Morality & Religion: I
- Anna Kalypsa: a lover of wisdom
- Kathy Merinos: her ardent, but not over-bright, admirer
- Mel Etitis: another admirer, careful and studious
- Theo Logos: a devout Christian, always eager for debate
(A sunny town square somewhere in the Peloponnese. Anna Kalypsas
and Mel Etitis are standing, holding open books; Kathy Merinos is watching
and listening to them, also with an open book in front of her. Theo Logos
appears and spots them. He stops to listen.)
- Mel: "Very well, then; what is agreeable to the gods is pious,
and what is disagreeable to them impious."
- Anna: "An excellent answer, Euthyphro, and in just the form I
wanted. Whether it is true I don't know yet; but no doubt you will go on
to make it clear to me that your statement is correct."
- Mel: "Certainly."
- Anna: "Come along then; let's consider what we are saying."
- (She notices Theo standing watching, and lowers her book.)
- Theo! Come and join us!
- (Theo walks over and sits at the table with Kathy; Anna and Mel sit
down too, after Anna has signalled a waiter for an extra cup of
- Theo: Good morning to you all! Are you rehearsing a play?
- Kathy: No -- we're reading Plato's dialogue Euthyphro.
It brings it so much more alive when we read it like a play. Do you know
it, Dr Logos?
- Theo: Why, yes. We read it when I was a student; in fact, there's a
tradition in my family that Plato was an ancestor of ours, so I was
especially interested. I've forgotten most of it, I'm afraid -- we
concentrated on the Republic at College. Have you got far?
- Kathy: No, we've only just begun. Anna was reading Socrates' part,
and Mel was reading Euthyphro's.
- Mel: Euthyphro has just given his opinion that "what is
agreeable to the gods is pious, and what is disagreeable to them
impious." I expect that Socrates is about to tear his opinion apart.
- Anna: In a way; in fact Socrates is about to point out that
Euthyphro's definition is fundamentally ambiguous.
- Theo: But why do you find this interesting? You don't even believe
in one god, Anna, never mind all the ancient gods. And why should
you care about definitions of piety?
- Anna: Well, it's true that we're not interested in piety -- but the
arguments work just as well if we insert "morally good" in place
of "pious", and I certainly am interested in morality, as you
know. And we can replace Plato's gods with just one god, your own
Christian god, if you like. Then we get a rather disturbing dilemma for
someone like you.
- Theo: I know that I should remember all this from my College days,
but my mind is a blank. Remind me Anna, what is the problem? So far we
just seem to have: "what is agreeable to god is morally good, and
what is disagreeable to him is morally bad." What ambiguity do you
and Plato find in that?
- Anna: Well, the question is this: are we saying that what is good is
good because god approves of it, or that god approves of it because it's
- Theo: I suppose that I am getting myself into deep waters here -- you
have that look about you that should warn me off. But all right, I
suppose that I have to take the risk. It seems to me, off the top of my
head anyway, that god's laws - for example, the Ten Commandments - are
good, and that that is why god gave them to us. Now, enlighten us... what
arguments does Plato have against me?
- Anna: Actually Plato agrees with you that that's the better choice.
- Theo: Ah -- but you said that there was a problem, so I suppose that
that cannot be the end of things. It is never that easy.
- Anna: True enough. Mind you, I should say that I'm not claiming that
there's a deep problem in the sense that religious belief in general is
threatened. It's just that both of the choices have worrying implications
for religion. And even then, only for certain kinds of religion (though
that includes yours). Let's start with your choice.
As a Christian, Theo, I take it that you believe that your god is the
supreme being, and specifically that he created everything -- not only
everything in space and time, but even space and time themselves. But if
he gives us his commandments because they're good, then goodness lies
outside him; he hasn't created goodness, but has gone along with it. In
other words, it turns out that the moral law is something independent of
god, and that he obeys it, or is bound by it, just as we are.
- Mel: And that seems to mean that we don't really need god for
morality. He turns out to be at most a teacher or guide, which is what I
thought human beings like saints or priests were supposed to be capable of
- Theo: No Mel, even if Anna were right, you would be jumping too far;
I could argue that human saints are only teachers and guides through the
power of god. Thus if morality exists independently of god, it could
easily be that we still need him... that we are unable to discover moral
truths for ourselves. But I admit that I do not like the idea. Apart
from anything else, given that god created us, we should have to ask why
he created beings lacking the ability to be moral without his help.
But let me think Anna's suggestion through, just to see if the basic
idea is acceptable -- even if I have to reject it in the end.
- Anna: Take your time Theo; feel free to think out loud.
- Theo: Well... I suppose that I can see the point; it does seem that
god's basic relationship with morality turns out to be the same as ours.
Except, of course, that he is always morally good and we are not. But
even if I accept that (and I do not, yet), it certainly does not follow
that god obeys the moral law. We have to obey, because we
are neither perfectly good nor perfectly knowledgeable -- but god's
actions are always in accordance with the moral law because that is his
nature. It is like two perfectly made clocks, set to the same time, and
wound up; they always tell the same time, but neither is obeying the
- Anna: Yes, I see what you mean (and your example is oddly familiar)
-- but things can't be that simple. For a start, we have to ask what we
mean when we say that someone is good; if there's a big difference between
saying that a human being is good and saying that god is good, then I'd
need you to show me that the word "good" means the same in both
cases. If it doesn't, then you might be saying that god is good,
but you're meaning something else. It's as if you're using the
word "good" as our ancestors used the wooden horse against Troy
-- appearing to offer a gift while in fact smuggling their warriors into
If you want the technical term, it's "the
Fallacy of Equivocation"; that's when you use a word
differently in different parts of your argument. For example, you'd
probably agree that bachelors are unmarried men, but my mother is a
Bachelor of Arts, so it seems that I can infer that she's an unmarried
man! By switching the meaning of "bachelor" in the middle, I
made my inference invalid. Now, is that what you're doing with
- Theo: I think not; after all, when I say that this is a good knife,
and that that is a good wine, I mean different things -- but I am not
committing a fallacy, surely? There is a central meaning there, which is
relative to the sort of object with which we are concerned; one thing is
good as a knife, the other is good as a wine. So when we say of a human
being that he is good, we mean good as a human being... but that
restriction does not apply to god; god is not good as some particular
thing, he is just good as a being -- he is good, full stop.
- Mel: There's something odd there, though, Dr Logos. If you're using
"good" to mean "morally good", then why do you want to
make it relative at all? I might say of Anna that she's a good
philosopher, and that means that she's good as a philosopher -- but
if I say that she's good in the moral sense, then at most I mean that
she's good as a moral being. So if god is a moral being,
than there's no room for the sort of distinction you're trying to draw
between him and human beings. I mean, "good" must mean the same
in all cases, mustn't it? Otherwise we're back to Anna's point about
- Kathy: But Mel, don't we sometimes say that someone is good
considering their background, or upbringing? "Good" might not
be relative to us as human beings, but perhaps it's relative to us as
- Mel: Well, perhaps -- but even in that sort of case, we surely mean
that someone's good despite her handicaps, not good as a
handicapped person. I doubt whether Dr Logos wants to say that human
beings are good despite their handicaps; after all, he thinks that god is
responsible for creating us, so he'd be forced to say that we're good
- Theo: Er, no, I should certainly not want to say that. To start
with, god created us, to be sure, but other people created our upbringing
- Mel: I'm afraid that that's not what I meant; on your account, Dr
Logos, we're not only moral despite our individual backgrounds, but
despite our nature as human beings. And that doesn't depend upon other
- Theo: Yes, I see your point. Look, perhaps I do not need to take
this line after all. Anna, do you remember that in one of our
conversations you explained that omnipotence did not mean being able to do
the logically impossible?
- Anna: Of course -- because there's no such thing as the logically
impossible for an omnipotent being not to be able to do.
- Theo: So the difference between god and us, in the moral sense, is
that his goodness is logically necessary. I mean that it is logically
impossible that god perform an evil action.
- Anna: That's ingenious, Theo, but I'm not sure about it. What's the
difference between saying that god is necessarily good and saying that god
is morally constrained?
- Theo: Well, in the former case it is a matter of his nature, his
essential nature. It is not that god would like to be bad but is
not allowed to be -- it is that his nature is to be good.
- Mel: I don't see how that solves your problem though, Dr Logos. You
still have to say that "good" means something different for god
and for us. For us, it's praiseworthy to be good, because we might not
have been good; for god there's no question of praiseworthiness, because
that's just how he is. And god's essence is still being defined in terms
of something outside him -- in terms of some independent concept of
- Theo: I fail to see why god cannot be accounted praiseworthy simply
because his goodness flows from his nature. Surely we should praise him
precisely for having that nature.
- Mel: Yes, I see what you mean. Still, my second point stands: what's
the status of morality if it's independent of god's will?
- Kathy: Um, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I don't understand something.
Why exactly is it that Dr Logos can't accept the first horn of Plato's
dilemma? He seems to be faced with a tremendous problem arguing that god
commands whatever is moral; why can't he say that morality is whatever god
commands? In fact I thought that that was the usual Christian position.
- Theo: I did not say that I could not accept the first
position, only that the second was the one that seemed right to me, off
the top of my head. To be honest, I do not see what is supposed to be
wrong with the idea that god created morality, just as he created
- Anna: OK, bearing in mind that the second horn of the dilemma is more
problematic than it might have seemed - even if you're not convinced that
it's ruled out - let's put it aside for the moment and look at that first
horn. I think, in fact, that it presents even greater problems than the
second. Let's start with a problem that has a well-known philosophical
label. Have you come across the Naturalistic Fallacy?
- (Mel nods, Kathy shakes her head, and Theo makes a gesture that
conveys that he probably has come across the term, but isn't sure.)
- Anna: Well, if you give an argument that has purely factual premises,
but which has values or judgements in its conclusion, then you've
committed the Naturalistic Fallacy. The same thing happens when you
define a value, like good, in purely factual terms. It's sometimes
called the fallacy of deriving an ought from an is.
- Kathy: Why is it a fallacy?
- Anna: Well, you could see it just as a particular version of an
obvious fallacy; that is, you can't have something in the conclusion that
isn't in the premises. After all, you wouldn't allow an argument like
All monkeys are mammals
Koko is a monkey
Therefore: Koko has a long tail
There was nothing in the premises about having a long tail, so how did it
get into the conclusion? The same applies to values, or
"ought"s; if they're in the conclusion of your argument, they
should be somewhere in the premises.
- (They all nod.)
- Anna: Now, the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma claims that
goodness and badness are derived simply from whatever god commands. But
that's to derive values from facts -- so we have a clear case of the
- Theo: Surely, Anna, god's commands are not natural -- they are
- Anna: True (at least, for the sake of argument -- there's room for
debate), but it's not naturalness in that sense that matters here. The
point is that, for example, "it's wrong to kill" is an
evaluative statement, while "god forbids us to kill" is a
factual statement... it has no evaluative content.
- Theo: But is there not something missing in that argument? That is,
you have a premise: "God forbids us to kill", and you have a
conclusion: "It is wrong to kill", but you surely need another
premise -- something like "Whatever god commands is good, and
whatever he forbids is evil". Then you have the moral terms in one
of the premises, so there is no fallacy.
- Anna: Ah, but remember that we're rejecting the second horn of the
dilemma for the moment, and assuming that "good" just means
"whatever god commands" -- but then: "whatever god commands
is good" turns out to mean: "whatever god commands is whatever
god commands". Or, to put it another way, you've robbed the term
"good" of its evaluative content, and left it as nothing more
than shorthand for a statement about what god commands.
- Theo: But god is good -- is that not where the evaluative
content comes in? It is not like saying: "Theo forbids you to
kill", which would not tell you anything more about morality than
would: "Theo forbids you to sit in his favourite chair".
Because god is essentially good, then whatever he commands is essentially
- Mel: Sorry, Dr Logos, but I don't see how that would work. You're
relying on the idea that "good" means something apart from god's
will -- that's the second horn, not the one we're discussing now. Saying
that god was good would mean something like: "god always does what he
commands, and never does what he forbids", and that just seems to
make him consistent, not good. It certainly leaves "good"
meaning something different for god and for us -- and whatever else you
think of that, it leads to the Fallacy of Equivocation again.
isn't there another route open to you, Dr Logos? Can't you say that what
"good" means is one thing, and what actually is
and isn't good is another?
- Anna: That's an interesting move, Mel. So Theo would have to say
that the fact that, for example, killing is bad depends upon god's will,
but the meaning of "is bad" doesn't. Are you happy with
- Theo: I am not sure, to be honest. How do you intend to distinguish
between the two? Could you say what "bad" meant without saying,
or at least implying, what sorts of action were bad?
- Anna: I see... you're saying that, once the meanings of moral terms
are fixed, then the details of what's good and what's bad follow
necessarily. So if the meanings of "good" and "bad"
are independent of god's will, then he's hardly a moral commander
-- if he's essentially good, as you say that he is, then he doesn't have
any choice as to what he tells us.
- Theo: Well, how about this? Perhaps there are two kinds of moral
principle: one kind is fixed, logically dependent upon the very meanings
of "good" and "bad", and one kind is dependent upon
other, non-moral facts. For example, there is a big difference between
torture and nepotism. Torture is surely always and everywhere evil; that
does not depend upon facts about how the world happens to be. Imagine, on
the other hand, that I give a church contract to my nephew; that would
only be wrong if I had promised my archbishop that I should be completely
impartial in my choice of a contractor, and I knew that my nephew will not
do the best job. God can command the latter kind of moral principle, but
it makes no sense to say that he commands the former -- how could he
command what is logically necessary?
- Kathy: Oh, do you have a nephew, Dr Logos?
- Theo: No, Kathy -- it was just an illustration. But you see what I
- Anna: Actually I'm not at all sure that I do, Theo. You say that
your choice of a particular contractor would be a merely contingent evil,
because it depends upon things like the fact that the contractor is your
nephew, that he wouldn't do the best job, and the fact that you've
promised to be impartial?
- Theo: Precisely.
- Anna: But isn't torture evil in just such a contingent sense? That
is, it's only evil for me to apply electrodes to your tenderer extremities
because you're the sort of being who can feel pain, and electricity causes
pain. Neither of those things need have been true, and neither of them is
a moral fact. So what's the real difference between the two cases?
- Theo: But "torture" just means causing pain -- you
cannot say that it is contingent upon the possibility of pain. That is
what I mean when I say that it is necessary; it would be evil even in a
world where it was physically impossible. After all, we can surely all
think of kinds of action that are not in fact possible, but which would be
evil if they were.
- Anna: Now, be careful Theo. You've just explained to Kathy that you
don't have a nephew, that your example of nepotism is hypothetical
(indeed, physically impossible) -- yet you're still able to say that
nepotism is wrong for you. In other words, nepotism is just like torture,
in that it would be immoral even in a world where it was impossible.
- Mel: Isn't the distinction really between moral principles and
specific occasions on which those principles are applied? And it's the
same for all moral principles, isn't it?
- Anna: Perhaps Theo's point can be salvaged though I doubt that he'll
find the result very helpful. There certainly seems to be a clear
distinction between all the universal moral values and those which are
specific to certain religions. So we might accept that god couldn't have
decreed that torture be morally good - that's a logical impossibility -
but he needn't have made the Sabbath day holy or forbidden graven images
for Jews and Christians.
- Theo: Hmmm... you are right that such a distinction could not do what
I need it to. I shall think further about all this, but I suspect that my
distinction will in the end be of no help to me. Perhaps we should start
from the other end of things.
- Anna: Which end is that, Theo?
- Theo: Well, I suppose that I am returning to the distinction that Mel
drew between what "good" means and what is good. As a
philosopher, Anna, you are primarily interested in the former question,
but the religious believer is primarily interested in the latter. Now,
when Mel drew her distinction I suggested that the two parts were not
really separable, but that is not quite true. I certainly doubt that one
could say what "good" means without describing the types of
action that count as good -- but one can surely say what types of action
count as good without having to answer your philosophical question. And
my answer is that it is good to obey god's commands. Now, what is wrong
- Anna: I can see two problems straight away. Mel, Kathy... what do
- Kathy: I don't think that it's fair to say that philosophers aren't
interested in what is good. Dr Logos is portraying philosophy as just
being about words and meanings, which isn't true at all.
- Anna: Fair enough, Kathy -- though perhaps Theo's only guilty of mild
and rhetorical exaggeration. How about philosophical problems,
- Mel: Well, Dr Logos, it seems to me that both parts of your claim are
debatable. In so far as it's possible to say what "good" means,
I don't see why such an account should do more than imply that a
certain set of actions count as good; it's not necessary actually to
describe or to list all the types of good action. More importantly for
your argument, though, it's surely not possible to say what counts as good
unless you know what you mean by "good". Is that what you had
in mind, Anna?
- Anna: In fact I do accept both your points, Mel, but only the latter
was one of my two worries. Yes, on Theo's view, only god knows
what "good" means -- he tells us, and we have to trust him.
- Theo: Of course we trust him, Anna; he is perfectly good, and would
never deceive us.
- Anna: But how do you judge that he's good? If you're going to make
such a judgement then you need to know what goodness is. If you don't
know what "good" means, and only have god's commands to go on,
then you seem to be back at the sort of circle that you faced earlier.
The other problem I saw, though, was rather different. Theo is
claiming that "it is bad to disobey god's commands" isn't a
definition of "bad" but only a description of those actions that
are to count as bad. Now both of those claims seem more than a little odd
to me, because they both seem to rule out a scale of goodness and badness.
What I mean is this. Let's assume that god has commanded us not to murder
or lie; if I disobey him, then my actions are morally wrong -- but my
wrongdoing doesn't lie in my having murdered and lied, only in my having
disobeyed. So the murder and the lie are just as bad as each other,
because they're both cases of disobeying god. In fact there's only one
kind of wrongdoing, and that's disobeying god.
- Theo: There are in fact Christians who would find nothing strange in
such a position, but I confess that I cannot share their position; it
seems to take us too far from our moral intuitions.
- Mel: But is Dr Logos forced into that position? It seems to depend
upon the assumption that god simply commands us to do one thing and not
another. Couldn't he actually command that one type of action is very bad
and another kind not so bad, one kind very good and another kind not so
good, and so on?
- Anna: Well now, that's a different sort of command, isn't it? We've
been talking about god saying: "Don't murder", but you're
suggesting that he say: "Murder is (very) wrong". The former
involves telling us directly not to do something, the latter doesn't.
- Mel: Yes, I see that, but then can't Dr Logos say that god does the
latter not the former?
- Theo: A good point, Mel; moreover, rather than seeing god as issuing
orders, it surely makes much more sense to see god as simply telling us
what is right and wrong, so leaving us free to choose which path to
- Kathy: But surely god also tells us to be good and not bad, so
doesn't it come to the same thing in the end?
- Anna: We also seem to have lost sight of our starting point: what
does "morally wrong" mean when god says: "murder is
- Theo: Oh Lord! I must admit, Anna, that I am beginning to get a
little lost. Could we meet again tomorrow to continue with this
discussion? I certainly do not want to leave matters here, but I really
have to get back to my duties.
- Anna: Of course, Theo; we'll see you tomorrow afternoon -- say,
about five at Manolis' cafe‚?
- (Theo leaves them, and they in turn go their separate ways.)
Some suggestions for further reading
- Gene Outka & John P. Reeder [edd] - Religion and
Morality (Anchor; 1973)
- Plato - Euthyphro (any edition, really; the
Penguin version can be found in The Last Days of