The Euthyphro Argument: A Philosophical Dinosaur

by Rabbi Moshe Averick

A. An Introduction: The “Amoral” World of the Atheist

In the ongoing "debate", between believers and atheists, one of the recurring issues that is discussed and argued, is the relationship between God, and moral values.  In the atheistic view of reality we are, in the words of Sir Arthur Eddington, the great astrophysicist, nothing more than "…bits of stellar matter that got cold by accident, bits of a star gone wrong" (The Quotable Atheist, pg. 98) or as described by Dr. Peter Walker, Space Physicist at Rice University, a human being is a "...carbon based bag of mostly water, on a speck of iron silicate dust revolving around a boring dwarf star…"(The Quotable Atheist, pg 313).

The result is that there is no room for any meaningful moral purpose in a universe as described by Sir Arthur Eddington and Dr. Peter Walker. In fact, in a universe without God, there simply are no real, binding, moral principles.  This is so basic, and so obviously true to any thinking person, that it would be categorized as Philosophy/Theology 101.

The truth of this proposition is so clear that, in my opinion, anyone who fails to grasp it either has not thought it through properly, or, perhaps, is psychologically and emotionally unable to accept the implications of this simple reality. From the atheists’ standpoint, ultimately, murder, mayhem, pillaging and raping are "morally" indistinguishable from kindness, compassion, and charity. Any value judgments applied to the above actions are completely subjective. The world of the atheist is, in fact, objectively amoral.

Despite this, for the sake of clarity, I still feel it is important to cite a number of "famous" atheists, who candidly and even emphatically admit to the simple truth that I have stated.

1. Dr. Richard Dawkins (River of Eden, Scientific American 1995, as quoted by Victor Stenger in "God-The Failed Hypothesis" Pg. 71, Dawkins is  considered by many, to be the High Priest of Atheism in the 21st Cent.):

"The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference…

2. Jean Paul Sartre (French Existentialist Philosopher, The Quotable Atheist Pg. 266):

"The existentialist finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven."

3. Anitole France (French Writer, The Quotable Atheist Pg. 119):

"Nature has no [moral] principles…makes no distinction between good and evil"

4. Dr. Peter Singer (Australian Professor of Ethics, was named Humanist of the Year in 2004 by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies), in a videotaped interview with journalist William Crawley, (which can be seen on YouTube), where he was asked if he thought that pedophilia was "just wrong". Singer became, what only could be described as righteously indignant, and he replied as follows:

"Nothing is just wrong. Nothing is intrinsically wrong. I don't have intrinsic moral taboos. I don't see that you can say that. That's not my view.  My view is not that anything is just wrong. You're trying to put words in my mouth….I don't think that this moral method of saying it's just wrong is a method we should rely on, neither in this case [pedophilia], nor any other."

5. Dr. Steven Weinberg (Winner of The Nobel Prize in Physics, 1979, The Quotable Atheist Pg. 319):

"the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."

6. Sigmund Freud (Webster Quotationary):

"the moment man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively, neither has any existence."

To summarize: In the atheist worldview, we are highly evolved pieces of bacteria, living in a pointless, valueless, amoral world.

B. The Atheist Fights Back

Atheistic philosophers, while admitting that atheism implies the complete subjectivity of moral values, reply that having God as a "moral lawgiver', still does not solve the problem of discovering true moral principles. In other words, they contend that both the believer and atheist sit on the horns of the same philosophical/moral dilemma. The challenge they present to believers is actually found in the works of Plato, in a dialogue entitled EUTHYPHRO (from now on referred to as the Euth. Argument).

The Euthyphro Argument has been presented by many atheists in various formulations. Bertrand Russel, in a work entitled, "Why I Am Not A Christian", presents one version.  Professor Jonathan Glover, in a debate with traditional Jewish author, and radio personality Dennis Prager, used this argument to challenge Prager's assertion that morality must be God based. I even once saw it written up in the religion column of the Chicago Sun Times.  The argument is well known to philosophers of religion, and theologians.

At first glance, the argument seems very powerful.  At least one blogger (Snaarsissism, July 2005) seems to indicate that it was instrumental in converting him from believer to atheist:

"When I saw this argument for the first time, I was stunned. I had been firmly of the belief, that morality did depend on God's command! Eventually, I accepted the point of the argument. [i.e. that morality has nothing to do with God's commands].”

C. The Euthyphro Argument

I present now, the Euth. Argument, as formulated by Professor Julian Baggini, from his book entitled: Atheism: A Short Introduction (Pg. 38):

"Plato made the point extremely clearly in a dialogue called Euthyphro… Plato's protagonist, Socrates, posed the question…do the gods choose what is good because it is good, or is the good, good, because the gods choose it?  If the first option is true, [i.e.  the gods choose good because it is good], that shows that good is independent of the gods (or God, in a monotheistic faith). Good is just good, and that is precisely why a good god will always choose it.

But if the second option is true, [i.e. it is good because the gods choose it], then that makes the very idea of what is good arbitrary. If it is God's  choosing something alone that makes it good, then what is there to stop God from choosing torture, for instance, and thus making it good[or murder, or hating your neighbor, etc]… to recognize this, however, is to recognize that we do not need God to determine right or wrong.  Torture is not wrong just because God does not choose it…"

As such, even if God exists, morality must be independent of this existence. Here is a more "mathematical" presentation of the same argument, which I found on the internet. It focuses on the theory that morality emerges from God’s commands:

THE EUTHYPHRO ARGUMENT AGAINST THE DIVINE COMMAND THEORY OF MORALITY (DCT)

DCT states: Actions are wrong if, and only if, God commands us not to perform them.

1. Either:

(a) God commands us not to steal, murder, lie, etc, because these actions are wrong; or

(b) these actions are wrong because God commands us not to do them

2. If (a) is true, then there is a standard of morality separate from God's commands and DCT is false

3. If (b) is true, then either:

(c) God has reasons for commanding us to avoid these actions; or

(d) God has no reasons or commanding us to avoid these actions

4. If (c) is true, then it is these reasons, whatever they are, that make these actions wrong, not  God's commands, and DCT is false.

5. If (d) is true, then God's commands are arbitrary and effectively meaningless

6. Thus, either DCT is false, or moral rules are arbitrary and meaningless

Again, this argument indicates that, even if God exists, we seem to encounter the same difficulty as would be in the world as defined by the atheist. My contention, though, as I stated in the title of this essay, is that the Euth. Argument, no matter how convincing it may sound at first, is really nothing more than a philosophical dinosaur. It belongs in a Museum of Philosophy, in the section that displays ancient philosophical fossils that used to walk the earth but, in reality, are no longer applicable to our existence. In truth, this argument became obsolete even before the time of Plato. It died with the appearance of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and his introduction to the world of the revolutionary concept of Monotheism.

The reason that the Euthyphro Argument is still talked about is a combination of two factors:

(1)   atheistic philosophers have not realized, (or have chosen not to realize), that the argument only applies to the pagan "gods" of  Plato, and the ancient world, not the One God of Abraham, and the Jewish people; and

(2)   none of these philosophers ever bothered to formulate an actual definition of good, as opposed to simply presenting certain types of actions that they believe are good and certain ones they believe are bad (for example: murder is bad, kindness is good).

In the absence of these two factors, the argument falls, and that is the case today.

D. The Question is Not Really A Question At All

To paraphrase a dictum of Talmudic study, and apply it to philosophy: the most effective and complete way to answer a philosophical problem is to show that the question, never really was a question in the first place. It was all based on a fundamental misunderstanding of one sort or another.  As we shall see, this is exactly the case with the Euth. Argument.

Before I proceed, however, it is very important to restate the problem we are trying to solve. I have found that unless this is done, many people become confused at some point in the presentation.

E. What the Issue Is, and What the Issue Isn't

The believer argues that in a world without God, there are no objective moral truths. Every person, or group of people, will make up guidelines to live by, as they see fit.  None of them are objectively "right", and none of them are objectively "wrong". None are, as such, inherently "moral", and none are inherently "immoral". They simply reflect the tastes and opinions of different individuals and societies at different times and places. For what human being, or society, has the authority to "declare" to all mankind what is right or wrong?  Only a "transcendent" Moral Being can formulate and command moral truths which bind and obligate all humanity. (It is extremely important to note: Even if this argument is true, it does not necessarily prove the existence of such a Being. It would only prove that without such a Being, there are no objective moral truths.)

The atheist, of course, answers back, using the Euth. Argument, that morality does not depend on God either. These moral truths either exist totally independent of God or they are arbitrary and meaningless.

To summarize: The issue at stake is not: DOES GOD EXIST? The issue at stake is: DO WE NEED THE EXISTENCE OF GOD IN ORDER TO HAVE MEANINGFUL, ABSOLUTE, MORAL VALUES?

F. Closing the File on Euthyphro

I can now proceed with the final section of this essay.

Invariably, value judgments involve comparisons. In other words, if I say someone or something is good or bad, it is almost always in comparison to something which acts as a standard.

For example, if I talk about a major league baseball pitcher as being "good", I am essentially comparing him to a theoretical model of what a pitcher is supposed to accomplish. The more strikeouts, fewer earned runs, more games won, etc, then, the "better" the pitcher. I can also make a comparison to "great" pitchers of the past or present. If I want to discuss basketball, I simply say, "Be like Mike"- the more like Michael Jordan you are, the better player you are.

If I own a factory where I want to produce "excellent" stereo systems, at the end of the assembly line, I will compare the stereo system to a certain list of specifications; sound quality, frequency response, watts per channel, etc.  If the system matches my specifications, I consider it an "excellent" system. Imagine the absurdity of the situation where I demand from my workers, production of "excellent" electronics, but I give no specifications as to what "excellence" is supposed to be.  How could I possibly decide if I have produced an "excellent" system?   Without the standard of comparison, the whole concept becomes meaningless.

When we talk about "good" or "bad" people, or "good" or "bad" behavior, there must be a standard to which we are comparing the people or behavior.  If the standard is one that is subjectively or arbitrarily conjured up by human beings, the meaning of "good" or "bad" is purely subjective or arbitrary It has no meaning in real or absolute terms.  This, in essence, is the challenge of believers to the atheists that we have talked about earlier.

Let us posit, however, the existence of a Transcendent, Eternal, Infinitely Perfect Being.  Simply put, this is the God of Monotheism, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

IF THIS BEING ACTUALLY EXISTS,  then the more I emulate this Being, the closer I am to this Being, the deeper the relationship I have with this Being, the "more" I am , in actual, absolute terms. Again, I actually, and in reality am "more". I actually, and in reality, have moved closer to the ultimate perfection. (Again, that is if this Being actually exists.)

This then, is the only possible, meaningful definition of "good" or "bad". The closer I come to the ultimate, infinite perfection which is God Himself, the "better" I am.  The further away I move from the ultimate perfection which IS His Being, the "worse" I am.  "Good" and "bad", "moral", and "immoral", are simply different words which refer to, closeness to, or distance from, God. Outside of this context, the words "moral", and "immoral", have no real meaning.

When God commands us to "love your neighbor", it is not because it is "good", in the way atheists use the word, which is simply some vague notion of nice deeds.  With His commandments, God offers us a relationship.  He is saying to us: If you want to emulate Me, have a deeper relationship with Me and My Absolute, Infinite Being, then "love your neighbor".  If you don’t, you will be further away from Me and My Absolute, Infinite Being.  "Thou shall not murder", means that if you commit murder, you will be very far away from Me. The more you approach Me, the more of a "good" and "moral" person you become. If you choose to act in a way that moves you away from My absolute, infinite being, you are "bad", "immoral", and "evil".

The source of God’s authority in this matter also becomes apparent. Only God Himself knows what a human being must do in order to come close to God, and what actions will cause a human being to become distant from God.

In the context of Jewish Theology, the Euth. Argument breaks down completely:

Is "loving your neighbor" good because God commands it?
Obviously not, that would make it arbitrary.
Does God command us to "love your neighbor" because it is good?
We can now emphatically answer, YES! But the good is not separate from God; the only good is God himself, and those things which bring us closer to Him.

IF THIS ABSOLUTE, INFINITE BEING EXISTS, we have a standard to determine a meaningful concept of moral truths. The standard is closeness to God, and the infinite perfection which is His Being.
This is what King David means when he says in Psalms, Kirvas Elokim Li Tov, To me, closeness to God is good. (Tehillim 73:28)

On the other hand, if this infinitely perfect being does not exist, we are left with nothing but 100%

subjective human tastes, opinions, and social mores. Subjective human "ethics", and "morality", have absolutely no meaning at all, outside of the heads of those who adhere to them. They are simply hallucinations, and fantasies, which people use to give themselves the illusion of purpose, values, and meaning in their existence. They are like the traitor in the movie, The Matrix, who chooses the comfortable illusion of the matrix, instead of confronting a painful reality.

The  Euthyphro Argument, as a challenge to Monotheism, is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.  The only reason it has some superficial appeal at all, is because the word "gods" is used, giving the impression of some authority above human beings. In fact, pagan "gods", have no more moral authority, nor moral credibility, than mortal humans.  A pagan god is simply a human being, projected to a very large scale. He's bigger, stronger, lives longer, can even throw some lightning bolts when needed, etc.  They are no different than The Incredible Hulk, The Flash, or Superman, (who, as the old TV show told us had "powers far beyond those of mortal men!").

Formulating the Euth. Argument using pagan "gods" is exactly the same as saying:

Does The Incredible Hulk command us because it is good, or is it good because The Incredible Hulk commands it?

When stated this way, we realize how misguided, and mistaken, the whole argument was to begin with.  Of course, Superheroes, Rock Superstars, and Pagan "gods", can only tell us their totally subjective views on morality, or manufacture it arbitrarily.

Not So, the God of Abraham, the God of the Jewish People.  The "ONE" God is not a human being projected to a large scale. He is above time and space. He is above the physical. He is even above the spiritual. God created the spiritual. He is, as Rabbi Yakov Weinberg (of blessed memory, formerly, Dean and Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel Rabbinical Seminary in Baltimore, Md.) has put it; "so totally and completely "other" than we are."

With the existence of The One God, greatness, goodness, morality, and meaning lay in front of us.  They are within our grasp if we choose them.

Without God, in the utterly empty void of the atheistic world, we are left with nothing but bleak despair, as expressed by Thomas Coraghessen Boyle, the American novelist:

"I am an atheist and a nihilist…I believe in nothing.  And it causes me tremendous despair and heartbreak….there is nothing between us and the naked howling face of the universe. Nothing." 

Ashreinu Ma Tov Chelkainu 

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Rabbi Moshe Averick grew up in Chicago, learned at Yeshivas Brisk in Chicago, and at Gush Etzion in Israel. He received semichah from Aish Hatorah in 1980 and helped found Aish in Toronto. He taught in the American program at Shalavim for 12 years.

2007 NISHMA