In Euthyphro’s Dilemma, Socrates poses a question that scholars continue to debate to this day: “Do the gods love what is morally right because it is morally right, or is it right because they love it?” This question continues to reverberate today because at its heart it questions religion’s moral authority.
Socrates, deferring to Euthyphro as the “expert” on piety, asks him to tell him exactly what piety is so that they all may be more pious. Euthyphro begins by discussing a pious act, to which Socrates responds, “I did not bid you tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious.” Finally, Euthyphro says, “What is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.” They agree that being pious and impious are opposite things and that the gods are often at odds with each other and quarrel over what is just or unjust, beautiful or ugly, good or bad. Socrates then goes on to say that if the gods are not in agreement with what is good or bad, then the same things could be both pious and impious at the same time, to which Euthyphro reluctantly agrees and he revises his earlier assessment of piety to be that which all the gods love and impiety to be that which all the gods hate.
Then Socrates presents to Euthyphro the puzzle which is the crux of the Euthyphro dilemma, “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” If it is pious already, then it is not pious because of the gods, but rather because it was already pious; therefore, the existence of piety is not dependent on gods. However, if it is pious because it is being loved by the gods, then murder or rape or any number of terrible things could be loved by the gods and, therefore, called pious. Thus, Socrates calls into question whether morality is at all tied to the gods or, indeed, whether it should be. Euthyphro is interesting because he presents himself as an expert on all things pious and boasts that he can easily explain it to Socrates; however, when pressed it is clear that he does not really even know how to define it.
Socrates, by acting as student to Eurythro’s teaching, leads Euthyphro to reasoning that he believes whatever the gods all agree on as being pious is pious, and whatever they all deem impious is impious. Socrates then asks Euthyphro to explain if a thing is pious because the gods say so or if it is pious because it is pious. If you accept the first option and believe it is true that the gods love it because it is pious, then it cannot be true that it is pious because the gods love it. In other words, it does not explain how it became pious in the first place. Who determined the piety? In this case, it was not the gods. If both were true, that still does not answer the question, but rather leads us in a perpetual circle. The gods love it because it is pious and it is pious because the gods love it.
In this way, Socrates casts doubt on morality’s dependence on religion. To rephrase Socrates’ question in more modern terms, “Is an act moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral?” This is a two-pronged assault on God as the foundation of morality. If God commands an action because it is moral, then that means that morality exists without God. He is simply giving marching orders. Therefore, it must be assumed that God is not the source of morality itself. However, if one assumes that act is moral because God commands it, then literally anything God commands must be morally good.
If that is the case, God could command the murder of all people of a certain race and, though we may know this to be morally reprehensible, we would have to accept it as morally good because God commanded it. Knowing, however, that the murder of a large group of people because of their race is morally wrong, we would have to assume that it is false that an act is moral simply because God commands it. Thus, God is not the foundation of morality, no matter which option is chosen. Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, written more than 2000 years ago, continues to fascinate and prompt discussion and study. Although it includes some issues contemporary to Plato’s time (Socrates trial and Euthyphro’s prosecution of his father) and discussion of mythological figures like Zeus, it remains quite ____ to modern readers because it asks a question for which we still have yet to find a satisfactory answer and plays into the sorts of questions which mankind continues to struggle.
Why are we here? Who made us? What is our purpose? What is right? What is moral?