion and meta-ethics (philosophy around the structure of ethics). Oftentimes, this is reformatted to ask, “Is something right or morally good because God likes it, or does God like it because it is morally good?” The trouble with the first horn of the dilemma is, if moral goodness is simply the edicts of God, then what would keep God from making terrible edicts? There are many passages in the Bible in which God commands terrible things: for example, in Ezekiel 5:10, God forces His enemies into cannibalizing their children. This just doesn’t seem right. God’s deal with Satan in the Book of Job seems a little manipulative, and God’s sending of poisoned quails to the wandering Israelites after complaining too much reads as a petty response. Are these actions suppose to be Good just because God commanded them? Christian politicians often lament the “moral relativity” of the secular world, but isn’t this simply making morality relative to God’s attitudes?
The other horn of the dilemma, God loves such-and-such because it is good, also sits uncomfortably, because it suggests that God is bound by moral laws or principles that are beyond or separate from Him. If there is Good that we can discern without God, then why even bother with all the God stuff? Novelist Iris Murdoch made this argument herself, arguing that believing in objective, universal moral values was easier than believing in a God, thus her atheism was more useful and more parsimonious than Christian Theology, which is convoluted and often antithetical to our moral intuitions.
The traditional response, which is perhaps best argued by St. Thomas Aquinas, is to claim that this is a false dilemma, that the objective moral Goodness is of the same essence as God. Thus, it is not so much that God issues edicts of what is moral or not moral, but that what God is, is the Good. If Goodness is the essence of God, then the response to the dilemma is to say something like, “X is good because it corresponds to God’s Essential Goodness.”
While I do believe it directly responds to the dilemma as written, not everybody is convinced this move actually resolves the issue at hand. Some would argue that all that was done here was push the dilemma one step further back. For example, somebody could argue that God’s essential Goodness still isn’t all that desirable or useful, and then go about proposing an alternative moral system. Why should we follow God’s moral system, even if it is coming directly from God’s own character?
This is a far more interesting question, in my opinion, than whether God exists or not: even if we grant that God exists, why should we follow or accept God’s authority on moral issues? I have a proposed solution that draws on the traditional response: Euthyphro is a false dilemma, because it’s really two different questions. I think there is a distinction between asking “What is Pious/Holy” and “What is Moral.” Holiness is the experience of God, a religious or spiritual experience. Morality is a set of prescriptive, normative statements, values, and principles. If we believe in a God or some kind of super/non/supra/trans-natural force, then I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to posit that Holiness is synonymous with the experience of the Divine. While I believe that religious experiences are good in the colloquial sense, I actually want to suggest that they are neutral in a moral sense. If I say, “It is good that today is sunny,” I am not making a moral claim the same way I am when I argue that it is good to sponsor refugees. It is difficult in this space to defend the value of religious or spiritual experience. Perhaps the best argument is simply the pragmatic one: we shall know them by their fruits.
“What is moral” is a different question. A lot of people have a negative gut reaction to the word “Morality,” as it brings up memories of sexual repression, authoritarian parental figures, undue shaming, and many other negative psychological experiences. By moral I mean, what kinds of behaviors, principles, values, and attitudes can or cannot be endorsed. When ACT UP shamed Reagan for ignoring the AIDS crisis, this was a moral statement. When nations divested from South Africa’s Apartheid regime, that was a moral statement. When former coal miners on the verge of losing their pensions descended on Peabody Coal’s downtown St. Louis offices to demand what was owed to them, that was a moral statement. Most philosophers are moral realists, which means they believe there is, in some meaningful sense, an objective answer as to what can or cannot be prescribed as a course of action. There is a lot of disagreement as to what these moral truths are, and how we go about identifying them. I am sympathetic to a notion called “Moral Constructivism,” which argues that moral values are not so much coded into the universe the way we generally think about other abstract principles like Mathematical truths, but are true because there is a collective social process that determines what these values are. The Golden Rule is an example of a constructivist device, because it offers not so much a discrete value or principle, but a course of action to determine how to come about to a prescriptive course of action.
So what does this have to do with God? I suspect that a reason a lot of people are interested in bring God into a discussion about morality is how God would seem to offer a hard-and-fast prescription for any given circumstance. The problem is, I do not believe this is even good theology. In the Christian tradition, it is believed that there is an Original Sin, or a Fall of Man, or some sort of systemic or ontological sickness that effects all the cosmos. If we grant this, then it would seem to follow that our moral decision-making cannot be absolute, final, or wholly “Holy.”
Here is my counter-intuitive conclusion: Human beings and other non-human persons are moral agents and operate in a Fallen World. God is Holiness, but not a moral agent and does not directly prescribe moral values. Moral propositions supervene on the Holiness of God, but are not reducible to propositions or beliefs about the Holiness of God. Thus, “Is X moral because God likes it, or does God like it because it is moral?” is perhaps the wrong question, because any moral decision presupposes the conditions of a systemically oppressed, sinful world, which are not the conditions of God.
Jesus does offer some pretty challenging prescriptions in the Bible, but I want to consider that maybe these are not moral commands as much as they are devotional prescriptions, which perhaps we must treat as a window into the Holiness of God, and not a moral decision among our other mundane values. One in particular is Jesus’ command to visit those in prison. He says nothing about if people deserve to be visited in prison, or if their guilt is of any matter. We are to visit those in prison, full stop. I remember hearing a sermon from a minister who took this prescription very seriously.
“The people I minister to are not good men,” he said, “I served a man in solitary confinement who raped a six-month-old baby to death. That doesn’t matter, Jesus said, ‘Just as you did to the least of these, so have you done to me.’”
I cannot endorse Euthyphro’s actions. He clearly is in a conflict of interest, as having his father arrested would put him in position to take control of his money and resources. Additionally, this takes away from the agency of the dead worker’s family to make sense of this case themselves. It is my hope that Euthyphro would visit his father in prison. That is, after all, the pious thing to do.