In Plato's dialogue, 'Euthyphro', Socrates presents Euthyphro with a choice: `Is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved [by the gods]?'
Euthyphro responds by asserting that piety is that which is approved [loved] or sanctioned by the gods; whence impiety is whatever is disapproved of by the gods. However, as Socrates points out, the question poses a dilemma for those who believe as Euthyphro does that Truth is revealed by divine authority alone.
Now, a dilemma is an argument forcing a choice of two unfavourable alternatives. The important point here is that the alternatives must be equally unfavourable. Simply to be faced with two alternatives is not to be faced with a dilemma. To appreciate why each of the options set out above are unpalatable for Euthyphro, we need to unpack the import of each alternative carefully.
In drawing out the implications of Socrates' argument, I intend to substitute the word `God' for Plato's `gods'; this change will not affect the potency of the argument, and will make the dilemma more topical and relevant to the modern reader.
Essentially, the dilemma faced by Euthyphro is this: If it is maintained that certain actions and dispositions are good simply because God favours them, then it seems that the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, is purely arbitrary; for no reason can be given why God should favour one kind of action rather than another. The distinction is solely a matter of God's `taste', just as it is a matter of my taste that I prefer prawns to oysters. As no reason can be given why God should favour, say, justice and kindness, he might equally have favoured their opposites. In which case ...
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...d so, the dilemma has not been resolved completely after all.
Undoubtedly, anyone holding a theistic conception of morality must find some place for divinely revealed moral commands; but it may be that in so doing the theist weakens their resolution of the dilemma. On the one hand, they want to say that the question of whether an alleged special revelation concerning moral matters comes from God is to be answered in the light of our rationally established criteria of good and evil. This suggests that morality has no need of revelation. On the other hand, they want to say that, for the theist, ultimate questions of good and evil cannot be answered apart from reference to special revelation. This suggests that, in the final analysis, our reason is inadequate as a source of the knowledge of good and evil. It is hard to see how the theist can have it both ways.
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