Long paper – quiz later – Socrates and Euthyphro

When Socrates and Euthyphro meet, Socrates clarifies for Euthyphro the charges that the state has brought against him and Euthyphro is disturbed to hear about the trouble of his friend.  He says that he too has been involved in a rather unpleasant set of charges, namely his own accusation against his father.

Socrates is quite surprised to hear this because in ancient Greece it was considered very bold to officially accuse one’s own family member of anything, and mortals who did such were not looked upon kindly by the Greek Gods.  Euthyphro admits that he is prosecuting his father for the murder of a servant and consequently, he is considered by his fellow citizens and statesmen to be acting “impiously”.  Euthyphro, rather arrogantly, asserts that the people know not what impiety truly is, for if they did they would not consider his actions to be of the sort.  This assertion indirectly indicates to Socrates that Euthyphro has knowledge of piety and impiety, and Socrates draws and analogy between his own case and the case of Euthyphro.  If Euthyphro can explain to Socrates the meaning of impiety, perhaps Socrates can argue better against his own charges and so he asks Euthyphro to kindly teach him about piety, thus assuming the role not of the teacher, but of the student.

“Tell me then, what is the pious, and what the impious, do you say?”, says Socrates.  And the first answer Euthyphro gives is that it is to prosecute the wrongdoer, as he is doing in the case of his father.  Socrates rightly points out that Euthyphro gave him an example rather than a definition and asks him to clarify his answer in the form of a definition.  This bit of dialogue is important because it introduces the idea behind much of Plato’s writing insofar as there is an instance here of the ‘one over many principle’ which constitutes the theory of Plato’s Forms.  Again, Euthyphro has given and example of piety (of which there are many other examples) when instead Socrates wants to know what piety actually is (of which there can be only one definition).  Socrates wants a specific account of piety—a uniqueness requirement for the Euthyphro’s answer.

The second answer then given by Euthyphro is “that which is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious”.  And with that Socrates is more pleased since he has now received an answer closer to his expectations of what the form of the answer should be, namely, a definition or account of piety.  The problem with this answer as Socrates argues, is that the gods love too much.  They love and hate different things and between themselves they disagree on what is to be loved and what is to be hated.  So if piety is that which is loved by the gods, according to Euthyphro, one cannot tell what is more pious or not since there is disagreement among the gods about what they love.  Socrates is looking for that form or idea itself that makes all things pious; a causal or explanatory requirement to add to the uniqueness requirement for the answer.

The third suggestion made by Euthyphro is simply a modification of his second answer: that which all of the gods love.  Socrates suggests that they examine the soundness of this definition before accepting it, as is the case with most dialogues of Plato.  An answer is scrutinized by Socrates (and other Platonic characters) to ensure that it is sound in all cases before accepting it as valid and true.  Unfortunately, in the course of their examination Socrates and Euthyphro discover that the given answer is explained by piety, instead of it itself explaining piety as a proper definition should.  To clarify, if the god-loved (E’s definition of piety) and piety (the word we are looking to define) are the same, then the pious would be loved because it was pious, just as the god-loved would be loved because it was god-loved.  One perspective is that the god-loved was loved by the gods because it was loved by the gods (as we already said god-loved was to mean).  Another perspective is that the pious was pious because it was being loved by the gods.  And the problem with this is that one definition has two different meanings—one is that if “X” is being loved by the gods, then “X” is pious; the other is that if “X” is to be loved by the gods, then “X” is pious, and these two interpretations are different when they should be the same.  Socrates requires that the definition gives the “essence”, or true nature of piety, in one clear definition. 

At this point, Euthyphro is rather frustrated since every definition he gives is picked apart by Socrates and discredited.  This is typical of Plato’s writing because it not only exalts his admiration of Socrates’ argumentative skill, but also illustrates the nature of philosophical discussions.  They are discussions filled with arguments, usually one from Socrates and one from another character, and they wrestle back and forth with points and problems raised in each other’s arguments until an answer can be reached, though often it is the case that no conclusive answer can be reached. 

The rest of the dialogue is not quite as substantial as the earlier parts, but we are given the fourth and final attempt to define piety from Socrates himself.  His answer is that piety is the part of justice concerned with care of the gods.  He questions the relation between piety and justice and wonders if one is a part of another.  Euthyphro is unable to contribute much more to the conversation because of his frustration and apparent lack of skill in arguing.  He makes excuses for himself and ultimately avoids the questions of Socrates by excusing himself to take care of other, more important matters.  The fact that Euthyphro does not enjoy doing the dialectic is indicative of most other people during the time of Socrates and Plato.  Philosophy was held in high regard by philosophers, and philosophers only. 


In the course of decision-making, some people have developed a means or process by which to make an “ethical” decision – a process for deciding what is “right” or “wrong” for them. For a practitioner of the Divine Command Theory, the belief that “God said it” is the foundational construct for the decision-making process – for deciding what is right and wrong. Divine Command Theory (sometimes called theological voluntarism) has its core belief in God as the sole source of morality and that he communicates his will to humanity by the use of commands. Since God made the universe, he is not bound by any rules of moral good and righteousness, for he is the author of these principles. The Ten Commandments serve as the basis for the Divine Command Theorist, and it is through the study of the Bible that one is instructed on how to act morally as a way of life.

Three of the major criticisms/limitations of the Divine Command Theory are:

1) Not everyone believes in God and therefore cannot directly follow his commands as indicated in the Scriptures;

2) If God is to command cruelty to another human being, is it the obligation of the Divine Command Theorist to obey even though this act is deemed evil?; and

3) Although God is viewed as being supreme, our human intellect may be too limited to fully understand the will and ways of God to fully comprehend his goodness.

Although the Divine Command Theory has been heavily scrutinized in the last 25-30 years, it is still revered as a major theory of use in ethical decision-making.

Strengths (from the viewpoint of a believer)Weaknesses (practical concerns and from the viewpoint of a non-believer)
· Since the human mind is limited in its ability to comprehend the universe, God supplies His wisdom. · God assures favorable outcomes if we obey him. · A certain amount of order is created. · We are provided with much needed limitations. · Concerned not with man as a rational being, but as having a will. Nature is understood through reason. Supernatural realities are understood through faith. Subsequently, faith directs the will. · The connection between virture and happiness is made in heaven. “Happiness”, therefore, is available to anyone.· Not everyone believes in God. · Not in agreement about which god is worth listening to. · Looks as if people are just too lazy or scared to engage in real debate (simplistic escape from complex questions). · Disagreer’s are viewed as “attacking God”. · Approach is easily abused. · “Essentials” sometimes derived from interpretations, preferences and traditions. · “Blind obedience” is not an “ethical approach” by some definitions.
Mixed Features (Can be considered either a strength or a weakness) · Assumes a certain kind of universe or “world view” and big questions of life: Who is God? Who am I? · Scripture, stories, parables, and examples are provided for many situations for discerning right and wrong. However, many commands or situations are not explicitly covered in the scriptures or are interpreted differently. · Many variations are presented in literature.

NIELSEN’S CRITICISMS. In “God and the Basis of Morality,” Kai Nielsen presents several arguments showing that morality is not at all founded on the commands of God. Nielsen begins by presenting the classic dilemma of theological morality, as appears in Plato’s dialog, The Euthyphro. Plato argues that there are two ways to see the relation between God and morality: (1) God creates the standards of morality, or (2) God himself is subject to standards of morality which are independent of him. Traditionally, each of these options are seen to have unfavorable consequences. If God creates morality, then God could make murder or stealing morally permissible if he chose. If, on the other hand, God is subject to external standards of morality, then he loses some of his greatness. Nielsen presents six arguments which show that the second of these two options is by far the most preferable.

Nielsen’s first argument is that merely commanding something does not make it moral. For example, if professor Jones commands her students to by a book, this does not make it morally right to buy that book. Nielsen begins his second argument noting that defenders of divine command theory often say that we are to find God’s moral commands in scripture. But, according to Nielsen, this requires a prior conception of morality to judge that a certain text is indeed revelation. And this prior conception of morality must be independent of God and God’s revelation. Third, it does not help the divine command theory to argue that the statement “God is good” is true by definition (the same way that “wives are women” is true by definition). For, the terms “God” and “good” are not identical, and to understand that statement we need a prior understanding of moral goodness which is independent of God. The same problems occur when we stipulate that the statement “God is absolute goodness” is true by definition. Fourth, the believer’s choice to worship God indicates that the believer is using an independent standard of goodness by which she deems God worthy of worship. This also applies if the believer claims through faith alone that she believes God is worthy of worship. According to Nielsen, the believer’s actual behavior shows that she is in fact appealing to an independent standard of goodness.

Nielsen’s fifth criticism is an attack on the argument from divine sovereignty. The believer will argue that God created everything which exists, and this includes moral standards. But, according to Nielsen, it is logically impossible for God to create morality. For, technically, morality does not involve what exists (or is the case) but only what ought to be the case. Suppose, for example, that the universe was completely empty of any existing thing except yourself. You could still talk conditionally about what should or should not be done if someone was starving or drowning. Finally, Nielsen argues that the burden of proof is on the divine command theorist to show that there can be no morality if God does not exist. And this the believer cannot do. The believer may argue that a world without God is lonely, full of despair, without purpose, and without hope of immortality.

Nielsen counters that life would still have particular purposes, such as the joys of music, and that life after death is only a myth which should be rejected in any event.

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