Partially Examined Assumptions from PEL #46: Plato on Ethics & Religion

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Dear Partially Examined Life podcasters,

Like Skepoet, I was very impressed by your recent episode on Plato’s “Euthyphro.”  And yes, Seth, I deeply appreciated your perspective on Judaism. In particular, it helped me realize that modern Christianity in practice actually functions the way you describe Judaism (with decisions made by a small group of authorities revered for their understanding of the text), even if in theory it we claim our theology is a matter of rigorous logical deductions available to all.

That said, my overall reaction was much like the one Socrates had:

But I see plainly that you are not disposed to instruct me-dearly not: elsewhy, when we reached the point, did you turn, aside? Had you only answered me I should have truly learned of you by this time the-nature of piety.

I freely admit I am a philosophical dilettante and undoubtedly biased my religious upbringing.  That is why (like Socrates to Euthyphro :-) I come to you who seem so certain to in hopes of illuminating my ignorance.  Yet just when you seem on the verge of actually addressing the problem I care about, you veer away.  Perhaps you can help me understand why…

I. The Theistic Response (or lack thereof)

The most significant “veering” was where Matt Evans alludes indirectly to how modern theologians address Euthyphro dilemma, then apparently dismisses it because he doesn’t (if I understood him correctly) like the idea of a “personal” divinity.  WTF?

Several things puzzle me:

  • If the focus of your episode is highlighting divine command theory as a problem for theism (even if poorly motivated by the text), shouldn’t you at least tell people how theists claim to answer the problem (i.e., by asserting that God’s character is the root of both His actions and our understanding of “the good”)?
  • Second, it would be nice to hear you actually critique the theistic answer instead of simply glossing over it. If I’m wrong, I’d love to hear why.  As it is, I don’t know whether Matt was summarizing a thoughtful philosophical argument, or merely stating a subjective personal preference
  • Finally, if that wasn’t your goal in this episode, what was?  It certainly seems in retrospect that you came to it with an agenda, rather than simply seeking themes from the text.

Again, I’m not saying you were necessarily wrong in your decisions, merely that I am puzzled and (like Socrates :-) hope you can explain.

II. Seth’s Response to Mark’s Response

My favorite sections from this podcast — indeed, any of your podcasts — was where Seth started grilling Mark on his “dearly held belief” that gay sex is perfectly moral, and Mark’s (presumably mis-) statement that “dearly held” and “well-reasoned” mean roughly the same thing.

Maybe it is just me, but this seemed an exact mirror of the way Socrates grilled Euthyphro: teasing out the underlying logical and rationale behind someone’s boldly-stated moral assertions.  Indeed, I can easily image Socrates asking Mark very similar questions: “Is gay sex moral because some people love it deeply?  Because it reflects some deeper truth that all people love deeply?  Or is there a deeper truth that makes gay sex moral or immoral independent of how people feel about it?”  Even if you don’t know the answers, it would be awesome to hear you dig into those questions.

Yet after a few promising exchanges, you dropped the topic. For the love of God, why?

From my perspective, those sort of discussions are absolutely the best part of your podcast. When two or three of you actually engage in Socratic dialogue in real time about issues you care about, you are at your most dramatic, your most comedic, your most passionate, and (at least with Plato) arguably the  most faithful to the original text!  Why squelch such debates? Why not devote an entire episode to such discussions?  Hell, why not make the centerpiece of every episode an attempt to work through the implications of the text for your own beliefs and values?

Have those few years of grad school so crippled your belief in the interesting-ness of your own opinions that you feel it better to reflect on what a bunch of dead white guys said than argue — philosophically and rigorously — over your own beliefs?

III.  My Response

Finally, to put my money where my mouth is, let me offer my own interpretation and response to the Euthyphro dilemma, in the hopes that one of you may be willing to offer a critique.

In Smithian terms, I see Euthyphro:

  1. Express a “moral sentiment” (indignation as his father committing murder), that makes him
  2. Undertake a culturally-questionable activity (prosecuting his father), then
  3. Justify his behavior (perhaps to both himself and Socrates) by an
  4. Appeal to (what he thinks is) a shared polytheistic worldview and value system

This mirrors my understanding of how we make moral judgements.  As long as our own moral intuition matches our cultural norms, we never need to engage in serious moral reflection.  When they differ, though, we empirically feel the need to resolve that conflict by appealing to some higher authority, both for our own peace of mind and to justify our actions to those around us.

As I see it, there are two basic “moves” one can make in response to that conflict: the consequentialist/utilitarian view (“what is best for society”), or the ontological/theological view (“what God wants”).  Admittedly, both suffer from major epistemic challenges, but the very fact that we are still arguing about this a couple thousand years later implies that we are desperate for an answer, no matter how difficult it is to find.

My resolution relies on the definition of divinity as “non-contingent reality.”  Specifically, I define divinity as “the underlying non-contingent reality underlying and generating all observed reality.”  Within that definition, we can of course argue about whether divinity is observable, singular, personal, or interactive, etc., but hopefully it at least clarifies what we are arguing about.

My basic move is to assert that divinity is “purposeful”, yet observed reality allows deviation from that “purpose.”  Thus, “the good” is any activity that helps fulfill that ultimate purpose.  From an naturalistic viewpoint, this would explain our moral intuition as a survival trait helping select organisms that act in accord with evolutionary purpose.  Yet arguing purely from empirical grounds, that intuition would be no more than an imperfect heuristic.

To get further, one must assign some normative value to that purpose (otherwise, e.g., Satanism would arguably be the rational response).  My second move is to assert that divinity is “beneficent” — that is, the optimal strategy for every organism is to align itself with that divine purpose.  For this to be well-defined probably requires that divinity must be singular, at least in terms of what it “wills” (or whatever the non-theistic analogue would be).

The resulting model is very similar to classic Deism, so I don’t know whether it addresses Matt’s concern about “personality.”  However, it certain seems to allow (though it does not require) “rational theism”, in that it provides an objective ground for evaluating both God’s actions and our intuition as “good”.

This seems to address all the objections I’ve seen, but of course I didn’t study philosophy in graduate school, so I’d love to know what I may have overlooked. Thanks!

One thought on “Partially Examined Assumptions from PEL #46: Plato on Ethics & Religion

  1. Pingback: The Thought Not the Thinker | The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast | A Philosophy Podcast and Blog

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