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Before I start here, I have one of those apologies I have to make because I don’t treat this blog as a professional responsibility.

It’s been many years since I’ve read Plato’s Euthryphro.  The last time I looked at it was when my younger son was reading it, and that had to be back in 2010 at the very latest. 

The Euthyphro is one of those things.  It caused, for me, a sort of intellectual shock–a sort of oh, wait, THAT’S what’s going on here moment–the first time I read it, and I was fourteen at the time.

The Euthyphro is up for free several places on the web, and it’s up free for e readers, too, so if you want to read the whole thing, go right ahead.

It’s a Socratic dialogue, which means it makes its point in that circuitous way that drives some people nuts, so there’s also that to consider.

What I want to do here is cut to the chase–if you ask most religious believers how they know if something is right or wrong, good or evil, they will tell you that they know because the gods, or God, has decreed it so.

But if you look at what religious believers actually do, you find that “God says so” is by no means adequate to have an act declared moral and right.

If God came down tomorrow and decreed that rape was moral, they would say that God was wrong.

In other words, religious believers judge the behavior of God just as they judge the behavior of human beings, and they do so on the basis of a set of moral rules that they derive from–

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? 

Most people have no idea where their intrinsic moral sense comes from, or where they got the rules they feel instinctively are “moral” and “immoral.”

Some of them are, certainly, things they have been taught in childhood by schools and parents and the culture at large.

But if you look at this stuff long enough, you come to realize that all the conditioning in the world doesn’t seem to be capable of budging some very basic moral ideas. 

If you look closely at the seemingly diverse moral codes of different peoples, what you find is that there is less diversity in the codes themselves than there is in the cultural definition of “human.”

But that’s sort of beside the point.  The question, the real bottom line, is–where are these moral ideas coming from?

And how do we know they are worthwhile ideas?

And what would worthwhile moral ideas actually look like?

This is the kind of question to which there is never going to be any solid,  irrefutable single right answer.   

People will differ, and the answers they come to will take the form of “if…then…” statements–IF you want to do X, THEN you must do Y. 

And because of this, of course, any discussion of this problem will inevitably land us in Outlier Syndrome–the tendency of some disputants to bring up a definition of “moral” or “good” or “right”  held by one person here or there, or one isolated culture here or there, and never touched by the rest of us.

Outlier Syndrome is mostly a way to shut down the argument.  See?  Everybody disagrees!  So there’s no point in talking about it!

Outlier Syndrome rests on a fallacy:  IF there is controversy or lots of different ideas on a subject, THEN the subject itself must be entirely subjective and just a matter of opinion.

But if this were true, then EVERYTHING would be a matter of opinion–including gravity, the date of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the existence of cucumbers.

There is virtually nothing that has been ever thought or said or done on this planet that hasn’t been disputed sometime, somewhere.

Given the nature of the Internet, most of it is probably being disputed now.

This does not mean that there is no objective reality.  It just means that a lot of people are getting it wrong.

The case of morality, or happiness, or the good and the true and the beautiful, is a lot more complicated, for a lot of reasons.

But what it is not is futile for discussion.

This thing we do–both the attempt to apply reason to these questions, and the fact that we have to answer these questions at all–is what makes us distinctively human.

And the answers we arrive at for these questions determine enormous amounts about what kind of society we live in, what kind of people we are, what kind of world we live in and what kind of world we leave to the people who come after us.

We do not actually have a choice about whether we consider these things.  If we don’t do it rationally and deliberately, we will do it by default, by accepting what our parents or teachers told us without question, by doing what everybody else is doing because it’s what everybody else is doing and, you know, what the hell.

But no matter how we go about it, it WILL matter.

The Great Conversation is the record of people asking these questions. 

We can read our way through it and find what different ideas people had and how they  justified them.

We can escape the stultifying modern dictum that there is one narrow way that is “normal” while everything else is a “mental illness.”

We can be real, live human beings.

It’s not that I don’t think other things are worth studying.

It’s that I think that if you haven’t studied this, you’ve wasted your time.

Now I think I’ll go batten down the hatches, because we have what looks like a big storm going on.

The rest of you can yell at me at will.

Written by janeh

May 11th, 2013 at 9:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Euthyphro'

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  1. I agree that we ought to give thought to what is proper conduct, and that behaving as everyone else does is not an adequate substitute for careful thought. Now let me hedge.

    When I was a young science fiction reader, I did a LOT of Andre Norton. In imagination, she’s in the first rank. What kept her out of it more generally, at least for me, was that her characters tended to feel things–to “just know” what the rest of us pick up from study, thought and practice. Admittedly, with Norton this was mostly tactical stuff. But when everyone “knows” that this or that conduct is wrong we’re a little too deep into Norton territory for me to be altogether comfortable, even if I agree with the conclusion.

    And being a victim of modern education, I’ve been dragged through more “open, free-ranging discussions” which were ALWAYS going to end exactly with the conclusion Teacher–or Parson: you really can’t tell bad teachers from bad preachers–intended it to, logic be hanged. That seems to me to be every Platonic or Socratic dialogue I’ve ever read–bad reasoning leading to the conclusion the authority had in mind from the get-go. If that’s the life of the mind, so is every re-education camp a university.

    What does that leave? Apart from religion and tradition? Lincoln, maybe, not endorsing set conclusions from bad logic or setting himself up as founder of a new ethics, but pointing out the contradictions in the system practiced–that we believed every man was entitled to the fruits of his own labor, and that no man should live by the sweat of another’s brow, and that this was not, in one major respect, our practice. Slaveholders might sleep with undisturbed consciences. They could find as many philosophers as they wished to justify slavery. But they could not deny that the practice of slavery contradicted those two American beliefs.

    I’ll trade you a lot of deep ethical thinkers with their own systems, for one Lincoln turning over a single problem slowly until he knows where the gears don’t mesh.


    11 May 13 at 10:52 am

  2. I strongly suspect that some of our moral ideas come from us evolving as social animals. A small group of hunter-gatherers would be torn apart if there was nothing to control violence between the members of the group. Also, the members need to trust each other. That would give a need to keep promises and not lie.

    But there would be nothing to control what the group does to other groups. As Jane says, the cultural definition of “human.”


    11 May 13 at 9:27 pm

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