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Euthyphro and a Universal Morality

20 June 2020

Euthyphro initially defines piety as “something dear to the gods.” Socrates proceeds to pick at this. He observes that the gods quarrel; Zeus says to help Hercules, while Hera says to hinder him. This definition produces conflicting demands and must be wrong. In response, Euthyphro revises his definition: piety is “what all the gods love.”

A monotheist would not be convinced by Socrates’ rebuke since a single god could provide a clear definition of piety. With polytheists going extinct, is Socrates’ rebuttal, and Euthyphro’s response, still relevant? I think it is.

People who hope that everyone can get along—that all religions share a universal morality—are like polytheists since religions, like gods, make conflicting demands. In the same way, Euthyphro’s second definition reduces piety what is loved by all the gods, so too they must reduce morality to what is shared by all religions.

This definition may be appealing, but Euthyphro and his humanist ancestors face two difficulties: What if there is no common ground? And who are you to decide what is essential? On what basis do you discard the pilgrimage to Mecca or Christian baptism? Perhaps it is not possible to be a pious Zeus-worshiper and Kronos-worshiper.

Socrates’ explanation of what the gods disagree about also remains relevant:

SOCRATES: What are the subjects that cause hatred and anger? Let us look at it this way. If you and I were to differ about numbers as to which is the greater, would this difference make us enemies and angry with each other, or would we proceed to count and soon resolve our difference about them?

EUTHYPHRO: We would certainly do so.

SOCRATES: Again, if we differed about the larger and the smaller, we would turn to measurement and soon cease to differ.

EUTHYPHRO: That is so …

SOCRATES: What subject of difference would make us angry and hostile to each other if we were unable to come to a decision? … These subjects are the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. Are these not the subjects of difference about which, when we are unable to come to a satisfactory decision, you and I and other men become hostile to each other whenever we do? (7b–d)

While I agree that it is easier to disagree about subjective measures, like justice and beauty, religions also disagree about truth. Not all facts can be verified with measurements, as Socrates implies. Was Muhammad a prophet? Did Jesus rise from the dead?

I am impressed by how relevant Euthyphro remains nearly 2,500 years after Plato wrote it.

Quotes are from G. M. A. Grube’s “Plato - Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, 2nd Ed.” published by Hackett Classics in 2002.