Euthyphro’s Dilemma and the Paradox of Paternity

Part of an ongoing discussion. A reader with the alliterative name of Randall Randall writes:

“Even granting that God exists and created everything but himself, who is eternal, it doesn’t follow that morality is objective, merely that he has the power to enforce what he wants.

Mr Wright said: “Moral standards come from a moral authority, that is, from a sovereign will which has the ability to make moral choices and the authority to demand acquiescence thereto, whether the power to enforce that command is present or not.”

But what gives *that* entity moral authority? There’s an implied infinite regress, here.

Unless you assume from the start that God is a moral authority, what could possibly convince you that he is?”

My comment: There are two questions here, and let us not mix them. The first, which we might call the Objectivity Question, is whether objective moral standards exist at all. The second, which we might call ‘Euthyphro’s Dilemma’ is whether God is a moral authority.

Euthyphro’s dilemma was posed by Socrates in the Platonic Dialog of the same name, asking whether the gods will the good because it is good, or whether whatever the gods will is good because the gods so will. If the gods willed evil, would evil become good?

The Christian answer is always that ‘good’ and ‘God’ are two words for one thing, and thus the distinction exists in speech only, not in reality. It is like asking whether light is bright because brightness is light or because lightness is bright? If light were darkness, would brightness become dim? The question is meaningless.

So, yes indeed, unless you assume from the start that light is bright, it is hard to see why one should so conclude.

My quote given above does not speak to the Objectivity Question, but merely gives an if-then statement. IF we grant that objective moral standards exist THEN we are forced to conclude that an objective, that is, universal, moral authority exists, on the ground that no moral standard can exist unless it it meted out by the moral authority.

The other words in the sentence “a sovereign will with the capacity for moral choice and the authority to demand acquiescence’ are there merely to clarify what is meant by “moral authority.”

A crowned son of a dead king who is insane or a babe in arms does not have the capacity to make moral choices, and so his words do not have the force of law, and thus cannot be a moral authority. A will which has no right to demand acquiescence is not a sovereign: the manager at a McDonald’s can tell his employees to wash their hands, but not his customers. Likewise, the manager at a McDonald’s can tell an unruly or malodorous customer to leave the premises, but not a well behaved customer.

I emphasize again, because the concept is so alien to modern whim-worshiping Nietzscheans who have replaced the human race on earth, that authority is not power. Anchises was too physically weak to stand, and yet Aeneas bore him on his back, because he was his father. Aeneas had the power to shrug Anchises into the sea when Troy burned, but he had not the moral authority to do so.

Randall Randall’s objection is therefore not to what I said, which dealt with one aspect only of the Objectivity Question. As it stands, the statement ‘all moral standard imply a moral authority to set the standard’ would be true whether or not there were an infinite regress. But this is not his question.

He raises the Euthyphro question: even if God exists, what makes Him a moral authority, much less the highest moral authority?

For if every authority takes its authorization from a higher authority, then there is an infinite regress, which is absurd, therefore the idea of a highest moral authority is absurd.

Let us shoot down the alleged paradox of an infinite regress. Saying that every moral authority rests on a higher moral authority is like saying every train-car in a train is being pulled by the car before it, therefore there is no train-engine pulling the train. All we need do in this case is show that a train-car is not the same as an train-engine.

I submit that any being who is not eternal goes through childhood, and that, while in childhood, any being not eternal is properly under the moral authority of his father or author, on the grounds that (1) as a child, he does not have the capacity for making moral decisions properly if at all and (2) to make moral decisions is inevitable and inescapable, since actions have moral consequences.

I propose further that mankind as it is currently constituted, with our lies and wars and perversions and greed, is either at the final stage of its moral development, or that it is not in the final stage. If not in the final stage, it still has some growing to do. If it still has some growing to do, Man is a child.

Now, it is perfectly feasible for an atheist to say that Man is not a child, and that, since man is the measure of all things, everything and anything man does is licit and that lies and wars and perversions and greed are not bad if man holds them not to be bad. Such an argument would be logical, but I have never heard of an atheist so shameless and nakedly immoral as to make it.

If Man is a child, then he is under the moral authority of his father and author, on the same grounds that in life on earth we do not and cannot allow children to be raised without teaching them morality and without enforcing moral law on children.

But this formulation, any being that was eternal, that was not a child, would not fall under the same rule, and so there would be no infinite regress.

An aside: Please note that this implies that Man one day shall be mature. In the Christian lore, this means Man will be remade or reborn or evolved into creatures equal with God, sons of God and sovereign as He is, and God shall be All in All. All fashion of science fictiony myths from HG Wells MEN LIKE GODS or Arthur C Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END are somewhat optimistic reflections or retellings in myth of this great fundamental fact: some day we shall be as Mary is, and greater than the angels. There is a whole school of science fiction literalists who take such tales in earnest, called Transhumanism, who think technology will create this development into the the mature form of man, the superman or the man beyond man, without superhuman intervention. End of aside.

The same logic applies for the relationship of sovereign to subject as applies from father to son.

Even in a democracy where the sovereign power is erected by the free election of the citizens, that sovereign power has a moral right to command obedience even when it lacks the power to compel obedience. Breaking a just law is an immoral act, not merely illegal, even if the lawmaker has no power to enforce the law.

Again, if the sovereign power is not itself the subject of a higher power, not merely an officer or lieutenant acting in the sovereign name, but is the King himself, or, in the case of a democracy, the general will of the People, then there is no regress. The subject obeys the sovereign because he has the right to command obedience, but the sovereign, being sovereign, need not obey the subject.

No, your problem here is not the problem of God: your problem is that you reject the concept of authority. Morally, you are proposing anarchy: you question is the same as if you asked “What makes goodness good? Why should I obey a moral law, merely because it is moral? Why be logical, just because logic says so? Why can’t I be illogical if I want, and make up my own rules of logic?” — in all cases, the answer is the same. Any standard you invent yourself for yourself is not a standard. A standard must be objective, or else it is not a standard.

Now, when you say, “even granting that God exists” I must ask, how much do we grant? Do we mean the Christian God or the God of the Philosophers which the Deists deduced existed, but to whom they owed no worship?

The short answer to the question is, that if God is God, then His authority is logically implied. But if God is merely a god, a superhuman being with magic powers, like one of the Martians of HG Wells, or like one of the devils to which idol worshipers bow, Zeus or Moloch or Cthulhu or Kali, he has no more authority than any other created being.

On the one hand, if God is God, that is, a being omnipotent, perfect, eternal, all good and the author of all good, both the standard himself of goodness and the sovereign lawgiver setting the standard, then no claim of authority which can be made by any other being can exist which is not inferior to His.

He can claim the natural authority as creator to creature, as father to son, as sovereign to subject. More than this, the mere fact that you have a conscience inside you places you under the moral obligation to obey your conscience, and since that conscience comes from God, granting that God exists grants that the conscience, His voice inside you, has authority to guide you.

A human cannot claim absolute authority over his own soul because he did not make his soul: the most I can claim is stewardship, or responsibility, that is, I have the authority to chose between life and death, good and evil.

But I do not have the power to lay down my life and take it up again, because I am a dependent being. My life does not come from my own self. Neither do we have the power to define good and evil, and make evil into good and good into evil by our fiat. We cannot make abortion from an act of murder into an act of wart-removal merely by calling a baby a wart, even if we pass a law to that effect. We cannot make sodomy into monogamy or perversion into decency merely by shouting down all opposition. We cannot excuse genocide merely by calling Jews ‘untermenschen’ or calling ourselves Darwin’s Darlings. Our power to call things by wrong names does not make us have the knowledge of good and evil.

On the other hand, if god is Zeus, a parricidal adulterer and usurper, whose only claim to authority is the power of his lightningbolt, then your conscience should tell you it is better to hang on a mountain being tormented with Prometheus, who is your creator that placed the divine fire called conscience inside you. You should allow yourself to be torn by the eagles of such a god rather than to bow the knee.

The difference between the two accounts is that Zeus does not even claim to be the creator, for the Hellenic account says Earth arose from chaos, and that Chronos overthrew Ouranous and was overthrown by Zeus — it is very Darwinian if not Hobbesian a conception of the divine.

For the Christian, the claim of divine authority rests on (1) His merit of superhuman goodness and wisdom and forethought (2) His role as father (3) His role as creator (4) His redemptive sacrifice — He became our master when He bought us with His blood (5) His role as soul-giver and granter of the faculty of reason and the faculty of conscience (6) His role as law-giver, starting with the Ten Commandments (7) our own long term self interest (8) His role as the only source of hope, and the superiority of hope to despair (9) His role as the source of life for all living things, and the superiority of life to death (10) His role as author of history, and the historical role granting Christendom superiority, because of our superior laws and moral code, over the rest of the world, and grant Man, because of our superior reason, over creation.

Unfortunately, each of these points would require an essay of its own to defend, and time does not permit. In the same way a competent father cannot, even if he wished to do so, blamelessly lay down the burden of being a father to his child and cease to love and to protect and to raise it, so too God cannot blamelessly lay down the role of being God to us. A being of superior goodness cannot abandon willful and stubborn children to their own childish self-destruction, not without compromising that goodness. Neither can a being who creates another being simply send his Frankenstein’s Monster out into the world without love and guidance and instruction and domestication. Indeed, a close reading of Mary Shelley’s famous fable shows that it was Dr Frankenstein’s lack of fatherly authority, his inability to love his creation, that turned the monster into a monster.

Thus I submit to your candid judgment that your question is not merely naive, but utterly backward. I submit that, granting the existence of God for the sake of argument, it is logically impossible not to grant both the objectivity of moral law, and the inescapable duty of God to uphold that law, and to be our Father, and the inescapable duty of men to obey it, and Him, as our Father.

For how could God be God and lay down the burden of being the moral authority for his creature, Man, even if He wanted to?



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