Friday, December 4, 2009

Do the right thing -- whatever THAT means

Does morality truly depend on God?

Religious thinkers often hold that there is some important connection between morality--which actions are right and wrong--and the divine. But what connection is that, exactly? To answer, the great ancient Greek thinker Plato (427-347 B.C.E.) attempts to get clearer on just what morality itself consists in.

If you were to ask someone what “moral rightness” is, they might first provide some examples of right actions and perhaps also of wrong ones. Many would agree that murder is wrong and that pursuing justice is right. But merely citing such examples won’t get us what we want. What we want is the very definition or essence of rightness, the thing that all right actions share and wrong ones lack.

Now many of Plato’s contemporaries were polytheists, believing in the existence of many gods (such as Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, etc.). When questioned about the nature of morality one of them responded this way: rightness is that which is loved by the gods and wrongness that which is hated. While this does appear to be a definition, there is a problem: the gods of his time were, just like humans, constantly bickering about everything including morality. For any given action some gods might love it while others do not. But then the very same action could be both god-loved and god-hated, and so, by that definition, both right and wrong. And surely that could not be.

Believing only in the one God, the monotheist may avoid this problem: towards any given action the single God presumably feels only love or hate, but not both. But then another problem arises. If rightness were “that which is loved by God,” we couldn’t know that a given action is right or wrong unless we knew just what God loved and hated--and unless you are a prophet you have no way of knowing that. Morality would become unknowable to us!

And there is a deeper problem still. Even if we did somehow learn the complete list of actions God loves and hates we still would not have the ultimate definition of rightness. For consider this question: is the right action loved by God because it is right, or is it right simply because it is loved?

Suppose we answer the former: the right action is loved because it is right. But then the rightness comes “before” the loving, so to speak: it is the reason that the action is loved by God. That means that the action is right “in itself,” independent of God’s loving it. But then what makes that action right? We have no idea; we still lack the definition of rightness.

That suggests the other answer: an action is right because it is loved by God. That is, rightness simply consists in the fact that the action is loved. That would give us a definition perhaps, but it surely is not the correct one. For presumably any God worth believing in is not arbitrary. He doesn’t randomly love some actions and hate others. There must be some reason He loves kind and just actions and hates evil ones like murdering and stealing. And what could that be if not that the former actions are morally right and the latter ones are not? But this returns us to the first answer, and its problems.

So what is the relationship between God and morality, according to Plato? God no doubt does love the right actions but that doesn’t tell us anything about what their rightness consists in--and indeed implies that their rightness in fact is ultimately independent of Him. Morality does not in the end depend on God.

Source: Plato, Euthyphro. Transl. G. M. A. Grube, in John. M. Cooper, ed., Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).

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