Responding to Euthyphro’s Dilemma

Often non-believers attempt to trap Christians with dilemmas or paradoxes. One well-known example is called Euthyphro’s Dilemma. I will explain what it is and how Plato answered his own dilemma.

What is Euthyphro about?

In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates examines what is meant by piety. While at court, Socrates speaks to Euthyphro, a priest who is there to prosecute his father for murder. Socrates asks Euthyphro why he would do such a thing since the man is his own father. Euthyphro responds that it doesn’t matter whether the victim is a relative or a stranger, nor does it matter regarding one who takes the life of another person because what matters is piety.

This is what sparks the discussion on piety. When Socrates first asks what is piety, Euthyphro talks of bringing a murderer to justice as an example of piety and speaks of the justice Zeus meted to his father Cronus as an illustration of the supreme Greek god punishing his father, but does not give a definition of piety. When pressed again for an answer, Euthyphro says that piety is what is pleasing to the gods. Socrates points out that the Greek gods feud frequently because of disagreements and wonders how it is that piety is what is pleasing to the gods when the gods disagree on what pleases them. After a lengthy discussion of which Euthyphro is unable to give a definition of piety that satisfies Socrates, the latter points out the circular argument that the former has been making: what is pious is dear to the gods because what is dear to the gods is pious.

Analyzing Euthyphro

In Euthyphro, Socrates says, “We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” Another way of saying this is to question if the gods determine things are moral and just because they are so by nature, or if they become moral and just because the gods declare them to be.

The dilemma is if the acts are morally good because they are good by nature, they are independent of the gods, making certain acts good in themselves apart from the gods. This, of course, raises the question on how moral absolutes can exist as independent entities apart from the divine. On the other hand, if something is good because the gods decree them to be so, they could determine anything to be good, including murder. In fact, the gods could be capricious or even evil if they chose to be.

Answer to the Dilemma

Even though Socrates sets up this dilemma in Euthyphro, he answers his own questions in Phaedo when he speaks of the divine character, which he describes as “pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging.” Since, according to Plato’s account of Socrates, the divine is pure and unchanging, it cannot invite its opposites. Since the Forms of justice and piety are a part of the divine nature, the divine appeals to nothing other than its own character for the standard of what is good, just, and pious. Because Plato wrote of mythical gods who were often capricious and prone to the same depravities that afflict humanity, what he wrote concerning their unchanging purity is at odds with the stories about them. Yet, on some level he understood the character of the Divine. There is one God who “is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” (WSC Q. 4) As such, He cannot invite His opposites.

The Answer’s Effect on Ethics

Without an understanding of what is moral and just and where such ideas originate, it’s easy to fall into a state of moral relativism, making every person the arbitrator of what is right in his own eyes. It might seem extreme to say a person could believe it is right and just for him to murder, yet in many societies, infanticide is either a right held by the families or, as with the case in China, ordered by the government. Another example is slavery. Most people in Western countries today consider slavery to be a moral evil, yet unless there is a divine or a natural standard for what is moral and just, what is evil versus what is moral cannot be determined. For this reason, it’s important for philosophers, theologians, and societies to wrestle with the dilemma in Plato’s Euthyphro.

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