On Euthyphro

A post was merged into an existing topic: Pragmatic vs Rational Beliefs

A post was merged into an existing topic: Pragmatic vs Rational Beliefs

Now back to Euthyphro! (Sorry it took so long.)

Analogy time. @Faizal_Ali brought up the prototype meter in the other thread, so I’ll run with that. (There’s an obvious point of disanalogy that I’ll discuss shortly, so please don’t start responding before reading the whole thing. Also, you’ll have to pretend this is a world where they haven’t updated the SI unit of length to be based on c yet.)

Let’s say we have a few metal bars in various metrology labs in whatever society we are a part of, and we use them to make meter sticks. Problem is, they don’t agree with each other. Realizing the very concept of a meter requires that it is something that everyone has to agree on, we go about trying to find the correct standard for the meter. We trace down calibration certificates (or whatever), and eventually we find the bar that was used as the original prototype meter, locked in a vault somewhere.

The metrologists now say: aha! This is the correct standard for the meter! (We had forgotten about, haha, oops.) Anything that has the length of this bar is one meter long. Some of the bars that we have match it more closely and others less closely, and we set about adjusting the ones that are out of spec.

But no, someone comes along to say. A bar whose very length constitutes one meter, just isn’t coherent. It renders the concept of a meter circular. We know it’s a meter long because it because it is the prototype meter, and the prototype meter is a meter long. How do we know? Because it is the prototype meter.

And again, he says. What you have there is just an arbitrary rule. It’s just defining a meter as “the length of that bar”. But how can we say that bar is one meter long, unless we have a standard by which to judge its length?


Okay, first: the obvious disanalogy. The prototype meter is arbitrary. We could have just as easily picked any other length of dimensionally-stable metal and called it our unit of length instead.

God, on the other hand, is not arbitrary. He is the center of reality and the cause of existence of everything beside himself. Moreover, his character is not contingent, and thus, it is not possible for the objective standard of morality grounded in his character to be different than it actually is.

Now, it doesn’t actually matter at this point if the person raising the Euthyphro objection thinks there’s no reason to believe that God exists, or that his character is necessary, or any of that. Euthyphro is supposed to demonstrate an internal incoherence in the way the theist proposes grounding objective morality in God. So what matters is how the theist is proposing to do so.

And the way the theist proposes to do so is to say that goodness is grounded in God’s character. The horns of the original Euthyphro dilemma are either:

  1. What is good is so because God wills it, or
  2. God wills what he does because it is good.

The problem with (1) is that it makes goodness arbitrary, since God could will whatever. The problem with (2) is that it means goodness is something independent from God, so that God is not the ultimate reality after all. But by saying that goodness is grounded in God’s character, the theist avoids both these problems. Goodness is not independent of God, but neither is it arbitrary because his character is what it is necessarily.

Here is the point of analogy that I want to emphasize:

The discovery of the prototype meter in this little story did not suddenly remove everyone’s knowledge of what a meter is. It did not make the concept of a meter circular or vacuous. The man on the street still knows what a meter is: it’s roughly yea long, he might say, and he’d be right. His knowledge of a meter comes from the meter sticks he’s used, manufactured using the imperfect (but still approximately correct) bars that were in use at the start of the story. At the same time, it would be silly to say that he needs to grab one of his meters sticks to go measure the prototype meter before he can accept that a meter really is the length of that particular bar. If he does that, and finds they don’t match, what needs correcting is his meter stick.

In the same way, a philosopher or theologian claiming (perhaps because of an argument like the moral argument I laid out in this thread) that what actually defines goodness is what God would do, doesn’t make the concept of goodness circular or vacuous. We still have our moral intuitions to give us imperfect knowledge of what goodness is. (And our moral intuitions are approximately correct - at least in the broad strokes, because God put them there, yet they can go wrong because of sin or faulty reasoning, etc.) Yet, we don’t need to verify that God would only do good (as determined by our moral intuitions) as a precondition for accepting this theistic metaethical theory. And if we do compare our moral intuitions to God’s character - assuming we have the correct information about God’s character - it is our moral intuitions that need adjustment when they don’t agree.

(There are, of course, nuances here. Such as God is not a human being, which is why in an earlier post I said something to the effect of “goodness is what a person with God’s character would do” rather than merely “goodness is what God would do”. But I digress.)

TL;DR I have here a perfectly good resolution to the Euthyphro dilemma. :wink:

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We might as well reason as follows: since we can only perceive the world through our mind, we cannot assert that the world exists apart from our mind. In fact, you say something like that at the end of your post. I think that’s patently absurd, no offense, and that should be a clue to go back and consider that you might have taken a wrong turn. Be skeptical of your skepticism.

I actually don’t think that is conceivable. As in, I literally think it is impossible to conceive of those things (with the sole exception of the non-existence of the external world). You might decline to consciously entertain the fact of your existence, but you cannot have a coherent concept of your own non-existence as a subject while simultaneously being the subject of an illusion of your own existence as a subject. Similarly for logic and even, I believe, for causation.

I am not arguing that they are true on the basis that they might be true. I am not, strictly speaking, arguing that they are true at all. I am saying that I know they they are true in a properly basic way, and defending the reasonableness of that claim. (And I think you can know that they are true, too, and in the same way. Just takes some consideration of the nature and content of those moral intuitions.)

“Basic” refers to what I said it refers to. “Properly basic” also refers to what I said it refers to. I’m not just throwing that extra word in there to be verbose.

Yes and no. Beliefs formed through sense perception are properly basic and so are accepted rationally. They can also be accepted on a pragmatic basis at the same time. But in my previous comment I was intending to talk about beliefs that are accepted only on a pragmatic basis. So mostly no.

By definition. Or because that’s how an epistemological theory including properly basic beliefs works. (The regress problem in epistemology supports such an epistemological theory… somewhat in the same way that the moral argument supports the theistic metaethical theory.)

You can’t get a normative conclusion out of an argument containing wholly non-normative premises. (See: naturalistic fallacy. This claim is contested, but the only successful contender that I can see is of the Aristotelian-Scholastic variety, and doesn’t think much of Euthyphro either.) If we have some item of moral knowledge, it is a normative conclusion, because morality is normative. Hence we arrived at it via an argument that included a normative premise among our knowledge. But no human has time to think through an infinite chain of arguments, so there has to have been a normative premise among our knowledge that wasn’t arrived at through argument, hence properly basic.

And yes, still true if you reject premise 0.

… its great that our moral intuitions would be useful and all, but notice that useful is not the same as true. My point stands.

You said (emphasis added):

And what I said in 7b was (again, emphasis added):

Now, just in case anyone missed that… “Either A or B” means: “only A” or “only B” or both. So I wonder if you actually did go back and read 7b.

I even answered your follow-up questions on why both necessity and moral perfection are required, so it should have been quite obvious that I did consider a being lacking only one.

Why not?

How does it set an external standard? Referring to analogy in my other post - does the man-on-the-street’s vague idea of a meter set an external standard on the prototype meter? Does his vague idea prevent him from recognizing the concept of a meter as defined by the prototype meter?

How? Do tell.

A dinosaur dies and leaves some fossils fragments. From those fossil fragments, we infer things about it, like that it had a certain height when it was alive. The fossil fragments are our reasons for believing those facts. But the thing that grounds those facts in reality is the dinosaur.

The idea here is that reality isn’t constituted by our knowledge of it. It’s why your objection “how can we say that what God would do is good, unless we have some standard of goodness by which to judge his character?” is off the mark.

More like, because I know it is wrong to casually murder strangers, I infer that naturalism is false. I find your view inconsistent, but I’m very glad you maintain that inconsistency in favour of your moral intuitions rather than your poorly-justified metaphysical view.

Copying @Faizal’s question back over here to the thread on which it was originally posted to keep the context, and because it could be an interesting point to address here, as well

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Exactly. What is the problem with that?

Again, that is exactly the point. It is inconceivable, just as it is inconceivable for a Mac computer to run Windows. My position is that it is a possibility that these aspects of how we experience the world are a reflection of the properties of our mind, rather than of the world.

It’s a weird thought, I agree, but I do not see how it is any less plausible than the belief that all of material reality including causation, and space-time is somehow “grounded” in some person who is immaterial, uncaused and unextended in space and time. I’ve never heard anyone even try to explain how that is supposed to work.

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No, that is not a disanalogy. That is, in fact, the very crux of the analogy.

That’s a bit of sleight of hand there. I am not saying that God is arbitrary. Rather, I am pointing out that defining morality in terms of God’s character is arbitrary.

And your response does nothing to dispel this. All you did is describe a bunch of other properties you attribute to your God that are extraneous to its serving as the standard of morality. It’s the equivalent of saying , "No, setting this bar as the standard of morality is not arbitrary. The bar weighs 20 kg. It’s silver gray in colour. It’s rectangular. Therefore there is nothing arbitrary about designating its length as the standard of a meter.

The dilemma remains unresolved.

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No problem for me. You’re the one admitting that you don’t know the world exists, you don’t know if reality operates according to the laws of logic and cause and effect, and you don’t even know if you exist. It makes one wonder if we should trust your epistemic judgement, however.

You appear to be contradicting yourself.

And I’m saying that you are incorrect about this. Because those other attributes are not extraneous to God being the standard of morality. His necessary existence and being the cause of all other reality implies, for example, that he is uniquely necessary and thus the only possible candidate for being the standard of morality (which, as I argued, must be necessary). And there are a number of other reasons as well, though that gets into philosophical discussions that I don’t yet feel prepared to wade into. Could point you in the direct of other writers on that subject, though.

So let’s be clear here: I am suggesting all of those things are properly basic beliefs. I thought we had agreed properly basic beliefs cannot be demonstrated to be true. If that is the case, and you are now thinking it somehow discredits my position to hold that these are PBB’s, then your argument must simillarly be undermined by your claiming “moral intuitions” are PBB’s.

Not if you read those sentence fragments in context, I believe. But if you are still confused I am happy to clarify.

Still a non-sequitur. Being the “cause of all reality” does not entail that one is moral, never mind that one is the only possible standard of morality.

And since it has yet to be established that any such standard is necessary (no matter how hard you have tried to argue this) it doesn’t even matter.

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You appear to still have different ideas about properly basic beliefs than I do. You indicated agreement with me that, by your reasoning, you cannot assert that the world exists outside of your mind. To me, this means you are claiming you do not know that the world exists outside of your mind.

Whereas I would say I do know that the world exists outside my mind. I know it in a properly basic way, but the fact that I cannot logically demonstrate it to a determined skeptic does not prevent it from being among the most certain propositions of my knowledge.

You are saying something like “it is conceivable that we could be wrong about these things, even though we can’t conceive of what that would be like”. Generically speaking, we can conceive of being wrong. But to conceive of being wrong in those ways specifically would require conceiving what you specifically say is not conceivable.

I don’t think we have any reason to believe that we are wrong in those ways. But even if we did, those reasons would likely be self-undermining - they would imply that we can’t even conceive of what reality is like, and so we wouldn’t actually have any idea if the reasoning we used to get to that point reflected reality after all. But that’s a wide digression.

I’ll grant that it doesn’t follow strictly from the meaning of “necessary being” or “cause of existence of everything outside himself”. But there’s a long tradition of philosophical arguments that moral perfection actually does follow from necessary existence, given other metaphysical premises which are themselves supported by arguments. (See Ed Feser’s book “Five Proofs for the Existence of God”; I could look up the specific chapter if you’re interested.) And there’s other arguments that the idea of an “evil God” (a necessary being but without moral perfection) doesn’t actually make sense, or is an ad-hoc hypothesis compared to the traditional theistic claim. I’m sure you’d find something you could disagree with in those arguments, but they show that the theist isn’t making the connection baselessly.

Even without those arguments, however, I’m not sure this is a problem. It would be a problem if God’s character could be different. I would totally agree with the charge of arbitrariness if that were the case. But it isn’t - God’s character can’t be different than it actually is. So as long as we have some independent reason for thinking that God actually is morally perfect if he exists, then we can infer that necessary existence and moral perfection are necessarily co-instantiated, even if we can’t explain why.

I think we do have such reason - coming from our partial knowledge of moral perfection via our moral intuitions, compared against the way God has revealed himself in the world. And I think there is enough beauty and goodness in creation, and especially in the character of God revealed in Jesus, to make that inference plausible. (Though, of course, the other arguments help.)

(Yes, that does mean that clashes between our moral intuitions and the way God has revealed himself in the world need to be weighed as well. So, I guess such objections are not quite as independent from the Euthyphro dilemma as I was arguing earlier in this thread.)

I don’t think I’ve actually tried to argue this. The argument isn’t hard, though:

Interlocutor 1: “do you think it is possible for (insert moral atrocity here) to be morally permissible?”

Interlocutor 2: “no, I don’t think that is even possible to be permissible.”

Interlocutor 1: “congratulations, you believe that there is a necessary standard for morality.”

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Could you please point the readers to some of these arguments?

Are they separate from, or do those arguments relate to your later statement that:

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Then that is the nature of our disagreement. Your claim that my position is undermined because I’m “the one admitting that (I) don’t know the world exists” misses the mark, because by the same standard you do not know that moral values exist.

Just to make our difference explicit, where you say “The fact that I cannot logically demonstrate it to a determined skeptic does not prevent it from being among the most certain propositions of my knowledge,” I would say “The fact that I cannot logically demonstrate it to a determined skeptic does not prevent it from being among the most indispensible propositions of my knowledge.”

I don’t see why that is the case.

To extend my earlier analogy: I know that the icons on the monitor of my Windows computer are only representations of the actual processes occurring in computer itself. Even so, it is inconceivable to me how I could use my computer other than thru its operating system and the icons it produces on the screen. I can’t directly influence the states of each of the microprocessors in the CPU so that the computer performs the task I want it to. (I’m not sure if that statement even makes sense in terms of how computers operate, but hopefully the point is made.)

There’s also a long tradition of philosophers saying that’s a load of bollocks, so you need a better argument than this, sorry.

And even if the the bar that defines a metre was made of indestructible and unalterable material such that its length could never be other than exactly what it is, that would not change the fact that using it as the standard is completely arbitrary.

And if I was interlocutor 2, I would answer “Sure. Why not?”

So your argument fails.

TBH, it appears to me you are smuggling in a number of assumptions that could taken as given if you were discussing with people who already accept Christianity are only disagreeing on the fine details of how the religion relates to moral epistemology and ontology. But that’s not the case here, so you are going to have to support many of the claims on which your argument rests and which have not yet been demonstrated to be true.

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Would you please clarify: Aren’t there certain atrocities that you would find morally impermissible, such as the holocaust or torture?

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Yes, But that was not the question.

I’m thinking of arguments of Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophers that argue from the properties inferred from other arguments for God’s existence (necessary existence inferred from the cosmological argument, for example) to perfect goodness. Here’s some examples:

Rob Koons provided one in a recent interview
Ed Feser discusses at least one such argument in Ch. 6 of his book
Alexander Pruss has one in his article on the Leibnizian cosmological argument (scroll down to section 5.3)

Related to my later statement.

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Because conceiving of being wrong in those ways, specifically, would require conceiving how it would be if we were wrong in those ways. (At this point though, I’ve forgotten what this branch of the conversation was supposed to lead to…)

My point is that those arguments remove the grounds for your charge of arbitrariness against the theist. You can still deny that the arguments work, and that’s another debate, but within the theistic framework they give a principled reason for saying that God is the ground of goodness. You can no longer claim that this is an internal inconsistency.

This ignores what I said next:

And I might add that even if all we have is reason to think that God’s character partially fits our moral intuitions, without being able to know that he is morally perfect, arguments such as the ontological argument would allow us to infer God’s moral perfection.

Wow. If you genuinely believe it is possible for things that are (in actuality) moral atrocities to be morally permissible, then obviously you have different moral intuitions than mine.

But I have zero reason to trust your own intuitions over mine on this, so…

The Euthyphro dilemma is, I take it, supposed to point out an internal inconsistency in the theistic metaethical view. So I ultimately see nothing wrong with utilizing such assumptions, particularly since I think they are defensible (even if I have neither the time nor energy to go further and further back defending each and every claim I make). I’ve put some effort into showing why I find those assumptions plausible, but at the end of the day you’re always going to be able to find something to disagree with, if you so desire.

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So if arguments don’t work, we should act as if they worked, anyway?

I’m sorry, that is not how any of this works at all.

Oh, jeez. No, that is also not how it works.

For instance, if I see a car that happens to be red, it does not mean that all cars are red, nor that all red things are cars.

I can’t believe I have to explain this.

I understand your confusion. Allow me to explain. Let’s take, as an example, the moral proscription against rape. I have no hesitation in saying that rape is not morally permissable for us as humans.

However, suppose there are other intelligent life forms on another planet for whom the act of sexual reproduction occurs thru a process as emotionally neutral and physically innocuous as breathing or blood circulation is for us, and issues of pleasure/unpleasure and consent/coercion do not even pertain. In that case, “rape”, i.e sexual interactions without consent, may not be considered an incursion onto the rights of another individual and not be a moral issue at all.

Which gets to my main position, which is that morality is something that arises contingently from our nature as human beings and has no existence apart from that. It is not some thing that exists “objectively” out there somewhere.

Whereas you believe that a statement like “It is immoral to masturbate” still pertained in the Cambrian era, because it would be “grounded” in the nature of a god somehow. That is just absurd to me.

You are simply asserting that the Christian view is consistent and coherent, without demonstrating this or responding to the argument showing otherwise. That is why you have failed to refute the Euthyphro.

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But they do work. Or at the very least, they seem to be valid, non-question begging arguments that follow from premises I find plausible.

I wasn’t talking about cars, but about God. We have independent reason (such as the cosmological argument or ontological argument) for believing that God exists and has the nature he does necessarily. I can’t believe I have to explain this.

But I’m not talking about the morality of some entirely different circumstance with entirely different kinds of beings. I’m talking about the morality of the same act being different: in philosophical speak, if there’s a possible world with the same non-value facts, the same things happening on a physical level, but where the value facts, the correct moral evaluation, is different.

I would agree with you that what is right and wrong for us is tied into our natures - but that doesn’t mean that morality isn’t objective or that the ultimate standard of goodness isn’t God. (I am not a “divine command theorist” in the strictest sense; I think components of natural law theory are correct.) You are assuming my view is far more simplistic than it actually is.

What argument showing otherwise? You are simply asserting that my view is inconsistent or incoherent.

Put it another way: there’s no logical contradiction in saying that God’s character is the ground of the objective moral standard. Your complaint is that it is arbitrary. I don’t see that it is, especially in light of the considerations I’ve pointed to in the last couple of posts, and even going back to the very first one I pointed out. You seem to think that the fact that God is the foundation of reality is irrelevant to his being the ground of what is good, but I think it isn’t arbitrary to suggest that the foundation of reality is the foundation of moral truths as well.

At the very least, I would say that we can plausibly infer from, say, the cosmological argument that there is a necessary being that is the cause of the universe, and we can plausibly infer from the moral argument (which I outlined above) that there is a necessary being which is the ground of the objective moral standard, and that it is a reasonable move (via considerations of parsimony) to assume that those two beings are in fact one in the same.

I don’t accept that, if something was or is a commonly accepted practice in a community, it is therefore morally permissable.

I don’t really find your position here at all coherent.

If you are conceding that moral values are contingent upon a number of factors including the type of beings we are discussing, the circumstances of their existence, etc, then it appears to me you are blowing your entire argument out of the water.

You can think whatever you want. You still haven’t demonstrated it.

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