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The Euthyphro Project: RECOVERED

2024-02-10 1:07 PM | News Update (Administrator)

As the ACA is now running a 24x7 live stream on youtube, it is chock full of early episodes of The Atheist Experience and in some of them they list URLs as resources. In a recently aired episode, Jeff Dee referred to "The Euthyphro Project: Arguments" web put together by Jeff and Russell Glasser. Though the URL is long gone, the page WAS still in the archives

As this page has some really good summaries of the topic, it is reproduced here:

The Euthyphro Project

by Jeff Dee and Russell Glasser
November 15, 2004
featured by The Non-Prophets

Let's grant for the moment that the election, and the decision to ban gay marriage in several states, really was based on "morals" and "values". What does that mean to us atheists?

It means that a large segment of America has swallowed the lie that "morals" and "values" only mean something when talked about in the context of the Christian God, and the arbitrary things that make Him happy or piss Him off. Did Bush get re-elected because people LIKE what's happening in Iraq? Nope; people who claimed to base their vote on the Iraq war overwhelmingly voted for Kerry. Did they think it was because we've vastly improved our quality of life under four years of Bush? Or that Bush helped the poor, as Jesus was always yammering about? No again; people who claimed to base their vote on the economy overwhelmingly voted for Kerry.

Wait a minute. Are these issues really separate? Do "moral values" really apply only to who marries whom, but not to who gets bombed or how many people go hungry?

Hell no. To theists, "values" is code for "what the Bible says God would want". It's not that I, an atheist, do not have values; it's just that my values are based on what is good for humans -- maximizing happiness, productivity, and personal empowerment, while minimizing pain and suffering.

Rational, humanistic atheists are really touchy on the subject of values, because they don't exist in the physical world. Rationalists can confidently list a thousand and one reasons why six-day creationism is bogus, or talk at length on how cretinous it is to think that an all-powerful God would personally intervene in fixing football games but couldn't be bothered to save a few million homes from a hurricane. Yet those same rationalists will stammer and ramble or trail into embarrassed silence when people ask how you can have a real code of ethics without God. Because we know while the real world objectively exists, morals belong to a fuzzy, squishy world that depends on what fickle people want and how they can get along with each other.

Deep down, everyone feels that same sense of moral uncertainty at times. The theists have been taking advantage of that uncertainty for YEARS. They've been telling their base that religion has the only correct answers, that morality is no more and no less than what God wants you to do, and atheists are bad people because they deny and undermine His desires.

For those who might be under the illusion that this way of thinking hasn't been or can't be addressed by rationalists, I have one word for you:


(This is important to get right. Click here to hear the proper pronunciation.)

24 centuries ago, Plato wrote a dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Euthyphro presents almost exactly the same argument in a Greek context:

"Piety is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them."

Socrates quickly fires back the counter-argument, which all rationalists should take to heart.

"The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods."

Basically this is the same as the standard answer for the "first cause" argument. When somebody argues that God must exist because everything needs a creator, you say "Who created God?" and you're left with an obvious logical inconsistency.

Likewise, when somebody tells you that morality comes from God, you can ask "Who made God moral?" and you get the same problem. There are two answers, and they both don't work. For the exhaustive discussion, read Euthyphro.

The first answer is: Whatever God wants to be good, is good. This is a lousy answer, because it means that God's will is arbitrary and has no standards. Today God might decide that killing and stealing is wrong; tomorrow he might decree new edicts indicating that he loves killing and stealing. Then they will be good. Some might say "But God doesn't change." To which I'd answer: "God is supposed to be all powerful. He can do what he wants."

The alternative answer is: God cannot order killing and stealing, because those things are inherently bad and God is inherently good. To which I reply: "Oh ho! So now those things are 'inherently' bad eh? Then I guess God didn't MAKE them bad, which means there is an authority outside of God which determines what's good and bad. So it sounds like God is really an irrelevant part of the equation, and we should strive to see what the objective standards are instead of wasting time trying to fathom the will of God."

The Euthyphro dilemma is over two millennia old, and it has never been satisfactorily answered by theists. Sure, they've tried. Just do a Google search for "euthyphro dilemma" and see all the stuff you come up with. None of them get around the problem. Some of them talk about God's "nature" and think they have solved it, but they're really substituting "nature" for "higher standard" and again admitting that the immorality of murder wasn't invented by God.

Because atheist thinkers recognize that morality is more complicated than "because I said so", they are often cautious about meeting this issue head-on. This allows theocrats to run roughshod over them by claiming that they alone are the keepers of "true" morality because they know what God wants. But they don't have a leg to stand on. Even most Christians recognize that non-Christians can act in ways that they consider "moral" and it seems to have more to do with respecting other people than worrying about what "God" wants. So why aren't atheists hammering that more?

As much as anything, Bush won because he fed people's false sense of moral certainty. And the worst part is that the Democrats are now increasingly pandering to the same guys, thinking they can't win without appeasing the "Humans are totally depraved without God" demographic. They can't attack that moral certainty without fear of alienating lots of potential voters.

But we can. As rational secular thinkers, we have an obligation to take up the slack.

For the next four years, this is the argument that we need to be driving home. EUTHYPHRO is the meme that we need to be spreading every single time social right wingers talk about moral clarity. It needs to be said repeatedly that you CAN be moral without special pleading to supernatural powers. And not only that, supernatural powers have nothing to contribute to the morality discussion.

Part of the Republican strategy is to demoralize the opposition, make them uncomfortable with defending their own beliefs and values. I say turnabout is fair play. Your mission is to hit them back with that same sort of demoralization, get them to own up to the fact that appealing to a higher power isn't even useful when trying to recognize right and wrong.

The hardcore fundamentalists, the guys who make up the red state base, aren't going to be convinced. But as we constantly hear theist moderates tell us, those guys aren't the majority. Most theists live in the real world most of the time, relying on this "personal relationship with God" for strength and comfort and spiritual guidance, but doing their best to base their daily decisions on real life practical considerations. It's not impossible that we could knock a lot of people off their high horse of moral certainty and get them to recognize that being moral means being good to other people.

Now go do the right thing.

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