Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Euthyphro Dilemma Ain't What It Used to Be

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?
This question was posed by Socrates to one of his foils.  As posed to a Christian, the dilemma asks essentially this:  does morality exist apart from God and God simply decrees whatever it happens to mandate?  Or does morality exist because it is decreed by God?  The question is intended to debunk the notion that God is the source of an absolute moral standard.  If morality is absolute but separate from God, then God had nothing to do with it, so what need have we for God?  Whereas, if God decreed morality, then it is simply a product of God's whim and is therefore arbitrary -- i.e., not absolute.

As a Reformed Christian, I don't see a dilemma here.  Do you?

Attacks on the Christian faith come in all forms. Many educated non-believers think the way to beat God is to try to make his followers feel intellectually insecure. This is nothing new -- even Paul warned:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

As Christians, we stand on Biblical truth, not the cleverness of man, and thus have no reason to feel insecure about anything.  So let's take the dilemma apart and peek under the hood...

We can quickly dismiss the first part of the dilemma: there can be nothing higher than God, nothing that transcends God, no separate standard to which He can be held up, indicted or shamed.  Morality must somehow originate with God.

As to the second part:  does God actually decree morality, or is it simply a reflection of His character?
Consider this:  if there happened to be only one person in all of existence (including God), would morality then exist?  How much of morality presupposes relationships?

The Ten Commandments address the rules governing two types of relationships:  man's relationship with God, and man's relationship with other men.  Every commandment presumes these relationships exist.  Do not worship other gods.  Do not murder.  Do not steal.  Do not covet anything of your neighbor's.  These rules make no sense in a universe of one.

How about the Golden Rule?
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Again, this presupposes relationships, by explaining how to participate in good ones:  treat others with the respect you would like them to grant to you.

The essence of morality appears to be relationships, and how to get them right.   One could argue that even one person alone in the universe could sin against himself, but it isn't obvious how.  The sins we refer to as "self-destructive" are judged bad because of their effects on others, and because they are an affront to God's gift of life -- if there was no one else to be affected, and no god to affront, what then?  If the only person in the universe was an abusive drunk, he couldn't go home and beat up his wife.  If he was a drug addict, he'd have no job to lose.  If he was suicidal, there would be no one to mourn his passing, and no one dependent on him to suffer from his absence.

Christianity is the only religion in which not only is God eternal, but so are relationships.  As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- Three Persons in One -- God has participated in perfect relationships from the very beginning.  This means we cannot impute arbitrariness to God; He is eternal and unchanging.  This means morality is not some unknown, unknowable, abstract thing hanging out there somewhere in space, nor is it a set of arbitrary dictates issued by a lonely monadic deity.  Morality is the way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other and have related to each other for all time -- and which defines how we, as God's creatures, should relate to each other.  In the Bible, whenever the Father speaks of the Son, it is with the utmost respect, deference, and love -- and likewise, when Jesus speaks of His Father and of the Holy Spirit.  Their eternal relationship would not have been sustainable for more than a few minutes without the sort of loving care they take of it.  They can no more afford to be arbitrary than we can afford to be arbitrary in our relationships with our spouses, children, and other loved ones.  When God tells us to love one another, He is asking us to do no more than what He already does, and has done for all eternity.

To be fair to Socrates, the nature of our Triune God had not been fully revealed in his day, not even to His  [the Lord's] people, the Jews.  It made perfect sense for Socrates to presume that a monadic god could be arbitrary or whimsical in his decrees.  (In fact, this is precisely how Islam conceives of Allah:  a monadic god who changes his mind about what is right or wrong.)  If God were monadic, then he would have been (at least for some period of time) the fellow we were just talking about a few paragraphs ago:  the only person in existence.  The very first time he created other beings, relationships would also have been created for the first time -- and hence so would morality.  So much for eternal and unchanging; so much for absolute morality.

So Socrates had an excuse; those who pose the question nowadays do not.  If morality is absolute, the only consistent explanation to be found is from the Bible:  morality originated with our Lord.  If morality is not absolute, we have no reason to worry about whether we're adhering to it, and no reason even to suppose we can know what it is.  Better to pose the question to the moralistic unbeliever:  if you don't believe in the Lord, why do you act as if morality exists apart from your own particular tastes, whims, and preferences?  And if that's all morality is, why are others obligated to obey it?  Having such frank discussions probably will not change their minds or hearts -- that's the Lord's job.  But it's our job, whenever possible, to give them pause.


Michael Meadon said...

I find the piece rather baffling. It seems you dislike either of the horns of the dilemma so want to avoid them, but you have exactly zero arguments. From what I can understand, you seem to say 'my magical book says morality cannot be independent of God, therefore it's not'. Then you say 'but I also dislike the whole arbitrary morality thing, so I'm going to avoid it by positing my invisible man in the sky has multiple personality disorder.'

It's a pretty clever move, superficially, but I'm just not seeing how attributing morality to God's nature rather than his decree makes it any less arbitrary. Since your sky wizard is supposed to be self-existing and omnipotent, he could presumably have had a different nature (and could presumably change his nature), so the distinction between decree and nature breaks down. Surely the lack of volition makes moral rules even more arbitrary, not less?

Also, when you say "their eternal relationship would not have been sustainable for more than a few minutes without the sort of loving care they take of it." You seem to confuse arbitrariness with convenience or efficiency. The three multiples clearly could have gotten along with a different set of rules (say, never talking to each other or strong respect rather than love, etc).

Furthermore, a lot of the Bible's prescribed morals just cannot possibly be a reflection of God's nature. Unless you're willing to say the son, the father and the holy ghost were in danger incest/masturbation/homosexuality (at the same time), how, exactly, does the rule against homosexuality reflect God's nature? And how about all the nonsense rules in Leviticus? Was there a risk of sartorial disputes, and that explains Leviticus 19:19?

By the way... Socrates was Greek, not Jewish.

Lee said...

Michael, I'm delighted that you have responded.

But I'm baffled myself as to why you have characterized my post as containing "exactly zero arguments." It's right there. All I had to do was show it is essentially a false dilemma. I did this by showing that morality proceeds from the eternal, unchanging relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- so that morality itself is likewise eternal and
unchanging, i.e., not arbitrary.

Now, you may not like the argument, but it's there, and it's more than zero.

To show this is not a solution to the dilemma, all you need to do is demonstrate one of two things: 1) that any relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by necessity cannot be based on eternal and unchanging principles; or 2) that the principles governing
good relationships are themselves arbitrary.

You would probably have a better chance with door number 2, as "slim" is better than "none". So let's see if I can help...

Can you relate examples from your own life in which you have built a good relationship with a loved one by basing it on arbitrariness? E.g., being kind one minute,
cruel and abusive the next? Truthful for one minute, lying and conniving the next? Humble and considerate one minute, arrogant and encroaching the next? Can you find examples in divorce law where
a wife's complaint was that her husband was not cheating on her? That he didn't tell enough lies?
That he didn't beat her often enough? That he showed her too much respect? Do police arrest
someone for failure to rob a bank? For premeditated refusal to murder?

And if you can find examples matching such specifications, can you show they are mainstream and not aberrational? Can you show they are generally-accepted practices for maintaining relationships? Can you show they are effective at helping relationships?

Anyhow, I'm tired of playing defense, so let's try a little offense. You are obviously a moralistic sort of fellow (I mean that in a good way), so please explain: where, in your world view, does morality comes from?
I don't mean who wrote about it first. I mean, what is it? How did it originate? What gives it authority if the world is, as you apparently believe, without God? Is it absolute? Does it transcend man? If so, what makes it so? If not, why ought we pay it heed? What distinguishes it from your personal preferences? *Is* it distinguishable from your personal preferences?

P.S. I can see how you were able to misconstrue that I thought Socrates was a Jew. But note that I capitalized the second "His" in this sentence: "God had not been fully revealed in his [Socrates'] day, not even to His [the Lord's] people, the Jews."

dumbbunny said...

I think you can say that God's character IS morality - it is who He is as a Triune God. His nature can't be changed because that would mean that it wasn't perfect in the first place! All He has created and done is done being defined by or fitting into His morality (character), otherwise, He wouldn't enjoy it as much; why would He ever create it?

We being created in His image will have a relational make-up, atleast in some measure, like His. Who would like a world with no one else in it? What prisoner can stand solitary confinement forever? We as God's people have a relational definition and that is Trinitarian. Jesus said in John 17 that we are to be loved by the Father as He loves the Son; and in John 12 He says that we are to love one another with the same love that He (Christ) loved us.

Certainly God's character and nature are not going to change. Probably if they did, the universe itself would change at the same time to be consistent with God's new makeup. He certainly wouldn't allow it to be less enjoyable to Him and His "new character." Hence, the universe may not even know that God had changed - for it quite possibly would change at the same time to be consistent with His "New Self!" All this, of course, is ridiculous!

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Kevin the Conservative said...


Excellent post, as usually, very well crafted, supported, thought out, and presented. I believe, as you stated, that morality is an expression of God’s character. He created us in His image for a reason, and with a purpose. In simple terms, the reason was to be an expression and an object of His love and the purpose was for us to have a loving relationship with Him. It was this relationship that was lost due to sin. Sin creates a barrier between us and God. Because of sin we are separated from Him and cannot fulfill our purpose.
A holy God cannot have a relationship with sinful man. That is a very important concept, that God cannot fellowship with sinful man. Some people approach this separation as God choosing not to fellowship with sinful man. There is a big difference between will not and cannot. A god who chooses not to fellowship with sinful man can be viewed as an elitist, uncaring and maybe even a harsh god who has turned his back on his creation and has left them to their own fate. This is a very different picture from a holy god who cannot have a relationship with sinful man because his very holiness makes it impossible for him to be in the presence of sin. When you add to this picture that this same god paid a great price to make it possible for sinful man to be forgiven so that they could again have fellowship with god, and that this price was the sacrifice of his only son, you have a picture of a God “who so loved the world, that He gave His only Son so that whosoever would believe in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.”
To be holy means to be set apart. It also carries the concept of being pure. The Book of Isaiah says that God is “Holy, Holy, Holy”, which is a statement of His unique purity. His morality is a statement of this character. In Leviticus 11:44, God says, “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” You “be holy”, He says, “because I am holy”. What kind of a reason is that? You be something because I am something. It only makes since within the concept of a relationship, so that we can fulfill our purpose and have a relationship with our Creator. Our God created us for a reason and with a purpose and when sin made it impossible for that purpose to be fulfilled, He already had a plan in place to pay the consequence of our sin so that we could stand before Him, holy and sinless, not because of anything that we did, not earned or deserved, but because God loved us enough to pay the price of our sins.
I know that I could not even begin to understand God’s love until I begin to understand His justice. God is love but He also is just. God cannot be unjust. Again, this is not a will not, but a cannot. God cannot be untrue to His nature. That is one of those trick questions, “Is there anything that God cannot do?” The answer is yes. God cannot be untrue to who and what He is. Because He is holy He cannot be in the presence of sin. Because He is just, He cannot just let sin slide. It was His love that made it possible for God to be true to His nature of Holiness and justice and still make it possible for Him to have a relationship with those whom he created for that very purpose.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Sorry to be so long but you inspired me.