Monday, January 16, 2012

Religion & Morality Redux: Plato's Euthyphro

God said to go the Wrong Way.  Therefore, it must be moral!
In the last post I discussed two common arguments made by theists that religion is necessary for morality and why they are wrong.  However, I neglected to mention an argument on this question which comes from Plato's Euthyphro in which Socrates asks Euthyphro: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

This question has been re-framed in the time since Plato: Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

It is an interesting dilemma that more pithily encapsulates the two hypotheses I wrote about the other day.  Reading through the logical implications of these questions, it becomes clear that, logically, true morality cannot be dictated by a divine being; rather it must come from society's collective expectations.

 The First Horn
The "First Horn" as it is called, considers the former: Is what is morally good commanded by god because it is morally good?

In this case, it is quite clear that morality exists outside the purview of the divine being.  God is not declaring it good by fiat, but god is commanding it because it is morally good.  In other words, god is not deciding what is morally good, but commanding that what is morally good be done.  The implication of this is that god is powerless to change what is "good" and thus can only command that that which is good be done, thus calling into question god's omnipotence: he is reduced to a communicator of morality and cannot determine morality.

There are a couple of implications that this horn presents, but the most relevant to our discussion of morality (as opposed to the nature of god) is that if there are moral standards independent of God, then morality would retain its authority even if God did not exist.

The Second Horn
The Second Horn is concerned with the latter: Is something morally good because it is commanded by god?
This is quite different from the first proposition because it assumes the omnipotence of a god to declare that which is good. In this case, the only moral standards are those which god declares.  This situation does not require any criteria or methodology for determining what is morally good.  Indeed, such a morality could be completely arbitrary as long as it originates from god.

This proposition presents some very obvious problems if one were to accept it.  First, this would allow for a completely inconsistent code of morality.  God could declare that it is moral to not follow his own morality.  Obviously this would create an inescapable dilemma that cannot be followed, yet nevertheless valid as it is declared by god.  Wikipedia notes that Descartes subscribed to the second horn and even its implications for geometry where god could require that triangles have other than 180 internal degrees, a patently absurd notion.

Another obvious problem with this is that god could, at any time, change what civilization has long held to be moral.  For example, god could declare that it is a moral imperative to kill some subset of the population (leaving aside the fact that many have tried to justify murder or genocide as god's will).  Or god could declare that it is morally imperative that people over 5 feet tall must skip to work when the temperature exceeds 60 degrees on Mondays.  Again, patently absurd.

But the point is that to hold to the Second Horn, that whatever god declares as moral because it was declared by god, implies that there are no limits to the absurdity of a morality imposed by a god with such power.

Believers are very keen to argue that religion provides an objective morality for them to follow and rail against 'relativism'.  Yet this argument hilariously lacks self-awareness since the supposed supporters of 'objective morality' routinely reject or are willfully ignorant of many of the absurd and disgusting "objective moral standards" imposed by the voice of god in the bible.
  • The eating of fat is prohibited forever (Leviticus 3:17)
  • Stubborn children were to be stoned, and the stoning was to be instigated by their parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
  • People who have flat noses, or are blind or lame, cannot go to an altar of God (Leviticus 21:17-18)
  • Don't wear clothes made of more than one fabric (Leviticus 19:19)
  • Kill anyone with a different religion. (Deuteronomy 17:2-7)
Because of this clear fact that many of god's laws in the bible are subverted or have be 're-interpreted', it is obvious that society as a whole, and even Christian society, rejects, in practice if not in sentiment, the notion that a supposed god even has the ability to set moral standards.

Once you can recognize, even if you indeed believe in a god, that your morality does not come from him but from the ever evolving social norms of society, you are forced to admit that being religious does not confer moral authority over non-believers.  And perhaps, you will explore are more humanistic morality, which as the name implies focuses on human issues and values, to direct your behaviors, as opposed to a moral system that is littered with decrees and pronouncements that any reasonable person can see as barbaric.

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

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