The Euthyphro dilemma is a classic problem in philosophy that gets a lot of attention from the disputations that occur between atheistic commentators and the Christian apologetic industry. I’ve decided to produce my own understanding of the so-called dilemma and then (in a later post) translate it into a more forceful Anglophone-style argument against the Divine Command theories of meta-ethics.
Euthyphro is an early Socratic dialogue (see here) that is aporetic (meaning it ends in apparent confusion or without a solution) and probably genuinely represents Socrates’ method of getting at important concepts by asking questions.
The dialogue begins with Socrates running into his friend Euthyphro (meaning “Mr. Straight Thinking") outside a courthouse, where Euthyphro was prosecuting a case against his own father and where Socrates is being accused of being impious. It needs to be stressed that the context of the discussion is about religious obligations and not civil law, and this is a conversation between two believers, not theistic ideas vs atheistic ideas as is sometimes portrayed. Euthyphro is concerned with religious pollution (see 4C) of being in relation to a possible murder, so he is passing the buck on to the authorities so to speak, which motivates Socrates to test Euthyphro's professed knowledge of piety.
So the intent of this dialogue is to get at the essential nature of "piety" which can basically be understood as religion; the proper traffic between man and the divine (14d, e), which fits well into the schema that Plato has for religion (see Phaedrus 279c and Symposium 202e, where Socrates reproduces a speech of Diotima). Euthyphro’s first attempt is typical of interlocutors in the early dialogues, he confuses the ability to furnish examples as giving an actual definition. If you ask me about the definition of “soda” is, and I show you a can of Coca Cola, what features of the can are you supposed to take as the definition? Socrates keeps probing Euthyphro until we get to the passage that introduces the dilemma(9e-10a):
Socrates: Then shall we examine this again, Euthyphro, to see if it is correct, or shall we let it go and accept our own statement, and those of others, agreeing that it is so, if anyone merely says that it is? Or ought we to inquire into the correctness of the statement?
Euthyphro: We ought to inquire. However, I think this is now correct.
Socrates: We shall soon know more about this, my friend. Just consider this question:—Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?
Euthyphro: I don't know what you mean, Socrates.
Socrates: Then I will try to speak more clearly. We speak of being carried and of carrying, of being led and of leading, of being seen and of seeing; and you understand—do you not?—that in all such expressions the two parts differ one from the other in meaning, and how they differ.
Euthyphro: I think I understand.
Socrates: Then, too, we conceive of a thing being loved and of a thing loving, and the two are different?
Euthyphro: Of course.
What Socrates is trying to get through to Euthyphro is that there is a difference between active and passive voices of a verb, made more difficult at the time because the terminology to draw the distinction was not available . Socrates’ point is that you can’t define or explicate “piety” in the passive verb voice, it doesn’t answer the questions on just what piety is. To get a better grip on this, let’s continue to Socrates’ example (10b-11b):
Socrates: Now tell me, is a thing which is carried a carried thing because one carries it, or for some other reason?
Euthyphro: No, for that reason.
Socrates: And a thing which is led is led because one leads it, and a thing which is seen is so because one sees it?
Socrates: Then one does not see it because its a seen thing, but, on the contrary, it is a seen thing because one sees it; and one does not lead it because it is a led thing, but it is a led thing because one leads it; and one does not carry it because it is a carried thing, but it is a carried thing because one carries it. Is it clear, Euthyphro, what I am trying to say? I am trying to say this, that if anything becomes or undergoes, it does not become because it is in a state of becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes, and it does not undergo because it is a thing which undergoes, but because it undergoes it is a thing which undergoes; or do you not agree to this?
Euthyphro: I agree.
Socrates: Is not that which is beloved a thing which is either becoming or undergoing something?
Socrates: And is this case like the former ones: those who love it do not love it because it is a bad thing, but it is a beloved thing because they love it?
Socrates: Now what do you say about that which is holy, it is loved by all the gods, is it not, according to what you said?
Socrates: For this reason, because it is holy, or for some other reason?
Euthyphro: No, for this reason.
Socrates: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?
Euthyphro: I think so.
Socrates: But that which is dear to the gods is dear to them and beloved by them because they love it.
Euthyphro: Of course.
Socrates: Then that which is dear to the gods and that which is holy are not identical, but differ one from the other.
Euthyphro: How so, Socrates?
Socrates: Because we are agreed that the holy is loved because it is holy and that it is not holy because it is loved; are we not?
Socrates: But we are agreed that what is dear to the gods is dear to them because they love it, that is, by reason of this love, not that they love it because it is dear.
Euthyphro: Very true.
Socrates: But if that which is dear to the gods and that which is holy were identical, my dear Euthyphro, then if the holy were loved because it is holy, that which is dear to the gods would be loved because it is dear, and if that which is dear to the gods is dear because it is loved, then that which is holy would be holy because it is loved; but now you see that the opposite is the case, showing that the two are different from each other. For the one becomes lovable from the fact that it is loved, whereas the other is loved because it is in itself lovable. And, Euthyphro, it seems that when you were asked what holiness is you were unwilling to make plain its essence, but you mentioned something that has happened to this holiness, namely, that it is loved by the gods. But you did not tell as yet what it really is. So, if you please, do not hide it from me, but begin over again and tell me what holiness is, no matter whether it is loved by the gods or anything else happens it; for we shall not quarrel about that. But tell me frankly, What is holiness, and what is unholiness?
The point being made isn’t exactly a model of clarity, so let me try to put it into something more comprehensible. The distinction Socrates is trying to highlight is that between an action and a passion. An action is something being actively done, like “John is kicking the wall” and the passion (like passive) is the wall being kicked. Passion and action appear to be identical, but are at least conceptually distinct. Take a look at 1.1 and 1.2 below:
Sentence 1.1: Something is being approved because it gets approved (True).
Sentence 1.2: Something gets approved because it is being approved (False).
Compare these with:
Sentence 2.1: Something gets approved because it is holy (True).
Sentence 2.2: Something is holy because it gets approved (False).
Now Euthyphro agrees that 2.1 and 2.2 are true at the beginning of the discussion, so if being approved by the gods (or God) is the same thing as being pious or holy, then 1.2 and 2.2 would be true and 1.1 and 2.1 would be false. Socrates is establishing the difference between something being done by an entity and something being done to an entity, and failing to mark that difference is Euthyphro’s mistake, he’s not telling us anything about the nature of piety or holiness, he is just naming a passion (something done to piety, e.g. approving of it) or simply saying something that is trivially true ( a pious act is pious in virtue of its qualities that make it pious).
Notice what is lacking here? First, there is no actual dilemma. Euthyphro isn’t stuck between two hard choices, but a choice between being obviously false or being so trivially true that it adds nothing to the discussion and does not further any understanding. Second, there is no mention of the gods being subservient to a higher moral code that renders them superfluous and there is no mention of morality being arbitrary. None of this is supported by the text itself.
Does this have any impact on how the Euthyphro “Dilemma” is presented today? Sure does, and I’ll use Chris Bolt’s example here:
But I would like to suggest that we reject God as the very standard, essence, enforcer, or whatever ‘of good’ for the sake of argument. Let’s twist the dilemma just a tad and reapply it to the haughty unbeliever. Is the good willed by the individual because it is good, or is it good because it is willed by the individual?
In light of what the text has shown us, the answer is clear to me. The former is to be answered in the affirmitive (the 'good' is willed in virtue of what it is to be good) and the latter is false. Chris and I were at loggerheads in the comment section of his blog, and he felt that even if my interpetation of Euthyphro is correct (and I have every reason to think that it is), this does nothing to the dilemma he presented. I like to think that my analysis of the text has made it clear that a proper reading of Euthyphro disarms the popular form of the dilemma for both Theist and Atheist alike.
 Translated by Harold North Fowler from the Platonis Opera See Burnett’s commentary on the Euthyphro from Euthyphro, Apology, Crito by Burnett, Oxford University Press, 1924