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Introduction

In a philosophical dialog written by Plato around 400 B.C., casual acquaintances Socrates and Euthyphro meet by chance on the court-house steps. Euthyphro proudly announces that he has come to accuse his own father of manslaughter. Under Greek law, such a charge is considered improper, but Euthyphro intends to press his case anyway. He is confident that very few people understand what’s right and what’s wrong as clearly as he does. Furthermore, he is certain that the gods themselves agree with him.

Socrates cannot let such claims go unchallenged. He pretends to be clueless about the whole topic, and implores Euthyphro to enlighten him. And about halfway through their conversation, Socrates asks him (Woods and Pack translation):

Is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious, or it is pious because it is loved?

People have been discussing this question for 2,400 years. The weird thing about it is that when you think through them, neither of the choices it offers us makes a bit of sense. Let’s take a look. We’ll put the question into modern English, and look at its two halves in turn.

The two non-options

If someone tells us that, according to their religious beliefs, a certain activity – prayer, for example – is good, we can ask:

Is it good because God wants us to do it, or does God want us to do it because it’s good?

The first option – prayer is good because God likes it – implies that there are no external rules governing God’s judgement of right and wrong. If there were such rules, we would be talking about the second option, where God approves of good things because they’re good. In this, the first option, an action is good if and only if God approves.

It’s a troubling scenario. Take the rule, “Do unto others as you would be done by,” which most people regard as morally faultless. If God has perfect freedom to decide what’s right, then he could say that he does not want us to follow the Golden Rule, and that would mean that it is evil, and those who have occasionally tried to honor it would be morally obligated to desist. And if one day God said, “On the Sabbath day, I’d like to see a bit of torture and cannibalism in every living-room,” then torture and cannibalism would be right.

But if scenarios like this are possible, then God is speaking a language we can’t understand. We don’t know what it would mean to say that the Golden Rule is ‘evil’, or torture and cannibalism ‘right’. If God can have opinions like this, how can we even say with any confidence that God is good? We don’t know what the word means anymore. But, traditionally, God is the source and epitome of goodness. If we can’t be sure that he’s good, then we can’t be sure he’s God! So this first option can’t be correct.

The second option says: it’s not that praying is good because God likes it; rather, he wants us to do it because it’s good. This implies that there is a moral authority superior to, prior to, independent of God’s. What’s right and wrong was decided before God got involved. So there are rules that God has to follow, laws that he cannot break. But we’ve been told that God created the entire universe to his own specifications, and that there is nothing he can’t do. Seriously, if he’s not omnipotent, then he’s not God. So the second option is also wrong.

What’s going on here? Whichever way we answer, we reach an absurd conclusion: that the God we’ve been talking about is not the God we’ve been talking about. How does Plato’s question produce this result? – and what can we learn from the fact that it does?

The lesson

The Euthyphro’s topic is the relationship between religion and morality; about the fundamental source and justification of moral guidelines. Socrates says, in effect, “I take your word for it, Euthyphro, that God is intimately connected with what’s right and wrong. I just want to understand how that works in a little more detail. Is the action good because God wants it to be taken, or does he want it to be taken because it is good?”

Behind this question there are two assumptions about God. The catch is, they contradict each other. They cannot both be true.

To ask about what God wants (or likes, or prefers) is to assume that God prefers certain things (or events) over others. And in the background, as part of any mention of God, there is a definitional assumption that God is omnipotent. But these two assumptions are mutually exclusive, since an omnipotent being would not have desires.

For human beings, to want is the same thing as to get, if possible. If you desire something, you make it happen – if you can. But God, by definition, can do anything. So if he wants it, it happens. Period. But in that case, he doesn’t want things the way we do – not in the sense of trying to get something. An omnipotent being doesn’t try. Everything already is the way he wants it.

Someone will say: Maybe God doesn’t make all the things he wants to happen, happen. But he could – and if he doesn’t, then it’s not clear what it means to say that he wants them.

It gets worse. If everything that happens is exactly as God intends, then the question “What should I do?” has no meaning. What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. There are no right or wrong choices, because no one ever gets to choose. But choice – “What should I do?” – is the very essence of morality. If an omnipotent being controls the universe, then our moral decision-making is an illusion, and our moral discussions are a waste of time, because there’s nothing we can decide or change.

All these strange, impotent thoughts have a single cause. The concept of omnipotence is incoherent. As soon as you say that he can do anything, you invite ridiculous questions like “Can God beat a full house with two pair?” and “Can God make a burrito so big he can’t eat it?” You have dug a pit of nonsense, and further discussion will only deepen the hole. This is why neither horn of the Euthyphro dilemma gets us anywhere; and this is what it was written to demonstrate. Propositions involving omnipotent beings are guaranteed not to make any sense.

More broadly, Plato’s ancient teaching-story serves to remind us that morality is essentially and exclusively a human concern. To introduce infinities and absolutes into moral thinking is to strip it of sense. Stories about superhuman beings cannot clarify what’s right or wrong for human beings to do, or explain why it’s right or wrong. There is no useful role, in either moral theory or moral decision-making, for theology.

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[YASHWATA’s note: This is the 13th chapter of Bertrand Russell’s astonishing History of Western Philosophy, first published in 1945. A lark, a flying carpet, a bright stroke brushed with verve and wit across three millennia, this brief chapter wings us from a consideration of Plato’s cultural and ethical milieu to a simple explanation of the necessity of democracy. As always, Russell makes it look easy. There are more insights available in these 1,300 words than in most other whole books.]

CHAPTER XIII

The Sources of Plato’s Opinions

Plato and Aristotle were the most influential of all philosophers, ancient, medieval, or modern; and of the two, it was Plato who had the greater effect upon subsequent ages. I say this for two reasons: first, that Aristotle himself is an outcome of Plato; second, that Christian theology and philosophy, at any rate until the thirteenth century, was much more Platonic than Aristotelian. It is necessary, therefore, in a history of philosophic thought, to treat Plato, and to a lesser degree Aristotle, more fully than any of their predecessors or successors.

The most important matters in Plato’s philosophy are: first, his Utopia, which was the earliest of a long series; second, his theory of ideas, which was a pioneer attempt to deal with the still unsolved problem of universals; third, his arguments in favour of immortality; fourth, his cosmogony; fifth, his conception of knowledge as reminiscence rather than perception. But before dealing with any of these topics, I shall say a few words about the circumstances of his life and the influences which determined his political and philosophical opinions.

Plato was born in 428-7 B.C., in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. He was a well-to-do aristocrat, related to various people who were concerned in the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. He was a young man when Athens was defeated, and he could attribute the defeat to democracy, which his social position and his family connections were likely to make him despise. He was a pupil of Socrates, for whom he had a profound affection and respect; and Socrates was put to death by the democracy. It is not, therefore, surprising that he should turn to Sparta for an adumbration of his ideal commonwealth. Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.

The purely philosophical influences on Plato were also such as to predispose him in favour of Sparta. These influences, speaking broadly, were: Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Socrates.

From Pythagoras (whether by way of Socrates or not) Plato derived the Orphic elements in his philosophy: the religious trend, the belief in immortality, the other-worldliness, the priestly tone, and all that is involved in the simile of the cave; also his respect for mathematics, and his intimate intermingling of intellect and mysticism.

From Parmenides he derived the belief that reality is eternal and timeless, and that, on logical grounds, all change must be illusory.

From Heraclitus he derived the negative doctrine that there is nothing permanent in the sensible world. This, combined with the doctrine of Parmenides, led to the conclusion that knowledge is not to be derived from the senses, but is only to be achieved by the intellect. This, in turn fitted in well with Pythagoreanism.

From Socrates he probably learnt his preoccupation with ethical problems, and his tendency to seek teleological rather than mechanical explanations of the world. “The Good” dominated his thought more than that of the pre-Socratics, and it is difficult not to attribute this fact to the influence of Socrates.

How is all this connected with authoritarianism in politics?

In the first place: Goodness and Reality being timeless, the best state will be the one which most nearly copies the heavenly model, by having a minimum of change and a maximum of static perfection, and its rulers should be those who best understand the eternal Good.

In the second place: Plato, like all mystics, has, in his beliefs, a core of certainty which is essentially incommunicable except by a way of life. The Pythagoreans had endeavoured to set up a rule of the initiate, and this is, at bottom, what Plato desires. If a man is to be a good statesman, he must know the Good; this he can only do by a combination of intellectual and moral discipline. If those who have not gone through this discipline are allowed a share in the government, they will inevitably corrupt it.

In the third place: much education is needed to make a good ruler on Plato’s principles. It seems to us unwise to have insisted on teaching geometry to the younger Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, in order to make him a good king, but from Plato’s point of view it was essential. He was sufficiently Pythagorean to think that without mathematics no true wisdom is possible. This view implies an oligarchy.

In the fourth place: Plato, in common with most Greek philosophers, took the view that leisure is essential to wisdom, which will therefore not be found among those who have to work for their living, but only among those who have independent means, or who are relieved by the state from anxieties as to their subsistence. This point of view is essentially aristocratic.

Two general questions arise in confronting Plato with modem ideas. The first is: Is there such a thing as “wisdom”? The second is: Granted that there is such a thing, can any constitution be devised that will give it political power?

“Wisdom,” in the sense supposed, would not be any kind of specialized skill, such as is possessed by the shoemaker or the physician or the military tactician. It must be something more generalized than this, since its possession is supposed to make a man capable of governing wisely. I think Plato would have said that it consists in knowledge of the good, and would have supplemented this definition with the Socratic doctrine that no man sins wittingly, from which it follows that whoever knows what is good does what is right. To us, such a view seems remote from reality. We should more naturally say that there are divergent interests, and that the statesman should arrive at the best available compromise. The members of a class or a nation may have a common interest, but it will usually conflict with the interests of other classes or other nations. There are, no doubt, some interests of mankind as a whole, but they do not suffice to determine political action. Perhaps they will do so at some future date, but certainly not so long as there are many sovereign States. And even then the most difficult part of the pursuit of the general interest would consist in arriving at compromises among mutually hostile special interests.

But even if we suppose that there is such a thing as “wisdom,” is there any form of constitution which will give the government to the wise? It is clear that majorities, like general councils, may err, and in fact have erred. Aristocracies are not always wise; kings are often foolish; Popes, in spite of infallibility, have committed grievous errors. Would anybody advocate entrusting the government to university graduates, or even to doctors of divinity? Or to men who, having been born poor, have made great fortunes? It is clear that no legally definable selection of citizens is likely to be wiser, in practice, than the whole body.

It might be suggested that men could be given political wisdom by a suitable training. But the question would arise: what is a suitable training? And this would turn out to be a party question.

The problem of finding a collection of “wise” men and leaving the government to them is thus an insoluble one. That is the ultimate reason for democracy.

—Bertrand Russell. 1945. A history of Western philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 104-107.