It’s all in Plato – Genocide, Morality and the Euthyphro Dilemma
It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at those schools!
C.S.Lewis, The Last Battle
A lot of the Christians I know love this quote, spoken by Digory Kirke in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I can see why – it’s often used to illustrate a claim that Christian theology wasn’t invented from scratch in the 1st Century, but can be seen as a logical progression from some well-worn Platonic ideas developed centuries earlier.
That’s true in some cases, but Plato’s just one philosopher, and he said a lot of things that are rather a long way from Christian ideals. For example, he also thought infanticide was not just acceptable, but an advisable state policy. And he developed a line of discussion, known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, which continues to cause serious moral difficulties for religious beliefs of all stripes.
The Dilemma, in essence, is whether God commands certain actions because they’re good, or whether they’re only good because God commands them. In other words, is there an objective moral standard independent of God, or does God define that moral standard by His actions and commands? The former overturns God’s sovereignty, the latter makes God’s morality arbitrary.
Much discussion throughout history has centred on attempting to steer a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of these two conclusions, and to me, the most obvious and troublesome problem for Christianity is dealing with the genocide which is apparently commanded by God in the Old Testament.
Apologists regularly attempt to justify these actions, often with reference to God being free to do what He likes, by virtue of being God, or to claimed moral justifications. Some bizarrely attempt both at once, like a lawyer arguing that his client wasn’t at the scene of the crime, and even if he was, he had an entirely innocent reason. But you can’t have it both ways. Is such an act of genocide inherently moral, or is God entitled to define morality as He wishes? It’s one or the other.
If committing genocide is objectively moral, it must be acceptable for us to do it – unsurprisingly, few people are prepared to make such a claim. If you reject that option, you’re saying God gets to decide what’s moral and what isn’t, especially seeing that He’s happy to tell other people not to kill each other. Might makes right, and moral justifications are unnecessary and irrelevant.
That’s unsettling enough, but it carries additional implications. A common criticism of atheism is that it offers no objective basis for morality. That’s a weak argument – it says nothing about the truth of the position, only complaining that it’s inconvenient – but if God can arbitrarily determine His own morality, Christianity suffers from the same problem. God’s morality would be no more objective than any other system.
That means God would be entitled to tell someone to sacrifice his son, go on a killing spree, or commit any act, no matter how vile or apparently immoral. Of course, anyone with an ounce of decency or morality would question such a command, but how could you dissuade someone else who says God told him to do that? If God defines His own morality, it would be moral for Him to tell people to do whatever He wants. Given this, criticising atheism for the lack of an objective brake on immoral behaviour is particularly ironic.
The obvious answer is to acknowledge that stories of divinely-ordained genocide are self-justifying Israelite propaganda, and a long way from the truth. I’m surprised by how few apologists take this approach. Presumably, they take the view that once any part of the Bible is discarded, it opens the way to more and more, but when the alternative is defending the indefensible, I’d say that was a necessary risk.