Secular Morality: The Euthyphro Dilemma Makes Me Barf

platoI enjoy conversing with people that don’t agree with me. At least the friendly ones. Exchanging ideas and meeting the difficult challenges to our worldview is the only way we can really have any confidence that it is a true description of reality. I recently had a conversation with a friend in which it was proposed that objective morality can still exist in a secular worldview. I was pointed to an article on “Secular Morality” as one possible explanation of how an objective moral system can be achieved without a transcendent (ie outside the material universe) source of the moral laws. It’s an interesting article, but alas, it seems to be a faith based system (ie religion) of its own, with mankind representing itself as its own diety. It’s too much to address all at once, so I want to just look at some broad parts of it in a couple separate posts. To get started, if you’re reading this, then you should read the article linked above for the context…I’ll wait.

First, the article quickly rebuts the “theist” position on morality by standing on an age old false dichotomy. The author states, “Theists usually believe that God is the author of morality…”. However, the problem is that this sort of vague assertion about “theists” or “religion” pull a lot of worldviews under one umbrella, and then condemn them universally in the same way. It turns out, though, that all “theists” do not all hold the same views on reality, and so to not address them uniquely is intellectually reckless. While a polytheistic religion based on the gods of Greek mythology, Hinduism, or even Mormonism, might suffer from the idea that gods are the “author” of morality, it would not be the case in the monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Leveling this claim against all of them in the same way you might level it against the ancient Egyptian gods, stems from a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the proposed foundation of those monotheistic religions. Loading the deck with language like “author”, implying the assumption that God commands good and that’s what makes it good, sets the stage for the challenge, first brought by Plato, known as the Euthyphro dilemma.

The Euthyphro dilemma is used to claim, as this article does, that “morality based on the absolute say-so of a supreme being seems to be no less arbitrary than the relativistic morality that theists decry.” This accusation can only be valid though, if God is understood to be the “author” of morality (ie what is known as “Divine Command Theory”). That is, in order for the Euthyphro dilemma to apply, God must choose what is to be good, and it is his “say-so” that makes it good. However, properly understood in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God does not choose what is good and just. God is neither subject to some moral law outside Himself, nor does goodness exist simply because God commands it, implying that good could have been different than it is had God commanded differently. Rather, God, being good and just by nature, exudes goodness and justice. Goodness neither exist apart from God, so that he is subject to it or so that it can exist without him, or because of God’s divine commands. Since morality is neither something God is subject to, nor is it something he creates by fiat, it seems the Euthyphro dilemma commits the logical fallacy known as the false dichotomy. It attempts to pin two options on all theists, when with some there is certainly a third option. For further clarification, please see this short explanation by philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig who can do a much better job that I can in explaining it.

So, on the view of the major monotheistic religions, since God neither creates moral law, nor is he subject to some outside moral law outside of himself, it turns out that he, in and of himself and by his very essence, is the objective basis for moral law. This being the case, it seems clear that in each of them morality is not understood to be arbitrary, being decided by God, or expressed apart from God. Moreover, it is also evident that inside of each system that, as creations of God, mankind would be obligated to submit to the intrinsic moral code that God embodies. How morality plays out in each of those religious systems (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), and which one comports the best with reality, is for a different debate though.

Thus, the atheist ought not make the mistake of lumping all “theists” into one pot and then lay accusations against the entire pot. With this challenge of the Euthyphro dilemma met then, can the aforementioned article on secular morality claim a foundation for morality in any real universal sense? That is to say, can a secular worldview with consciousness somehow grounded in neo-Darwinian evolution claim a grounding for morality that isn’t just subjective. Can moral law be something that applies to all people, in all places, at all times? I don’t think so, but I’ll try to tackle that next, addressing some of the clear problems of claiming any meaningful morality based purely on individual or societal preferences, which is all that is left when something outside of the material world is removed as an option for the foundation for morality.

To be continued…