The Euthyphro Dilemma

July 30, 2010

It’s a while since i’ve read Plato, so what a pleasure to spend the first morning free of immediate university duties sat on the sofa, coffee in hand, reading Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro.

Often called The Euthyphro Dilemma, its application to monotheism can be concisely expressed thus,

“Is what is pious loved by God because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved?”

The dialogue constitutes a knockdown argument against the widely held notion that morality depends on God. The atheist and the theist are on exactly the same ground when it comes to approaching moral and ethical questions; all work is ahead.

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There’s a marvellous line in the dialogue that sums up the difference between the worldviews of theists and philosophical naturalists. Socrates has cornered Euthyphro into admitting that the consequence of considering piety to be a question of knowing “how to say and do what is pleasing to the gods at prayer and sacrifice” – that is, knowing how to correctly give and receive – is that piety is “a sort of trading skill between gods and men”. Euthyphro responds, “Trading yes, if you prefer to call it that.” Whereupon Socrates says, albeit a tad pompously,

“I prefer nothing, unless it is true.”

This is crucial, because atheists are constantly accused of being as much beset by faith as any theist, but the only sense in which the accusation has any purchase is that expressed in this pithy retort by Socrates.
(Slightly modified on August 4th)

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