Joel Pinheiro

Eutyphro Dismantled

In Essay, Morality, Religion in general on July 7, 2010 at 3:52 pm

It is clear to all who read this site (i.e. me) that it is just a venue for arbitrary, intermittent thoughts on religion. Still, whenever free time and a good idea combine, an update may come up; and who knows, it might be good.

Eutyphro dilemma: is God bound by morality? Or is He above it and capable of changing it at will? Is the good loved by God because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by God?

Anyone of these possibilities seems unsatisfactory. Either God is limited, and there is something superior to Him, or morality is just a question of divine whim. God could declare that, starting tomorrow, drinking water is a sin and rape is praiseworthy, and it would effectively be so. Whoever accepts this admits that his commitment to morality (to real-world morality of the sane “thou shalt not kill” variety) is – how shall we put it ? – slight. Fortunately, there is a way out. We can preserve both God’s supreme standing and moral common sense. And it relies on an old concept in the history of philosophy: natural law.

Some things contribute to man’s life, enabling him to achieve happiness, to flourish as a human being. Knowledge, friends, material necessities; things that, in ordinary conditions, one needs to lead a properly human existence. From these follow some rules, laws of conduct which, if ignored, will have destructive consequences. I know that life is a good thing (it is, after all, the necessary condition for all good things), I know that everyone else is as much a human being as I am. Therefore, just as it would be bad for me to die, I ought not to kill anyone else.

The precepts of morality flow from human nature; they are the necessary consequence of beings whose nature it is to be rational and to pursue their ends freely. So, could God change morality by issuing new and different decrees, such as “thou shalt rape”? No, because there would be a logical contradiction in this, and God cannot “do” logical contradictions (not because of a limitation in his power, but because contradictions are not “things” in the first place). Once one knows what man is, he knows that rape is very destructive for man. But if man had a completely different sexual/reproductive make-up (if, for instance, there were many genders, or only one, or if sex didn’t have deep emotional and psychological roots, or if we were born as adults), sexual morality would be radically different. Most of our ethical precepts probably don’t apply for a rational alien species living in Sun’s core.

So, is morality higher than, and independent of, the Creator of the universe? Not at all. Human nature, the metaphysical basis of (human) morality, was created by God. Therefore, he is also the author of morality. And could he change it? Certainly; but now we understand that to change morality means to change the nature of man, or to create new and different rational beings, something he could do. Using biblical imagery, morality was not instituted at Mount Sinai when Moses received the ten commandments. It was created in the garden of Eden as one of the effects of the creation of Adam. The commandments serve as a general guide for people to know more easily and clearly what is right and wrong; a knowledge which everyone has to some extent apart from divine revelation, and which can be expanded by the diligent use of reason. Thankfully, God,  not intending all humans to be ethical philosophers, revealed to all men what some men could, with effort, find out by themselves.


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