Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Euthyphro Examined

In the comments on my Abortion and Reppert post, Jayman asked me a question regarding the grounding of morality which I would like to expand on here. I had originally stated in response to him:

I already alluded to this earlier when I said that human rights aren't arbitrary because they're rooted in Theism. That still applies. I'm a Divine Command Theorist, so what makes something moral or immoral is the command of God (which is formulated by His nature). But if you are a secularist, then I see no reason at all why you should believe in any morality whatsoever, let alone human rights.
Jayman responded:
I'm a Christian but do not subscribe to the notion that something is good SOLELY because God says it is good. Such a view of ethics seems to make good and evil nothing more than the arbitrary decision of God. But perhaps your cryptic remark about God's nature means you have something else in mind.
To clarify my “cryptic remark” as well as to show what kind of Divine Command Theorist I am, I would like to offer the following discussion on the Euthyphro dilemma. This was summed up on the Moral Philosophy site as follows (all italics in the original):

The most common argument against divine command theory is the Euthyphro dilemma. The argument gets its name from Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, which contains the inspiration for it. The Euthyphro dilemma is introduced with the question Does God command the good because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by God? Each of the two possibilities identified in this question are widely agreed to present intractable problems for divine command theory.

Suppose that the divine command theorist takes the first horn of the dilemma, asserting that God commands the good because it is good. If God commands the good because it is good, then he bases his decision what to command on what is already morally good. Moral goodness, then, must exist before God issues any commands, otherwise he wouldn’t command anything. If moral goodness exists before God issues any commands, though, then moral goodness is independent of God’s commands; God’s commands aren’t the source of morality, but merely a source of information about morality. Morality itself is not based in divine commands.

Suppose, then, that the divine commands theorist takes the second horn of the dilemma, asserting that the good is good because it is commanded by God. On this view, nothing is good until God commands it. This, though, raises a problem too: if nothing is good until God commands it, then what God commands is completely morally arbitrary; God has no moral reason for commanding as he does; morally speaking, he could just as well have commanded anything else. This problem is exacerbated when we consider that God, being omnipotent, could have commanded anything at all. He could, for example, have commanded polygamy, slavery, and the killing of the over-50s. If divine command theory is true, then had he done so then these things would be morally good. That doesn’t seem right, though; even if God had commanded these things they would still be morally bad. Divine command theory, then, must be false.
The flaw of this argument is telegraphed by the wishy-washy ending of the "second horn." While the first horn of the dilemma is matter-of-fact, the second horn must resort to “That doesn’t seem right” language. Obviously, the second horn of the problem is the weak point of the argument.

And we can see why when we consider any standard. If we say something must be the standard, then we must define what that standard is. For instance, we say that light at the wavelength of 620-750 nm and a frequency of 400-484 THz is “red.” The label “red” is not what is important, for it is called different things in different languages (e.g., rojo in Spanish); therefore, let us say that we have defined light that is at 620-750 nm and a frequency of 400-484 THz as X.

Suppose that we create a sensor that requires light to be X in order for a machine to work properly. Do the limits of how X is defined matter then? They very much do. If I build a machine expecting X to be a wavelength of 620-750 nm and someone sends a wavelength of 600 nm, my machine ought to do nothing. If it does do something, then clearly there is a malfunction of the sensor.

Is that arbitrary? It depends on how you look at it. Sure it’s possible to create the sensor to operate at different wavelengths than the one chosen; but once one is chosen, then the sensor must have that wavelength in order for the machine to properly work. One could argue that which wavelength is chosen is arbitrary, but it is a necessary function of the machine working that some wavelength be chosen.

However, further suppose that I am pleased with the color red and I want the machine to work when there is red light; so I design the sensor with that in mind. Is the fact that the machine runs on the color red arbitrary, or is it instead a reflection of my nature and my desires?

While we could in theory expect sensors to work at different colors, in actuality they never will because I like red that much. Is red therefore arbitrary? No, because I am who I am and that’s the way that I wanted it, and therefore red becomes necessary because of my nature.

In a similar way, we have morality. People ought to behave in a certain manner. But where did that standard come from? God’s commands, which are a reflection of His nature.

See, ultimately God is the standard of what is good. There is nothing higher than God that we could point to and say, “God, in order to be good, must be/do that.” He is, by definition, the highest possible good. Therefore, anything He does is by definition good.

Now one could argue, as the Moral Philosophy site did, that that means that God could command slavery, genocide, holocausts or any number of such things. However, God could not have done so, for then God would have a different nature then the one He has. A different God could have commanded those things and been morally good in doing so; this God (Who happens to be the real God) cannot do so.

And note that it is precisely because God is Who He is that it “doesn’t seem” like an alternate morality would be just.

For further takes on the dilemma, you can look at the following too:

And a global search of T-blog for all references:

Therefore, I must conclude: News of Divine Command Theory's demise has been vastly overstated.

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