On Euthyphro

Then they cannot be said to be properly basic, I would suspect. Have you any examples in mind?

This is an interesting conversation, but it is lopsided because there are too many people replying and it is hard to follow the threads anymore. I’m going to keep @structureoftruth, @John_Harshman, and @Faizal_Ali on the main thread, and put everyone else to the side comments. Please follow this rule!


Here’s a possible example. I suspect many people have the following rational intuition: if you have two sets of things A and B, the combined set has more members than either A or B. This intuition is wrong - it fails for infinite sets. Nevertheless, its not unreasonable for a person who doesn’t know about infinite sets to hold that intuition (even without consciously reasoning it out).

Please note that it is not necessary to my argument to hold that all rational beliefs or all moral beliefs are properly basic. Only the foundational ones, the ones not justified by inference from other beliefs, need to be so. If the example I gave is not actually a properly basic belief, that doesn’t mean that there are no rational intuitions which are properly basic (such as the law of non-contradiction). Similarly, if the example you gave (circumcision) is not actually a properly basic belief, that does not mean that there are no moral intuitions which are properly basic (that human beings have moral worth and ought to be treated with dignity and respect, for instance).

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OK, so how do you demonstrate that that is a properly basic belief, and not just an incorrect “rational intuition” such as the example you gave?

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To be clear: in the example I gave (the set size intuition), I am saying it is still a properly basic belief - it is one the person is justified in holding, absent sufficient reason to believe otherwise. Properly basic does not mean the belief is infallible or not subject to correction; it means the belief is reasonable to hold even in the absence of arguments for it.

In my second paragraph, I was saying even if it wasn’t properly basic - say, because it was actually inferred from some argument, so would be an inference rather than an intuition - that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other rational beliefs that are properly basic.

If I recall, those rational intuitions were simply that a real world exists. That intuition is necessary to function at all. In this sense the intuition is basic, though I think your use of the word is unclear and is forced to carry more weight than it can bear. But because it’s basic is no reason to think that it’s true or that it points to some fundamental reality. It’s just necessary. If you grant the same status to moral intuition, I don’t see how that helps you. Also, “comes from the same place” is an odd and confusing way to put it.

I’d say premise 0 is right off questionable. Moral intuition supports no such thing. Also, the Euthyphro dilemma shows that if such a standard exists, it can’t be God.

1 seems like nothing more than a definition of “objective”. No controversy there.

2 Seems a false dichotomy. There could easily be shades of gray. Further, how do we define moral perfection, absent a standard? We can’t define it by reference to a morally perfect being; that’s circular.

3 Defines God, but it doesn’t guarantee that the hypothetical person you call God fits that definition.

Not sure of the function of 4 or 5. You certainly haven’t exhausted the possible range of supernatural beings or of beings called “God” in 6. What about, for example, a non-necessary but morally perfect being?

I believe there’s a typo in 7, and you mean to say that the natural world can’t ground a necessary objective standard. One might also ask what purpose “necessary” serves except to remind us of a necessary being and so associate the two. Why can’t an objective standard arise from a contingent reality? Why couldn’t moral laws follow from the facts of the universe? (Mind you, I would go back to a rejection of premise 0 and claim that all this reasoning is pointless.)

I’m not sure why there would have to be a causal connection between our intuitions and platonic forms in order to make them an objective standard.

I’m not sure why a being would have to be perfect in order to be a standard of morality, if a being could be a standard at all.

I don’t see why being necessary is…necessary for a being to be a moral standard or why perfection would be necessary either.

I will at least agree that if you accept all of premises 0-7, the conclusion 8 does follow.

6a is false for many reasons, but Euthyphro comes in elsewhere.

It fails for any case in which A or B is a subset of the other too. I’m not sure of the relevance. I also don’t see what load “basic” is carrying here.

That’s closer to my understanding of “properly basic,” not that I am claiming with confidence that my understanding is correct.

I will also say that I do not hold that to accept beliefs as PB is not the same thing as asserting they are true. I tend to think of these as our subjective experience of the evolved computational processes of our brain. That is to say, our minds perceive and understand the world in terms of concepts like causation, external reality, personal identity, etc. that are so baked into our brains after 4 billion years that it is impossible for us to conceive of a world without them. But does a dog or a cockroach or a mollusc or an E.coli bacteria have similar concepts? Possibly not, to likely not, to almost definitely not. But they all manage to make their way thru the world more or less as well as we do.

To the present topic, morality could be similarly viewed as our subjective experience of some of the brain processes the allow us to function as a social species.

Hmm. I have a different, and far narrower, understanding of the term. I think of properly basic beliefs as those which cannot be derived from any other knowledge or beliefs, but which appear to be axiomatically true to everyone whose mind is working properly, and which form the basis of all other knowledge. As such, the set size intuition would not qualify because we first need to have a concept of “set” and the mathematical rules pertaining to them, from which we can conclude that set A and B together has more members than either set alone. The logic involved in this is so simple that it might appear properly basic, but nonetheless I am not convinced that it is.

That aside, I think you are still not really dealing with a core issue here: Regardless of whether they are properly basic, if moral intuitions can be incorrect just as the set size intuition is correct, then on what basis do they serve as evidence for the existence of God? That is to say, why is a god necessary for us to hold moral intuitions that appear to us to be obviously true, but which could be false?


I really don’t understand your point here. Because cockroaches don’t think about causation, the world doesn’t contain causation?

What reason is there to believe that they are false? The point is that we are reasonable to accept them as true absent sufficient reasons otherwise - that is what I mean by calling them properly basic. And the mere fact that, for all we know, they could be false is not a sufficient reason for thinking that they actually are false.

As for on what basis do they serve as evidence for the existence of God - please see the nice argument I articulated above. With numbered premises and everything. @John_Harshman agreed that it was logically valid, even:

I disagree. Properly basic beliefs are a legitimate source of knowledge. They are beliefs we accept rationally, not merely pragmatically (which is what you seem to be saying). Denying this leads to radical skepticism. But that is a whole other rabbit trail… might just have to agree to disagree on this. (I’d point you to my blog again for more on the subject, but you are disinclined to read it, apparently.)

They do, actually. The inherent meaning of moral intuitions requires that there is an objective standard for them to make sense. If there is no objective standard, our moral intuitions are false. Blog, yet again. Afraid I don’t have time to reiterate my arguments for this point from there any further.

Care to start from the top and actually explain why?

2 is literally an instance of the law of excluded middle. A or not A. Tautologically true.

I don’t believe we actually need to know the definition of moral perfection to use it as a term in a logical argument. We can still see that the argument is logically valid (as you yourself conceded that it is; thank you for that, by the way). Of course, it helps to evaluate the truth of the premises if we at least have a partial idea of what moral perfection means. But we do have a partial idea, from our moral intuitions.

Agreed; problem for another day.

A non-necessary but morally perfect being would fall under 6b. I certainly have exhausted all the possibilities; please take a closer look. Each fork of 3-5 just divides the remaining possibilities into two disjoint and mutually exhaustive categories.

Correct, thanks.

Because our moral intuitions tell us that the objective standard is necessary; that’s part of premise 0. It isn’t just that it is wrong to (say) torture innocent children for fun: it isn’t even possible for that not to be wrong. It is necessarily wrong. And if the objective standard is necessary, then what grounds it in reality must be necessary as well.

Feel free to show me how its done. Until then, it’s intuitively obvious that facts about value aren’t going to emerge merely from facts about the physical universe.

To make them an objective standard, no. To make it so that our moral intuitions bear any resemblance to that standard, yes. Without that connection the theory is self-undermining (it defeats the reason for accepting premise 0).

The standard works like this: if someone acts the way a person with God’s character would act, that matches the standard and so is good. If someone deviates from the way a person with God’s character would act, they deviate from the standard and are to that extent bad. This shows that the being that grounds the standard must be morally perfect. (It also shows that having the standard be grounded in a being is perfectly coherent.)


Logical validity is a low bar and means little, however. Don’t forget that.


I recognize that. But it’s a crucial component to soundness.

I have no idea what you intend by “properly based beliefs” or “accept rationally” as opposed to “accept pragmatically”, just as it isn’t clear what you mean by “basic”. And I don’t see how you can go from our having moral intuitions to the inference that there must be a moral standard provided by God. As far as I can tell, moral intuitions are based on instinct and upbringing, the former a result of lengthy primate evolution as a social species. How does that feature God or any objective standard?

I think you confuse subjectivity or contingency with falsehood.

Your attempted escape, that God is his own standard whose very character is goodness, just isn’t coherent. It renders the concept of goodness circular. We know he’s good because he’s God, and God is good. How do we know that? Because he’s God.

I think you consider the two characteristics featured in A as unitary, with not A lacking both. You fail to consider anything lacking only one.

All true, but so what? If I say “If A, then B; A; therefore B”, that’s a logical argument, but it’s also vacuous without knowing what A and B are.

I don’t think that helps, since you reject our intuitions as a standard. If they were, that would be an external standard by which to judge God’s goodness. Further, God’s actions frequently violate our moral intuitions, or at least they violate mine. So far you seem unwilling to say.

It seems to be a problem that destroys your argument unless solved. Would you agree?

Don’t see it, especially since you declared 6b to be deism. My understanding is that the deist God is necessary, and whether he’s morally perfect is not considered. One problem is that 2a considers three characteristics, and we don’t know which one, or two or three, we’re rejecting if we accept 2b. “Something supernatural, but not God” in 3b doesn’t clarify, nor does 4 or 5. 6b allows that distinctness from the natural world wasn’t a defining characteristic, but we are left without any knowledge of whether necessity or moral perfection was the distinction, or whether they are considered unitary.

Your moral intuitions may. Mine do not. I reject premise 0.

They emerge from evolution, both biological and social, in reaction to the conditions of primate and human social environments. If that’s true, does it fit your description? I have to say that your intuition is doing a lot of work here, and intuition isn’t all that great a guide to objective truth.

I don’t think so. What you have there is an arbitrary rule. It’s just defining “good” as “what God would do”. But how can we say that what God would do is good, unless we have some standard of goodness by which to judge his character?

Crucial, but trivial, as it may equally be true of an unsound argument. It’s the premises that you need to justify.


Not quite. Rather, since we can only perceive the world thru our mind, we cannot assert that things like causation exist in the world apart from our mind.

There is an analogy I (partially) recall that I believe was made by Daniel Dennett: When you delete files from your computer, you point your cursor to the icon representing the file, then drag to the Recycle Bin icon and drop it there.

Of course, that is not what you are actually doing. You are not physically dragging something to a physical bin, and depositing it there. These are just graphic representations on the screen which acts as visual interface between the user and the processing going on in the computer.

Similarly, it is conceivable that the concepts we use when we think, such as the rules of math and logic, the existence of an external world operating in accordance with rules of causation, the very existence of ourselves as subjects, could be the equivalent of the icons created on the computer monitor by the operating system, and the real world is akin to the electronic process going on in the computer itself, which could be represented in any number of other ways. So a cockroach has a different kind of operating system suited to his particular evolutionary history.

Which is besides the point. You are arguing that they are true, so you need to do more than just demonstrate that they could be true.

Since it is premise 0 (Not even premise 1!) that is being questioned, it doesn’t matter how nice the rest of the argument is. I am asking you to support premise 0.

I also do not necessarily agree with this. I would say I live my life as if an external world exists because there is no other pragmatic way of existing that I can think of living. Speaking colloquially, I would even say I “believe” the external world exists. But if asked to demonstrate its existence by rigorous logical argument in a metaphysical discussion such as the present one, I cannot. So to that extent, it would not be entirely accurate to say I believe in its existence.

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Beliefs which we are justified in believing even in the absence of arguments for them. As I’ve already said. Basic refers to the fact that they aren’t arrived at by inference.

We accept a belief pragmatically when we treat it as true because it is useful to do so, not because we have any justification for thinking it is true. Such a belief does not constitute knowledge - it lacks the justification part. We accept a belief rationally when we have justification for it, and such a belief can constitute knowledge.

The proper basicality of a belief counts as intrinsic justification for it (though it can be countered by justification for its negation). The regress problem in epistemology demonstrates that some beliefs are properly basic in this way. Applied to moral epistemology, at least some moral intuitions are properly basic, or we have no moral knowledge at all.

And that’s enough of a crash course on my understanding of properly basic beliefs for now…

I’ve provided my reasoning for that inference elsewhere. I feel like you’ve already asked this, and I’ve already responded in the same way:

I do understand that your time is no less limited than mine, so if you don’t want to read my blog, that’s fine. But maybe instead of assuming that I’m “confusing subjectivity or contingency with falsehood”, you could consider that I may, in fact, have reasons for my claims that I haven’t taken the time to repeat here, though I’ve repeatedly alluded to them.

Now, this whole side conversation (about premise 0) is already a supporting point on a supporting point in the conservation - I laid out the moral argument by way of trying to explain how I arrive at my solution to Euthyphro, and why I see it as coherent. I’m going to try to steer the conversation back to Euthyphro shortly…

Totally false. Go back and read what I wrote under premise 7b.

Only vacuous if you have no idea what the terms are. It wasn’t my intention to say that this argument is meaningful if you have no idea of what moral perfection means, only that we don’t need to know the complete, precise definition for the argument to make sense. (I did not add in those qualifiers before, but I did talk about having a partial idea of what moral perfection means in the very next sentence…)

I simply don’t understand what you find problematic about this. Yes, our intuitions are not the standard. It follows that we do not have perfect knowledge of moral perfection. And…? Does this undercut my moral argument? My solution to the Euthyphro dilemma?

Keep in mind that how we know something and what makes something true (what grounds it in reality) are very often not the same thing.

I intend to get around to it. But I’d like to continue discussing Euthyphro first. As I’ve said, this objection relies on further premises, and is about the consistency of my solution to Euthyphro with other beliefs, not about the coherence of the solution itself.

Not at all! Why would it? Replace all mentions of “God” in my argument with the (far wordier) “a necessary being distinct from the natural world who is essentially morally perfect”. I give exactly the same support to the premises and I still believe the conclusion is true, regardless of further discussion about the identity of said being.

If you read earlier in the argument, I called it something like deism, and my applying that label was intended to be a helpful shorthand and nothing more. The actual definition of 6b is… get this… “One or more non-God supernatural entities distinct from the natural world”, and earlier statements in the argument make it clear that “God” refers to “a necessary being distinct from the natural world who is essentially morally perfect” and the the supernatural entity or entities referred to in 6b are concrete objects as opposed to abstract objects.

The negation of a conjunction is the disjunction of the negations. If God is “a necessary being distinct from the natural world who is essentially morally perfect”, then a being that is not God is any being that is either not necessary, or not essentially morally perfect, or not distinct from the natural world (with “or” understood inclusively, and where, for greater clarity, “necessary” means “necessarily existent”, as in “not possibly non-existent”).

All I see - if naturalism is true - is matter moving around. Some of it makes noises.

For some areas of truth, that is true. For others - debatable. I’d go back to talking about properly basic beliefs, rational intuitions, the foundations of our beliefs structures, and so on, but I’m tired of epistemology.

Now back to Euthyphro! Actually I’m out of time for now. I will comment again later.

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Well, now. Those are two different things. Just because a belief isn’t arrived at by inference doesn’t mean we’re justified in believing it. Intuitions are frequently wrong. Which one of those two things does “basic” mean?

That would include our beliefs about the existence of a reality corresponding to our senses, wouldn’t it?


Again, why? Is this still true if we reject premise 0?

I’m willing to believe that you may, but I’m certainly not going to consider those unexpressed reasons as an argument in favor of your pont.

Just not true. Our moral intuitions could exist for good empirical reasons having nothing to do with objective standards. They could, for example, make for a society that would function better, with benefit to its members, than a society without them.

I did. I don’t see that it satisfies the conditions I stated.

I’d say that it’s vacuous if you have no satisfactory, clear idea what the terms are. If your vague idea of moral perfection is merely that it satisfies our intuitions, that’s not good enough to support a point, and I believe it destroys your point, as it sets an external standard.

Yes, absolutely.

I’m not sure what “grounds it in reality” means, if it isn’t a reason for believing that it’s true. If God acting in a way that fits our intuition is a reason for believing he he’s perfectly good, isn’t him acting in a way the doesn’t fit a reason for believing he isn’t?

Why are those three things necessarily conjoined? And of course if that’s the definition of God, then God is morally perfect by definition. We still have no reason to believe that this entity, whatever name you give it, is morally perfect.

Is a 6b entity necessary? Perhaps a flow chart would explain this better.

Some of that matter is people. Do you really think that if naturalism is true there can be no morality? Is your religion all that keeps you from casually murdering strangers? I find this view incomprehensible, but I’m very glad that such people are religious.

You appear to be able to tell the difference, but I can’t see how.

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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.)