On Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’​ — A Dilemma

‘If we consider ethical life from the objective point of view, we may say that ethical man is unconscious of himself. In this sense, Antigone proclaims that no one knows where the laws come from: they are eternal’


‘Whether the individual exists or not is a matter of indifference to objective ethical life, which alone has permanence and is the power by which the lives of individuals are governed. Ethical life has therefore been represented to nations as eternal justice, or as gods who have being in and for themselves, and in relation to whom the vain pursuits of individuals are merely a play of the waves’.

- Hegel, ‘Philosophy of Right’, 1820

In Sophocles, (c. 497/6–406/5 BC), play ‘Antigone’ two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, led opposite sides in a civil war in Thebes and both were killed while fighting each other for the throne. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes and brother of the former queen Jocasta, decided that Eteocles should be honored while Polynices should be exposed to public shaming. The rebel brother’s corpse is not be sanctified by holy rites and is to lie unburied on the battlefield, a prey for carrion, the most severe punishment of the time. Antigone, the sister of the Polynices, wishes to bury Polynices’ body, and does so clandestinely in defiance of Creon’s edict. A sentry subsequently and somewhat apprehensively reports that the body has been given funeral rites and a symbolic burial with a thin covering of earth, though no one observed who actually committed the crime, and an enraged Creon commands the sentry to find the guilty party or be put to death death himself. The sentry departs and upon his return brings Antigone with him, explaining that the watchmen uncovered Polynices’ body and then captured Antigone as she performed the funeral rituals. Creon interrogates her after sending the sentry away and she proffers no denial concerning what she has done:


You, however, tell me — not at length, but briefly — did you know that an edict had forbidden this?


I knew it. How could I not? It was public.


And even so you dared overstep that law?


Yes, since it was not Zeus that published me that edict, and since not of that kind are the laws which Justice who dwells with the gods below established among men. Nor did I think that your decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes given us by the gods. For their life is not of today or yesterday, but for all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth. Not for fear of any man’s pride was I about to owe a penalty to the gods for breaking these.

Antigone is unyielding in her arguments with Creon concerning the immorality of the edict and the morality of her actions, for she readily concedes that she is responsible for committing this act, but she insists that the orders to deny burial come from Creon himself, while the religious law of giving a burial to all dead men comes from the gods themselves. Creon is putting his own laws for the city as being more of more importance than the religious law, and Antigone is taking a stand, she will not disrespect the laws of the gods, even though as she points out ‘no man knows when they were first put forth’. As Hegel put it: ‘from the objective point of view, we may say that ethical man is unconscious of himself’. So why obey them then? Philosophers both past and present have sought to defend theories of ethics that are grounded in a theistic framework, and divine command Theory is the view that morality is in some way or another dependent upon God, (or gods, Antigone appeals to the gods of the Underworld and their laws concerning funeral rites, etc.), and that moral obligation consists in obedience to God’s commands, that is to say, the claim is that morality is ultimately based upon the commands or character of God, or gods, and that a morally right action is one that God commands or requires. As we can see with the case of Antigone the specific content of these divine commands varies according to the particular religion and the particular views of the individual divine command theorist, which we may suppose to be an immediate problem with the theory, (the laws of God, or the gods are supposedly eternal), and yet all versions of the theory hold in common the claim that morality and moral obligations ultimately depend upon God, or gods.

There is of course another problem immediately presenting itself with the theory. ‘Exhortations to moral virtue are not propositions at all’, said A. J. Ayer, (1910–1989), ‘but ejaculations or commands which are designed to provoke the reader to action of a certain sort. Accordingly, they do not belong to any branch of philosophy or science’. An ethical theory associated with logical positivism is known as emotivism which Alastair MacIntyre, (1929 — ), defined as ‘the doctrine that all evaluative judgments, and, more specifically, all moral judgments, are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling’. Also known as the hurrah/boo theory of morality. Helping others: hurrah! murder: boo! Rudolph Carnap, (1891–1970), took a similar view, although he considered ethical claims to be commands, not ejaculations, as Ayer did, which is fair enough, if they were ejaculations we would expect morality only to manifest itself in short spurts, and were you to maintain that ethical claims are commands from God then you are effectively adopting a divine command theory of morality while in addition suggesting a rational reason for them being commands. At an even more superficial level of discourse concerning something that warrants more complex and nuanced responses Bertrand Russell, (1872–1970), claimed that moral judgements express a wish, and R. B. Braithwaite, (1900–1990), contended that they serve to bind the community together. This is a non-cognitive, or anti-realist, view of ethical language, it adopts the position that ethical language does not make factually true claims, rather it serves some other function.

Does any of this accord with our intuitions about what morality is? Why be moral in the first place? How shall we answer? Is it merely a matter of obeying commands albeit they come from God, or the Gods? Why obey the Ten Commandments? Although from ‘Genesis’ through ‘Deuteronomy’ there are in fact a total of 613 commandments and are not many of them obsolete and not eternal? And furthermore, principally thou shalt nots rather than thou shalts: ‘Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk’. (‘Exodus 23:19’). If a command comes from God who are we to question it? The issue of the possible connections between religion and ethics has been and continues to be of interest to moral philosophers as well as to philosophers of religion with regard to the nature of moral deliberation, in virtue of which the arguments offered for and against divine command theory have both theoretical and practical significance. Thomas Aquinas, (1225–1274), spoke in its defence. Plato, (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 BC), as is well known, questioned it. For the theory is dogged by a persistent problem that will not go away, a problem raised in Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’, the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro haunting philosophical discussions of the relationship between God and ethics ever since, a dialogue on the nature of piety 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?’, which can also be understood as: ‘Does God command this particular action because it is morally right, or is it morally right because God commands it?’ How is the divine command theorist to answer?

If God commands a particular action because it is morally right then whatever is a subject for moral theology is also a subject for moral philosophy without any requirement to bring God, or the gods, into it, and yet as with philosophical issues generally the problem of morality or ethics (there may be a difference there although for the sake of keeping this discussion brief I won’t go into that here and will treat them as though they were interchangeable) is considerably more complicated than are allowed for by the crudities of logical positivist thinking or views of the sort that moral propositions are nothing more than expressions of wishes and so on.

‘Antigone and Ismene’, (her sister who refused to assist in the burial of their brother), 1896, Emil Teschendorff

Let us then run through the ‘Euthyphro’ in which we find these principal ideas advanced:

1. Socrates, having been charged by Meletus with corrupting the youth of Athens and with inventing new gods, is seeking to learn from Euthyphro, who is prosecuting his own father for murder, about the distinction between piety and impiety.

2. Euthyphro suggests that piety is prosecuting the unjust, those who have committed such crimes as murder or sacrilege, and impiety is a failure to prosecute such persons.

3. Socrates counters by pointing out that this is an example and not a definition, and therefore Euthyphro then suggests that piety is whatever is pleasing to the gods, and impiety is whatever is displeasing to them.

4. Socrates rejects Euthyphro’s definition on the ground that the gods do not agree in attitude concerning the acts of people, nor is it satisfactory to say that the pious is what all the gods love, for the pertinent question concerns the nature of piety in virtue of which the gods love it.

5. If, as Euthyphro then claims, piety is paying careful attention to the gods, by means of prayer and worship, for the benefit of man and woman, then piety appears to be loved by the gods even though it is of no benefit to the gods, but this runs counter to the previous claim that piety is good not simply because the gods love it.

Guido Reni, ‘Saint Catherine’, 1606

The ‘Euthyphro’ attends to some of the events that will culminate in Socrates’ trial and execution, and it portrays Socrates immediately prior his trial, the ‘Euthyphro’ being part of a sequence of dialogues, including the ‘Apology’, dealing with the trial itself, the ‘Crito’ dealing with Socrates’ incarceration after his conviction, and the ‘Phaedo’, dealing with the execution of Socrates by the drinking of the poison hemlock, (see my article On Plato’s ‘Phaedo’ — Forms of Life ). The ‘Euthyphro’ contains an exemplary presentation of the Socratic method in action as Socrates is portrayed as seeking wisdom about the meaning of the terms ‘piety’ and ‘impiety’ so that he can then defend himself against the charge of being impious. Euthyphro, it is presumed, knows what these terms mean, and Socrates endeavours to learn from him by asking questions and by asking him to define the terms, and each answer offered by Euthyphro is subjected to scrutiny by Socrates and found to be faulty. Euthyphro protests that Socrates will not allow his statements stand still, instead, by his persistent questioning, he makes the statements move away, until Euthyphro no longer knows what to say and he finally quits the discussion, refusing to recognize his own ignorance concerning the matter in question, and refusing to see how dangerous it is for him, or for anyone else, to act upon the basis of such complete ignorance.

The discussion gets under way when Socrates and Euthyphro encounter one another at the Porch of the King Archon, where cases dealing with crimes affecting the state religion are judged, and Euthyphro expresses surprise at seeing Socrates in such a place, whereupon Socrates explains that he is there because he has been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, and with inventing new gods while not believing in the old, official ones. In contrast, Euthyphro has come to court to charge his own father with murder, to which Socrates offers the suggestion that Euthyphro must be very wise if he knows that he is right in prosecuting his own father, indeed, such wisdom about what is right and wrong can be of great assistance to Socrates in his own case, and so he asks for details from Euthyphro. It then transpires that thhe charge that Euthyphro is bringing against his own father is based upon a rather odd story in which a drunken labourer, who worked on the family farm, killed one of the slaves, and Euthyphro’s father, having caught the murderer, tied him up, and threw him into a ditch, then sending a messenger to Athens to find out what to do. While waiting for a reply he completely neglected the bound murderer who subsequently perished from cold and hunger before the messenger returned. Euthyphro’s family insisted that the father did not actually kill the labourer, and even if he had, the labourer was a murderer anyway, so he probably deserved death. They maintained in addition that Euthyphro should not get involved, because it is impious for a son to charge his own father with murder, but Euthyphro insists that he was doing the right thing. Socrates is so taken with Euthyphro’s assurance that what he is doing is right and pious that he requests Euthyphro to instruct him so that he will be able to go to his own trial and explain to his accusers and his judges what is right and wrong, and given that piety and impiety must have the same characteristics in all actions that are pious or impious, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain the distinction between piety and impiety.

‘A Female Martyr Saint’ (unidentified), c. 1650, Carlo Francesco Nuvolone

The first definition that Euthyphro offers is that piety consists of doing just what he is doing, which is to say, prosecuting an unjust person who has committed a serious crime, even if such a person is a parent, whereas impiety consists of not prosecuting such an individual. To justify what he is doing, Euthyphro also points out that the Greek god, Zeus, bound up his own father, Cronos, for committing the crime of devouring some of his children, and that Cronos also punished his father for wrongdoing. Socrates responds by pointing out that Euthyphro’s statement does not actually constitute a definition of piety, but only an illustration of one pious action, and such a statement hardly helps in ascertaining if other actions are pious or impious. What is required, instead of a particular instance, is a statement of the essential characteristic of piety that makes all pious actions pious, for such a statement would allow one to classify all actions in virtue of the fact that it would provide a general standard by which to judge which actions are pious and which are not. Plato will point out repeatedly in his dialogues that one does not actually know a general concept like piety, justice, courage, and so on, if one can only cite examples of pious, just, or courageous activity, one cannot even be sure that these are examples of what one thinks, unless one also knows the meaning of the concepts, and hence, the general knowledge is critical for identifying and comprehending the particular instances with which we are familiar.

Euthyphro recognizes that he has not provided a satisfactory definition of the term piety by citing the example of his case against his father, and so he offers a more general statement about piety, asserting that ‘what is pleasing to the gods is pious, and what is not pleasing to them is impious’ Thereupon Socrates congratulates him for giving him the kind of answer he desired, all that is remaining, he contends, is to find out if this definition is the true one. The truth will be ascertained by asking questions about the definition given. Given that Euthyphro accepts all the Greek mythological tales about quarrels and disagreements among the gods, Socrates asks him whether the gods disagree about matters of fact or matters of value, to which Euthyphro replies it is the latter, so then, Socrates argues, they are disagreeing about what pleases or displeases them. The same action is pleasing to some gods and displeasing to others, and hence, according to Euthyphro’s second definition of piety, that which is pleasing to the gods, the same action can be both pious and impious.

Euthyphro insists that this contradictory conclusion does not follow because the gods all agree on certain matters, such as that if one man unjustly kills another, he is to be punished. The gods may all agree, Socrates concedes, about certain universal laws regarding punishment, but a disagreement still prevails among both men and gods as to which cases fall under these laws, for they disagree in their evaluations of various acts, some saying the acts are just, some that they are unjust, and even were Euthyphro certain in his own case that the gods agree that his father’s action was unjust, and that Euthyphro’s action is just, it is still evident that Euthyphro’s second definition of piety is inadequate. In view of the fact that the gods disagree about some of the actions that are pleasing or displeasing to them, an action cannot be pious simply because it pleases some gods, since the same action would have to be classed as impious if it displeased other gods.

A third definition is then presented to overcome the problem of divine disagreements, which is, that something is pious if all the gods love it, and it is impious if they all hate it, and in cases where there is disagreement among the gods, the item in question is to be classed as neither pious nor impious. Socrates at once begins examining this new definition by raising the most serious point brought up in the dialogue as he asks Euthyphro whether the gods love piety because it is pious, or whether it is pious because the gods love it. The question at issue is whether the basic characteristic that determines piety is the fact that the gods love it, or whether piety has in itself some characteristic which accounts for the fact that the gods love it. In a more general form this question was debated in the Middle Ages, as it still is today by those who haven’t been keeping up, when philosophers asked whether if something is good it is so because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good, that is to say, is goodness an independent value, or is it dependent upon the divine will? It was pointed out that if the latter be true, the Ten Commandments are good and right only because God decreed them, had he decreed the exact opposite, then the opposite would be good and right, if goodness is simply whatever God wills.

Euthyphro holds that the gods love piety because it is pious, and Socrates then demonstrates to him that he has not offered a definition, but only an effect of piety in pointing out that the gods love it. And since, according to Euthyphro, piety has certain characteristics that make it what it is, and since it is because of those characteristics that the gods love it, then he still has not given an adequate definition of piety. that is, he still has not revealed what the essential characteristics are that make piety what it is.

‘Saint Dorothea’, Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598–1664)

Then Socrates asks Euthyphro once again to tell him that which Euthyphro claims to know, namely, what piety and impiety are, but at this stage of the discussion Euthyphro is somewhat bewildered and complains that whatever he says in answer to Socrates’ persistent questioning just gets up and moves away. His words and his ideas do not seem able to stay fixed and permanent, so Socrates then offers to help by suggesting another way of approaching the problem. He asks Euthyphro whether whatever is pious must also be just, and upon Euthyphro giving an affirmative reply, Socrates then inquires whether piety is the same as justice, or whether piety is only part of what constitutes justice. The latter, he is informed, and in turn, Socrates demands to know what part of justice piety is, for if he could but discover that, he tells Euthyphro, then he could go to his own trial and show his accusers that they should not prosecute him for impiety, since he would then know what piety is and would act accordingly. In answering the question, Euthyphro offers another definition of piety and asserts that righteousness and piety are that part of justice dealing with the careful attention which should be paid to the gods, while the remaining portion of justice deals with the careful attention that ought to be paid to men. Socrates requests a clarification of the meaning of the phrase ‘careful attention’, a clarification being required, he explains, in virtue of the fact that in most cases where careful attention is paid to some object, like a horse or a person, the object is benefited or improved by the attention. Is this also true of the gods? Are they benefited or improved by piety? Most assuredly not. Therefore, it must be a different kind of attention that is involved.

To make his point clear, Euthyphro says that the kind of attention he has in mind is that which slaves pay their masters, to which Socrates points out, piety is a type of service to the gods then, and every service aims at accomplishing something. A doctor’s service produces health, a shipwright’s service produces a ship, but what does piety, which now seems to be a service, produce? Generally speaking, Euthyphro answers, the principal result achieved through piety, by means of words and actions in prayer and sacrifice that are acceptable to the gods, is the preservation of the state and of private families, while the results of impiety are the undermining and destruction of everything. In terms of this latest answer Socrates again asks what piety and impiety are, for Euthyphro now seems to be offering the view that piety is a science of prayer and sacrifice, a science that deals with asking of the gods and giving to them. Euthyphro insists this is exactly what he means, so Socrates then proceeds to dig into this latest definition of piety. To ask rightly of the gods is to ask of them what we need from them, and to give rightly to the gods is to give to them what they need from us. When Euthyphro agrees to this view Socrates points out that piety is the art of carrying on business between the gods and men, but this is a strange kind of business, since one side, man’s, and woman’s, seemingly receives all of the benefits, for we are quite clearly benefited by what the gods give us, but what do we give in return and are the gods benefited by it?

Euthyphro replies that what we give in return are honor and praise, which are gifts acceptable to the gods. Then, Socrates contends, piety is acceptable to the gods, but it does not benefit them, nor is it loved by them, to which Euthyphro disagrees and insists that nothing is more loved by the gods than piety. So, Socrates asserts, piety means that which is loved by gods. Euthyphro agrees wholeheartedly. Socrates then goes on to show Euthyphro that he has simply been talking around in a circle, and it is his own fault that his words will not stay put. They had agreed earlier in the discussion that the gods love piety because it is pious, and it is not pious because the gods love it. The fact that the gods love it is an effect of its nature and not its essential characteristic. Hence, there must be something which constitutes the fundamental characteristic of piety, that makes it what it is and causes the gods to love it. Either this conclusion is wrong, or Euthyphro has yet to answer the question, ‘What is piety?’ Then Socrates begins all over again by asking that question.

Socrates points out once more that Euthyphro must know the answer in order to pursue his case against his father, for surely he would not risk doing the wrong thing and offending the gods. Euthyphro wearily protests that he has no more time for the discussion, and he must rush off about his business, while Socrates protests that he is left without the help he needs for his trial so that he can report that he knows what piety is, and hence will not commit any impieties in the future. At this point the dialogue ends, one of several short early Platonic dialogues portraying Socrates exposing the ignorance of supposedly wise men, for when they are pressed they are shown not to know what they are talking about, they cannot so much as define basic concepts they deal with, such as ‘piety’, ‘justice’, and ‘courage’, yet they are so certain that what they are doing is pious, or just, or courageous. They are not willing to undertake the arduous task of seeking to discover the meanings and natures of these terms, and their actions, based upon their ignorance, can be disastrous, as is demonstrated by both Euthyphro’s charges against his father and the forthcoming trial of Socrates.

‘Saint Eulalia’, Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598–1664)

James Beckman, (1943 — ), has argued that the ‘Euthyphro’ has to do with religion in two ways. Firstly, the dialogue concerns religion, taking place between Euthyphro and Socrates as they chance upon each other before King Archon’s office and both involved in legal cases, which have brought them there, Euthyphro is going to prosecute his father for murder, Socrates is to be indicted for apostasy and the corruption of youth. And these are all religious offenses. Socrates directs their conversation about their impending trials to the basic question involved in their respective cases, the question of what constitutes piety, and he does his best to keep their conversation on topic. Secondly, apart from the religious nature of their topic, Socrates’ engagement in the conversation is itself a religious act for him, for it is a holy act of laying bare Euthyphro’s confusion and inconsistency on a topic of mutual importance,it is an act of subjecting to critical examination not just a professional statement or a theoretical position, but an entire personality, an entire way of life. The dialogue as a whole illustrates that which Socrates in the ‘Apology’ designates the sacred conduct of philosophy which he could not abandon without being impious. In sum, the ‘Euthyphro’ displays Socrates’ religious conception of philosophy at work.

Beckman presents a comprehensive and systematic treatise on the historical Socrates’ religiosity, explaining the background of religious thought for the ‘Euthyphro’ and examining the form and content of this dialogue, considering attention to historical details of importance in understanding the themes of the work and insights are certainly forthcoming upon his examination of several supposed sources of our knowledge of the historical Socrates and he arrives at the conclusion that in Plato’s early Socratic dialogues, including the ‘Euthyphro’, we have the only reliable literary representation of the character of Socratic philosophy in action, and accordingly we may regard the Socrates of Plato’s dramatic dialogues as a faithful recreation of Socrates, Plato’s teacher, not in historical details and exact wording certainly, but but to the spirit of Socrates’ philosophical conduct and his principal articles of belief.

Beckman delves into Socrates’ religious or theological utterances and arguments in Plato’s early dialogues in order to reconstruct a positive picture of the Socratic conception of religion, and given that among the early dialogues the ‘Euthyphro’, together with the ‘Apology’, receives the focus of his attention here much of what he has to say appertains to what I have noted above, that the ‘Euthyphro’ is a religious document in two ways, one by virtue of its topic, the other by virtue of Socrates’ engagement in the dialogue as a religious mission. And Beckman ventures further than the positive evidence to consider that negative dimension of Socrates’ philosophy which takes the highly idiosyncratic forms of pervasive irony, profession of ignorance, and silence, for the key to unlocking the concealed motives underlying Socrates’ negativity, Beckman contends, rests in the transcendence and ultimate indescribability of the Forms, (see my article ‘On Plato’s ‘Parmenides — Being and Non-Being’). Beckman assesses Socrates’ religious philosophy in the context of the evolving tradition of Hellenic culture, and the thesis central to his assessment is that with Socrates and Plato the Forms have replaced the Homeric gods as the transcendent embodiment of supreme values and Euthyphro’s beliefs and attitudes reflect the Homeric tradition while Socrates is in effect critiquing and transforming the Homeric values in reacting to Euthyphro in the manner that he does.

Socrates wonders how piety or holiness is related to the gods and in response to this fundamental question Beckman takes three approaches in his discussion of the ‘Euthyphro’. First, accepting Socrates’ suggestion that piety might be defined by differentiating that part of justice which is piety from the rest of it, Euthyphro defines piety as right service to the gods as distinguished from right service to men, Socrates’ critique is then forthcoming, if by service is meant taking care, Euthyphro’s understanding would have to be that the gods are improved by our care, while if, alternatively, by service to the gods is meant our assistance in their work, what work might that be pray tell? And if it means transactions with them through prayer and sacrifice, what kind of commodity could possibly be appropriate? The lesson to be derived from Socrates’ critique here, suggests Beckmann, is that since there is nothing to give to the gods, there is no reason to suppose piety to be a distinct part of the justice, and furthermore, given that the work of the gods is to mete out justice in the world, piety and justice cannot be differentiated, and so the traditional view that religion is a matter of how we transact business with gods rather than with mankind has to be abandoned.

The dialogue makes the point that the belief that there is one and the same Form, piety, by virtue of which all pious acts are pious conflicts with a theological voluntarism which claims that a pious act is pious because the gods love it, and Socrates holds the former view and rejects the latter. The outcome of which is that for Socrates piety is logically prior to the gods, for we can know what piety is and be pious ourselves without learning what the gods love, and furthermore if the gods are to be perfect it is by satisfying the criteria of Forms. Socrates professes his ignorance of the authenticity of stories about the gods, expresses his disinclination to accept the stories, and regards this agnostic attitude as the reason for the charge of impiety against him. A question may ensue concerning Socrates’ agnosticism, Beckman suggests, for what is it exactly that is motivates it? A pious (however we understand the term) acknowledgment of the limitation of human knowledge? Or a philosophical rationalism? But any distinction between faith and reason presupposed by such question is quite foreign to Socrates, for whom philosophy is religion, and therefore his objection to Euthyphro’s mythological conception of piety is both philosophical and religious, and it is a sad fact indeed that Socrates was condemned to death for irreligion precisely because of religiousness.

‘Saint Inés’, Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598–1664)

In R. E. Allen’s, (1931–2007), opinion what we discover in the ‘Euthyphro’ is not a doctrine but an inquiry, not the outcome of a successful investigation but the process of investigation itself, a process that is not brought to a successful conclusion. What is sought is the definition of piety, and Euthyphro proposes several definitions, but one after another they turn out to be unacceptable, for they are discovered to conflict with Euthyphro’s other beliefs, or they fail to satisfy Socrates’ requirements for successful definition. The dialogue exemplifies that special brand of philosophical investigation designated dialectic, and it is as an exercise in dialectic that Allen treats the dialogue, for there is an opposing view that the lack of success in arriving at a satisfactory definition of piety is merely ostensible, and that the dialogue does point to a conception of piety by means of a riddle, clues to which are embedded within the dialogue. There is a similar view at work in Beckman’s endeavours to puzzle out Socrates’ conception of religion in the Euthyphro, but such attempts according to Allen are rashly impetuous and inescapably lead towards invention and fancifulness.

Allen is concerned with the status of Plato’s theory of Forms in the Euthyphro as well as with the dialectic in it, for the status of the theory has been debated among scholars largely with regard to differentiating Socrates’ thought from Plato’s and tracing the course of development of Plato’s philosophy throughout his long writing career. The ‘Euthyphro’ belongs to the early period of his career, while most works in which the doctrine of Forms is prominent belong to his middle period, and on the matter of the status of the theory in the ‘Euthyphro’ one may take the view that the dialogue involves no ontological commitment to Forms, and that what is there called Form is rather a concept or the meaning of a word rather than an objective entity, or one may take the view that the conception of Form in the ‘Euthyphro’ is the same as that in such middle-period dialogues as the ‘Phaedo’, ‘Phaedrus’, ‘Republic’, and ‘Symposium’. Allen takes an intermediate position between these two extremes, holding that the ‘Euthyphro’ does involve commitment to Forms but that, unlike the theory in the middle dialogues, the theory here does not presuppose the metaphysical view of two separate worlds, one of tangible objects related as a copy to the original, the other a world of intangible but intelligible Forms.

But how can Allen, taking as he does that Plato presents no doctrine but an exercise in dialectic in the ‘Euthyphro’, contend that this very doctrine can be discovered in it? His response to this critical question is that Socratic dialectic is not employed to present a body of truths but it is rather an activity of criticism and exploration, and yet such activity follows a determinate course whereby certain moves are disallowed and others are required. In the very conduct of dialectic, appeals are made to rules and principles, and these rules and principles reflect aspects of the theory. Allen brings to the fore details of Socratic dialectic in operation in the Euthyphro and thereby serves to ground the essay textually on the earlier theory of Forms as Allen formulates the theory, draws its implications with particular attention to dialectic, and compares and contrasts the earlier and the middle-period theories.

The aim of dialectic in the ‘Euthyphro’ is to define piety and while in pursuit of the definition Socrates makes the following assumptions:

1. The Form piety has existence as an objective entity.

2. The Form is a universal and is the same in everything pious.

3. The Form is the essence or essential cause of pious things.

4. The Form serves as a universal and objective standard for judging what things are pious and what things are not.

These assumptions while pertaining to piety here can be generalized to other Forms, and the assumptions so generalized constitute the earlier theory of Forms, and hence Allen lists the elements of the theory as follows:

1. Forms as objective entities.

2. Forms as universals.

3. Forms as essences.

4. Forms as standards.

From such elements as these Allen extracts the following consequences. First, since Forms are objective entities and the objects of Socratic definition, Socratic definition is real definition, it is not of words, thoughts, or concepts, but of the natures of things. Second, since a Form is a universal, one cannot, as Euthyphro attempts to do, define it by producing its instances. Third, since a Form is the essential cause of its instances, it cannot be defined by a distinguishing mark of the instances, therefore piety cannot be defined by stating, as Euthyphro does, that all the gods love pious things. Finally, since Forms are standards of our judgment, our correct moral judgment and our well-being itself ultimately depend upon our knowledge of Forms, and in this sense dialectic is moral inquiry into the nature of things.

Allen draws a further implication from the conception of Form as essential cause, that is to say, the Form, by virtue of which its instances are what they are, is ontologically prior to the instances, and in this sense it is transcendent, the reason for Allen’s rejection of Aristotle’s, (384–322 BC), attestation whereby, according to Allen’s interpretation, in the early dialogues Forms are immanent whereas in the middle dialogues they are transcendent. In their transcendent status Forms do not differ between the early and middle dialogues, Allen contends, for it is in the approach to transcendence that they differ. In the early dialogues transcendent Forms emerge as assumptions underlying dialectic, in the middle dialogues they are the product of reflection upon the possibility and the nature of dialectic.

‘Saint Inés’, Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598–1664)

I am of course hesitant to say that absolutely there is no solution to the dilemma and yet after 2500 years one is still to be forthcoming (one that doesn’t rely upon semantic word-play that is, which I will get to in a moment). So much for divine command theory but the implications of the dilemma are considerably more far-reaching than that. The question at issue can be clearly stated: does morality come from within God or outside of God? By the first horn of the dilemma, that which is right is commanded by God because it is right, there are independent moral standards, whereby some actions are right or wrong in themselves, independent of God’s commands, the Socratic view and the one most plausibly to be correct. But if there are moral standards independent of God’s will, or nature (I will get to that too in a moment) then there is something over which God is not sovereign, that is to say, God is bound by the laws of morality rather than being the establisher of the laws of morality. Furthermore, an omnipotent God would depend for his goodness upon the extent to which God conforms to an independent moral standard, whereby these moral standards would limit God’s power, for not even God, or rather especially not an omnibenevolent being, could oppose them by commanding what is evil and thereby making it good. God, if he is to be God, cannot command us to do what, independently of his will, is morally wrong and furthermore these moral standards would limit God’s freedom of will, for God could not command anything that is opposed to them, and maybe would have no other choice than to command in accordance with them. If there are moral standards independent of God, then morality would retain its authority even if God did not exist, a conclusion explicitly drawn by political theorist and theologian Hugo Grotius, (1583–1645): ‘What we have been saying [about the natural law] would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him’ Upon such a view God is no longer a giver of the law but at best a transmitter of the law playing no vital role in the foundations of morality. From which all moral arguments that have been proffered for God’s existence, (if God does not exist objective moral values and duties do not exist, objective moral values and duties do exist, etc…) crumble into dust, for morality does not depend upon God in the first place.

Thomas Aquinas, (1225–1274), never explicitly addresses the Euthyphro dilemma, but his moral theory has been drawn upon in an attempt to deal with it. Aquinas drew a distinction between what is good or evil in itself and what is good or evil because of God’s commands,with unchangeable moral standards forming the bulk of natural law, (law based upon an observation of human nature upon values intrinsic to human nature that can be deduced and applied independent of positive law or the enacted laws of a state or society). Thus he contends that not even God can change the Ten Commandments (and presumably the other 603 commandments as well so that the injunction against seething a kid in his mother’s milk is something we are stuck with for all time) but Aquinas did believe that God can change that which individuals deserve in particular cases, special dispensations, one might say, to murder, or to steal.

Aquinas’s expounds upon the nature of sin, (an immoral act taken to be a transgression against divine law and hence the existence of God is presupposed so it is not a good move to bring it up in any moral inquiry without proving the existence of God first), to explain why it is that the nature of God is the standard for value. ‘Every sin’, he asserts, ‘consists in the longing for a passing [i.e., ultimately unreal or false] good’. And therefore, ‘in a certain sense it is true what Socrates says, namely that no one sins with full knowledge’. That is: ‘No sin in the will happens without an ignorance of the understanding’. An omniscient God, however, has full knowledge and therefore by definition (that of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as well as Aquinas) can never will anything other than what is good. Nicolai Hartmann, (1882–1950), claimed: ‘There is no freedom for the good that would not be at the same time freedom for evil’. As for the problem of arbitrariness that the Euthyphro Dilemma poses, this has been addressed by Kelly James Clark, (1956 -), Clark and Anne Poortenga, through Aquinas, as follows. If we conceive of the good life for human beings as consisting in activities and character qualities that fulfill us, then the good life will depend upon our nature, as human beings, and in virtue of human nature being what it is, some activities and character traits will fulfill us, and some will not. For instance, neither imbibing petrol nor lying nor committing adultery will help us to function properly and so be fulfilled as human beings. God created us with a certain nature, they insist, and once that is done God cannot arbitrarily decide what is good or bad for us, what will help or hinder us from functioning properly. God could have created us differently. It is possible that he could have made us to thrive and be fulfilled by imbibing petrol, lying, and committing adultery. (One can see the problem here, may not a lying, adulterous lifestyle be fulfilling?). But, according to Aquinas, he did not and therefore it is incumbent upon us to live lives marked by a love for God and for other people if we want to be fulfilled as human beings. Does this deal with the accusation of arbitrariness? Why did God created us with the nature that we possess rather than some other nature? What grounded this decision of God’s? For an answer to be at all satisfactory it would have to include within it the claim that there is something valuable about human beings and the nature that we possess that grounded God’s decision. How might a proponent of such a response defend such a claim?

Bring up the Euthyphro Dilemma with Christian apologist William Lane Craig, (1949 — ). and you will be met with scorn. As far as he is concerned it has well and truly been debunked.

Calling upon the God of semantics to muddy the nature of the debate Craig sidesteps arguments concerning the consequences of the two horns of the dilemma and claims instead that there is a third option. Whether morality originates inside or outside of God he does not even address for it is seemingly irrelevant from whence morality derives given that God wills the good because God is good, by nature. But is God good because he defines that goodness or because he conforms to an outside standard of goodness? God’s nature determines what is good, Craig declares, through a rephrasing of the first horn of the dilemma. Possible attributes of God he lists are compassion, justice, fairness, kindness and love. Complex attributes of God to be found in the Bible, jealousy, (‘I the Lord thy God am a jealous God’, ‘Exodus’ 20:5), tribalism, expectation of worship, aversion to a kid seething in his mother’s milk, which Craig knows full well to be up for moral debate or are irrelevant, are overlooked in favour of character traits that he knows his audience will appreciate given that they assist humans in getting along, and he then processes them through a ceremonial one might say act of cleansing to convey the impression that it is God that had generated them in the first place. What is the point given their practical value, and obvious benefits to be had in practicing them, in attributing them to God? Are there not clear-cut secular reasons for opting for them? According to Craig the good is neither determined by God’s will nor anything outside of God but by God’s nature or essence. In what way is God’s nature any different from God’s will? My will is a determination upon how I think something should be, while my nature is nothing more than a congeries of traits driving my will. Does the good come from inside of God or doesn’t it?

Let us indulge in a thought experiment. I have decided to give a public presentation where I deliver cogent arguments against divine command theory and in favour of social command theory (which I know I have yet to mention, see below). You are all welcome. When you arrive you are commanded to maintain a low humming noise throughout my entire talk. And why should you do that you not unreasonably ask? I explain that there is nothing arbitrary about it nor is it a matter of simply catering to a peculiar whim of mine. On the contrary, it is my nature to relish the sound of humming. Have I thereby made any progress in convincing you of the objective rightness of my command? Explaining arbitrary commands by giving arbitrary reasons is the very thing at issue with the Euthyphro dilemma. What philosophical progress has been achieved through replacing the notion of will with that of nature? Most assuredly the moral relevance of a command is a function of how it impacts upon people and a rational explanation has to be forthcoming before any command I issue can be considered in any way moral. For instance, I suffer from intense social anxiety, a humming noise is soothing, affecting me on a physical level, reducing stress, inducing calmness, and so I can then get through my presentation, (this is not as far-fetched as some thought experiments I could cite). Given such a rational explanation for the command, being the caring people you are, you will then obey it. Such is the case with any divine or human authority. If God exists then the second horn of the dilemma applies and as long as God exists it in virtue of the fact that God is wise and beneficial for reasons external to God, yet Craig loading God’s nature with attributes that we understand to be good before asserting that God is good and something is good because God wills thereby objective morality is generated out of God is palpable drivel and one wishes Craig had been an interlocutor of Socrates, what fun the latter would have had engaging with someone whose understanding of the issues involved is less than Euthyphro’s.

Another Christian apologist, Edward Feser, (1968 — ), discussing divine simplicity, (the doctrine that God is simple, without parts, that being of God is identical to the attributes of God and characteristics such as omnipresence, goodness, truth, eternity, etc., are identical to God’s being, not qualities that make up that being, nor abstract entities inhering in God as in a substance, which is to say that in God both essence and existence are one and the same), has written that: ‘Divine simplicity [entails] that God’s will just is God’s goodness which just is His immutable and necessary existence. That means that what is objectively good and what God wills for us as morally obligatory are really the same thing considered under different descriptions, and that neither could have been other than they are. There can be no question then, either of God’s having arbitrarily commanded something different for us (torturing babies for fun, or whatever) or of there being a standard of goodness apart from Him. Again, the Euthyphro dilemma is a false one; the third option that it fails to consider is that what is morally obligatory is what God commands in accordance with a non-arbitrary and unchanging standard of goodness that is not independent of Him… He is not under the moral law precisely because He is the moral law’.

And there the game is given away. From the objective point of view, ethical man is indeed unconscious of himself. Anyone arguing for the objectivity of moral values who cites torturing babies for fun being morally wrong as an instance of an objective moral value does not really believe in the objectivity of moral values, else why go to such an extreme, knowing of course we will all agree? Yes, torturing babies is bad, but even there he felt the need to add ‘for fun’. So there may be a scenario where torturing babies is acceptable as long as it is not for fun?

‘Saint Casilda’, Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598–1664)

So what is an alternative to divine command theory? Social command theory, or, to opt for a better word, social obligation theory. How is obligation possible? According to the social obligation account having an obligation to do something consists in being required, in a certain way, under certain circumstances or conditions, by another person or a group of persons, to do it. Obligation arises for the individual within ethical life whereby that which renders it as an obligation for an individual is the absolute authority and power of the ethical community. Hegel’s ethical system is sometimes characterised thus, but the bogey of arbitrariness still has to be excised for such a theory can only treat what is required by society as a necessary condition for creating a moral obligation, for, if it were also to treat it as a sufficient condition, then the concern arises that on this account anything required by society would amount to an obligation, which of course is not what we are wanting. Hegel therefore considers these requirements as laid down by the rational state which is seeking to uphold the freedom of its individual citizens, for in the absence of such a constraint it is clear enough that it would not have the legitimacy to create genuine duties that people are obliged to follow.

In the ‘Ethical Life’ section of the ‘Philosophy of Right’ what is taken into consideration is not merely the individual will but in addition the ‘laws and institutions that have being in and for themselves’ with the consequence that the individual can be seen to be part of an ‘ethical substance’ consisting of ‘laws and powers’ where ‘these substantial determinations are duties which are binding on the will of the individual’. Given the authority of these duties over the lives of individuals, and of the relative insignificance of individuals within the social order, it may well seem to them that the moral law has a divine origin and then we are back to some kind of divine command theory albeit without God, but it is the social basis of these obligations is paramount, and for so long as social order is a substance to which individuals relate as accidents, (some philosophy-speak there, substances, the basic stuff out of which the world is composed, accidents, contingent properties of a substance, a substance may lack them without loss of its identity), nevertheless these accidents are required by the substance in order to be actual. Hegel makes it clear enough that he regards divine command accounts of obligation as based upon a view of our relation to the world that has been overcome, and such obligations are now better accounted for as an aspect of our existence within the social environment of ethical life.

These obligations arise not only through positive law, but also through the unwritten laws of customs, and between them, in an ethical community, these will lay down ‘what someone must do and what the duties are which he has to fulfil in order to be virtuous’. Rather appealingly, in my view, given my distaste for Aristotelian virtue ethics (although Aristotle, also held that ethics has an inescapably social dimension, which may pose a problem for our theory here), Hegel contends that to the extent that the individual lives within a well-developed ethical community, virtue will be of less importance than rectitude (Rechtschaffenheit):

‘Within a given ethical order whose relations are fully developed and actualized, virtue in the proper sense has its place and actuality only in extraordinary circumstances, or where the above relations come into collision … This is why the form of virtue as such appears more frequently in uncivilized societies and communities, for in such cases, the ethical and its actualization depend more on individual discretion and on the distinctive natural genius of individuals. In this way, the ancients ascribed virtue to Hercules in particular. And since, in the states of antiquity, ethical life had not yet evolved into this free system of self-sufficient development and objectivity, this deficiency had to be made good by the distinctive genius of individuals’.

In most instances it should be clear enough to the individual how they are called upon to behave from within the established norms of that community,without any necessity for the kind of practical deliberation required in the exercise of virtue, which is not to say that such deliberation is never required, or that the individual ought not to think for themselves in ethical matters, rather a properly structured system of ethical duties should make any difficult hard cases more uncommon and the appeal to individual virtue as we well know in this contemporary age can become a hypocritical smokescreen for avoiding one’s genuine obligations in moral matters. As a consequence of the laws and powers of the community, therefore, the individual will discover duties that are ‘prescribed, expressly stated, and known to him within his situation’. Such ethical laws may then seem to have ‘an absolute authority and power, infinitely more firmly based than the being of nature’ while at the same time insofar as they stem from the ethical community, such laws are ‘not something alien to the subject’ but rather something to which ‘the subject bears spiritual witness … as to its own essence’. And therefore, albeit that the motivations for obeying the duties that the ethical substance lays down may start with ‘certain particular ends, interests, and considerations, with hope or fear, or with historical presuppositions’, nevertheless this would place the individual in a too external relation to that ethical substance, which must be less instrumental,and more like a ‘relationless identity — in which the ethical is the actual principle [Lebendigkeit] of self-consciousness’. And so we should not think that simply because something is an obligation because it is required by the social group that the motivating reason the individual has for complying with it comes from these external ends,on the contrary, it can be grounded upon the recognition of it as an obligation, founded in the acknowledged authority of the ethical community over the individual, where at the same time the individual is part of this group, and so not subordinated to it as by an alien will.

‘Justice’, Gabriel Duran, (1749–1806)

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, (1813–1855), of course was acutely aware that Hegel’s social theory of obligation came at some considerable cost in religious terms, for such a theory cannot treat the good and the right as transcendent and thus beyond our full comprehension, while for Kierkegaard it is precisely this transcendence which it is necessary to acknowledge if we are to stand in the proper relation to the divine. With social command theory an account is given of how ethics is grounded not in abstract principles but in social institutions, albeit certain rules can be expressed abstractly but how we learn to apply these rules cannot be a matter of learning further, abstract rules, something that would obviously lead to an infinite regress, rules for applying rules for applying rules, and so on ad infinitum, rather we learn and acquire a skill, that of applying rules to concrete situations through many years of having our moral sensibilities adjusted by the institutions of our society. Particular principles there be that all societies agree upon, for instance that generosity is a good thing and to be encouraged, but we never learn generosity as such, we learn to practice generosity as our society does, and some societies practice considerably more generosity toward guests than others and indeed consider to be obligatory. Ethical rules mean as little when separated from a social context as aesthetic rules mean when considered apart from the different art forms, for discourse as we like upon the attainment of unity as an important artistic goal it means different things in music, painting, sculpture, drama and poetry, and to understand what it means it is not enough to present a definition in the abstract, one must discourse upon how the ideal is concretized in the different arts. Hegel’s discussion of ethical life is similar in that it is not concerned with a deduction of ethical principles but rather with the primary social forms which render the ethical development of the individual possible. In essence, the point is that individuals develop ethically as a result of discovering themselves situated within a social whole, and recognizing their place in relation to others. It is within a social whole that I am led to rise above any narrow concerns with the satisfaction of my personal desires and to become aware of my higher duties and obligations. Indeed my freedom is realized only through my coming to identify myself with the larger social whole.

Kierkegaard advocates a divine command account of obligation, of course, in contrast to Hegel’s social command account, most especially ‘Fear and Trembling’ in which he seeks to understand the anxiety that must have been present in Abraham’s faith being put to the test as he confronts the choice to sacrifice his son Isaac in compliance with a divine command or to refuse. Faith, for Kierkegaard, involves the teleological suspension of the ethical, in which faith allows one to believe that an unethical action will actually result in a better end although though humans alone have no access to this kind of information, only God does.

Kierkegaard’s concern has to do with the relation between ethics and faith, and ‘Fear and Trembling’, to put it somewhat mildly, presents a transcendent conception of moral value, in contra-distinction to a social command theory, that is a radical challenge to secular ethicists, who will characteristically take it that moral value is broadly apprehensible within the human perspective. Kierkegaard said of faith:

‘Whether there are also many in our age who do not discover it, I do not decide; I dare only refer to myself, who does not conceal that it may not happen for a long time to come for him, yet without his therefore wishing to deceive himself or the great by making it into a trifling matter, into a childhood malady one must wish to get over as soon as possible’.

Abraham, has shown what faith really amounts to, a story that Kierkegaard therefore uses to counter the complacency with which it is treated by Hegelians, by bringing out its truly difficult and challenging nature. And the primary term with which Kierkegaard tries to bring out the difficult nature of faith is the absurd, for this is how Abraham must appear to those without faith. Were this absurdity lacking, Abraham would not be a knight of faith, (an individual who has placed complete faith in himself or herself and in God and can act freely and independently from the world), but another kind of figure entirely. And given the force of the Euthyphro dilemma and how unanswerable it is this is indeed the only option remaining for anyone wishing to hang on to divine command theory, to grasp both horns of the dilemma and embrace the absurd.

‘Morality’ (excerpt)

by Thomas Moore (1779–1852)

Though long at school and college dozing.

O’er books of verse and books of prosing,

And copying from their moral pages

Fine recipes for making sages;

Though long with those divines at school,

Who think to make us good by rule;

Who, in methodic forms advancing,

Teaching morality like dancing,

Tell us, for Heaven or money’s sake,

What steps we are through life to take:

Though thus, my friend, so long employed,

With so much midnight oil destroyed,

I must confess my searches past,

I ‘ve only learned to doubt at last

I find the doctors and the sages

Have differed in all climes and ages,

And two in fifty scarce agree

On what is pure morality.

‘T is like the rainbow’s shifting zone,

And every vision makes its own.

‘Saint Francis in Meditation’, Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598–1664)



David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.