PHL100: Euthyphro Argument and Divine Command Theory
Euthyphro Argument and Divine Command Theory
In this dialogue, Plato (427-347 B.C.) dramatizes a conversation
between Socrates (c. 469-399 B.C.) and Euthyphro. Both are waiting
outside the Athenian court, Euthryphro to bring a charge of murder
against his father, and Socrates because he is being charged with
impiety. They begin a discussion of piety.
- Shocked by the theologian Euthyphro's confidance in
his knowledge of piety, Socrates asks Euthyphro to tell him
what piety is.
- Euthyphro's first answer is that piety is "doing what
I am doing now, to prosecute the wrong-doer...."
- Socrates points out that he wants to know the essence of
piety, and since there are other pious acts besides
prosecuting wrong-doers, there must be some additional meaning
- Euthyphro next defines the pious as "what is dear to
- But earlier, in defense of his own actions, he adds that
Zues punished his own father Chronos. Socrates checks
this, and confirms that Euthyphro truly does believe the
stories that the gods fight. It then follows that many things
are pious and impious, because some gods hate them and some
gods love those same things.
- Socrates also asks Euthyphro for evidence that the gods
agree that he should punish his father.
- Euthyphro's third definition of piety is that which all
the gods love.
- Here Socrates asks what we might call "The Euthyphro
Question": is something pious becuase the gods love it, or is
it loved by the gods because it is pious?
- Euthyphro struggles with this question. Socrates finally
gets him to understand it, and Euthyphro answers that the good
is loved by the gods because it is good. Socrates concludes
then that being loved by the gods and being god are different
- Socrates and Euthyphro next agree that piety is a part of
justice, and so we should need to understand what justice is
to best understand piety.
- Socrates ends by asking Euthyphro to explain what the
gods gain from the service of humans like Euthyphro. Since
Euthyphro wants to say the gods need nothing, he is unable to
articulate any way that humans can help them. (Here Socrates
is hinting that we cannot help the gods, although they can
perhaps help us, and therefore we should be focused on being
good and not on claiming some special role of service to the
gods. Put otherwise, the right way to serve the gods might be
to seek justice, not to do sacrifices and other things which
are claimed to directly help those gods.)
Divine Command Theory
- William of Ockham (after whom we name "Ockham's razor")
(c. 1287-1347) is an example of a later philosopher who advocated
what later became known as "divine command theory": the view that
the good is what God commands or wills.
- For simplicity sake, consider a simplistic form of the
divine command theory (Ockham did not hold this version):
A is a good act = God wills that (we do) A.
- The problem here is grave, however. This means that lying,
murder, kitten torture, and so on would be good if God willed
that we do them. Now, the immediate reaction of divine command
theorists is to say that God would never will that we do such
acts. But why not? The answer appears to be that such acts are
evil. But then, our notion of good and evil must be other than
just that what God wills.
- No less a theologian than St. Thomas Aquinas rejected
divine command theory. To reject it is not to reject theism,
but rather to reject that the good is dependent upon God's
current will. (Aquinas would have instead assumed that the
good depends upon the way the world is constructed, and he
since he believed that God constructed the world, good would
be dependent upon God in this sense. But one might still then
look at the way the world is constructed to determine what is
good, as opposed to -- say -- looking in the Bible.)
- Many philosophers take the very grave problems of divine
command theory to mean that, even if you are a theist, ethics
can be studied independently of theology.