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.

Photos by Abode of Chaos and carulmare, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

7 responses to “It’s all in Plato – Genocide, Morality and the Euthyphro Dilemma”

  1. unklee says :

    Hi RA, there is much in this post that I agree with – not sure if you’ll think that good or bad! : )

    “the Euthyphro Dilemma …. 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.”

    I agree with you that christians don’t handle this well. Most these days try to avoid the dilemma by saying that morality resides in God’s character, and therefore both sides of the dilemma are true, but I don’t think that solves the problem.

    My solution is to say that it is true that God commands things because they are right, but I don’t see how that “overturns God’s sovereignty”. Surely God is bound by the laws of logic, for example, that something cannot be both true and not true at the same time? That doesn’t overturn his sovereignty – rather, it would demean God to say that he was illogical!

    So I think it is the same with morality. God upholds moral standards because they are true, and that doesn’t diminish him – it would diminish him if he didn’t!

    “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.”

    I think you’ll find more and more christian apologists are saying exactly that. For example, Peter Enns in this blog post. My own view as a christian is more cautious – I simply say at the moment I have problems with the literal truth of those commands and events and I don’t know how to resolve them. The way you suggest is one possibility.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  2. DaveSchell says :

    I’ve ditched inerrency, so this isn’t an issue for me. Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton (Church of the Resurrection) had a talk about this that didn’t end up insanely arguing that God was ultimately responsible for it.

    http://www.cor.org/worship/sermon-archives/show/sermons/Violence-and-God-in-the-Bible/

    Greg Boyd has a completely different explanation (look up “God’s Shadow Activity).

    I can’t believe God’s responsible for genocide. And I’m still wrestling with what God is and isn’t responsible for in everyday life. I’m having a hard time believing God causes everything that happens, but with that in mind, it’s hard for me to guess at what God *is* responsible for!

    i want to believe.

    • unklee says :

      Dave, why do you think we should we believe that God causes everything that happens?

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I’m not Dave, but why wouldn’t he? Christianity explicitly rejects any sort of dualism, pitting God against an equally powerful “Evil God”, so once that’s taken to be the case, God either causes or else is responsible for everything that happens. That’s even more true when he’s supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient.

  3. unkleE says :

    Is it not possible that an omnipotent God could give us free will? Then he would know what we would choose, but it would nevertheless be us doing the choosing?

    Of course I presume an omniscient God, in deciding which universe to create, knows and allows those choices, but it still is us who make them. But I believe God would choose to create the best possible universe, and then allow our choices within that.

    The hardest thing for me as a christian to believe is that this is the best of all possible universes!

Love it? Hate it? Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: