Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Before I begin writing about how and why unbelievers are moral, I want to show why a Christian-style God cannot serve as an acceptable objective moral standard. The simplest way to do this is by using the Euthyphro dilemma. It was first posed about 2,400 years ago in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, and to this day there is no well-accepted solution to the problem. Here it is:
"Why are God's commandments morally good? Does He command them because they are good, or are they good because He commands them?"
Let's start by considering the first option. If God commands things because they are good, then God is no longer the objective standard by which goodness is measured. It would mean that morality exists completely apart from and above God, and that God obediently follows whatever it says just as believers follow what God says. It would also mean that unbelievers could in principle bypass God and derive their moral system directly from the source.

The first option is unacceptable to most Christians because it robs God of his moral authority and makes him subservient to an external standard. However, in my opinion the second option (known as divine command theory) is worse. If God's commands are good only because they are commanded by God, then they are completely arbitrary. (At this point the theist may object: "They're not arbitrary! God has good reasons for commanding the things that he does!" But if this is the case, then those "good reasons" are the true moral standard, not God, which leads us back to the first option.)

The implication is that if God happened to make some other commands, they would be equally as good as the current ones. For example, if he commanded us to run around raping and torturing innocent people on the street, then to do so would be not only acceptable, but required as a moral good—and to prevent such acts would be morally evil. To put it another way, suppose that God happened to command whatever it is that Satan would most want God to command. This version of God would essentially be Satan in a God costume—the very embodiment of what Christians consider to be evil—and yet each command that he made would just as righteous and good as God's current commands. Furthermore, if goodness is defined as "whatever God commands," then the claim "God is good" no longer has any real meaning.

What's remarkable is that some people actually accept this abhorrent option. On his blog, Christian apologist Vox Day received the following question:
If your god revealed to you in a set of flawless communications you could not dispute that you should kill every child you see under the age of 2, would you?
He responded:
"I don't see what the problem is ... The answer is yes, and how would you possibly take issue with that position regardless of whether you believe in my god or don't believe in any god?
"If I am correct that my God is the Creator God, that we are all his creations, then killing every child under two on the planet is no more inherently significant than a programmer unilaterally wiping out his AI-bots in a game universe. He alone has the right to define right and wrong, and as the Biblical example of King Saul and the Amalekites demonstrates, He has occasionally deemed it a moral duty to wipe out a people.
"And as we are informed in Revelation, He will wipe out many peoples through the acts of (presumably) His angels. Jefferson [the questioner] can complain that this makes God unworthy of worship all he likes, but that's as irrelevant as complaining that Stalin wasn't properly elected according to the Soviet Constitution. Although in this case it isn't might makes right, it is a much simpler case of might = right. Obey or perish."
Wiping out babies like AIs in a video game. Might equals right. Obey or perish. This is the reasoning that divine command morality leads to. It should go without saying that this moral system is unacceptable. The very fact that some people can condone this is a testament to how terrifying and destructive religious morality can be.

Some theists have tried to concoct another solution to the problem: they say the things God commands are morally good because goodness is inherent not in God's commandments but in his nature. But this is no solution at all, for we can simply ask: Is the goodness of God's nature based on an external standard, or would God's nature be good no matter what that nature happened to be? These two options have exactly the same implications as they do in the original dilemma.

As a last resort, theists may say, "Well, it's a moot question, since God's nature won't change anyway." With that, they breathe a sigh of relief and consider the issue settled. But refusing to accept hypothetical questions doesn't make them go away. And even if we blindly accept the claim that God will never change, I must ask: Why do the theists seem so relieved about this? It's almost as though they place importance upon their morals quite apart from their supposed foundation in God's nature. Could it be that they, like unbelievers, in fact operate primarily according to non-religious ethics?

Some theists say unbelievers are "moral parasites" who co-opt religious ethics for their own ends. But I think it's quite the opposite: instead, it is theists who have taken our innate capacity for empathy and tacked on some heavily flawed laws and rituals, then claimed the entire system originated from an unfalsifiable almighty being.

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