Let us imagine that we believe in a god. It is likely that we will turn to our god when we are in search of guidance about what to do. The question this begs is: is what our god tells us to do good just because god has told us to do it, or does god tell us to do what is good for some other reason? This dilemma, which has been endlessly repeated and paraphrased, is often called ‘Euthyphro’s dilemma’. This article aims to summarize the dialogue from which the dilemma is derived. It begins by talking about the setting of the dialogue, and the question which Socrates poses. The article then follows Socrates and Euthyphro’s conversation step by step, analyzing Euthyphro’s initial confidence that he can say quite straightforwardly what piety really is, through to the posing of the dilemma by Socrates.
The Setting of Plato’s Euthyphro
The setting for this platonic dialogue is the agora (or marketplace) in the center of Athens. This is the place where the magistrates are situated, and the first judgment is made on cases to be brought before the courts. Socrates is here to answer the charge of impiety for his purported corruption of the young men of the city, whilst Euthyphro is here to bring charges against his own father, for murdering a slave.
The murder of a slave is a crime which, in slave-owning societies, has tended to occupy a position of ambiguity, and tends to beg questions of the relationship between morality, legality, and our concepts of person and property. Euthyphro’s actions are no less ambiguous for the fact that prosecuting one’s own family carries its own connotations of impiety, as does murder itself. The problem with murder, from a religious perspective, should not be seen through the Abrahamic paradigm of law-breaking (‘thou shalt not kill’ being, of course, one of Ten Commandments). Rather, it was a crime of pollution, because killing in the context of sacrifice was a religious act and to kill without the necessary sanctification was thought to upset the gods.
Euthyphro’s response to the rather uncertain status of his prosecution is to claim to know what the gods want, and to be acting on his knowledge of what ‘piety’ really is. As anyone familiar with Socrates and his disposition knows, such a claim – a claim to know what a general concept really means or entails – is likely to provoke a dialogue.
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And so it proves: Socrates claims that he innocently wishes to know the true nature of piety, in order to defend himself, but as it turns out Euthyphro – like many of Socrates’ victims – doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. It should be understood that Socrates’ question is posed in such a way as to impose certain structural constraints on any plausible answer. Socrates seems to be after something quite specific: an answer to his question which not only describes piety, but suggests a criterion for the judgment of actions relative to the definition we choose to adopt. As we explore the dialogue in more detail, it is worth keeping that constraint in mind.
The Introduction to the Dialogue
Euthyphro and Socrates greet one another, clearly on friendly terms. On hearing that Socrates is to be indicted, Euthyphro commiserates. Indeed, he suggests that Socrates and he himself face similar kinds of criticism. He tells Socrates that his trouble has arisen,
“… because you say that the divine sign keeps coming to you. So he [Meletus, Socrates’ accuser] has written this indictment against you as one who makes innovations in religious matters, and he comes to court to slander you, knowing that such things are easily misrepresented to the crowd. The same is true in my case. Whenever I speak of divine matters in the assembly and foretell the future, they laugh me down as if I were crazy; and yet I have foretold nothing that did not happen”.
The crux of the matter, for Euthyphro, is that neither he nor Socrates can be criticized for impiety simply because they are not conformists. The question of what piety really is can then be opened up to discussion.
Socrates, it seems, is not quite as well disposed towards Euthyphro as vice versa: he gently mocks him for his claim to be a prophet, and for his certainty concerning the meaning of piety. It is then that we learn the details of Euthyphro’s case against his father:
“The victim was a dependent of mine, and when we were farming in Naxos he was a servant of ours. He killed one of our household slaves in drunken anger, so my father bound him hand and foot and threw him in a ditch, then sent a man here to inquire from the priest what should be done. During that time he gave no thought or care to the bound man, as being a killer, and it was no matter if he died, which he did.”
As Euthyphro concludes triumphantly, all of his relatives say that, “it is impious for a son to prosecute his father for murder. But their ideas of the divine attitude to piety and impiety are wrong, Socrates.”
Socrates at once demands to know whether Euthyphro has such precise knowledge of the nature of impiety as to act in such a certain and controversial way, and Euthyphro confidently assures him that he does. It is reasonable to assume that we are meant to see Euthyphro as foolish and overconfident, even at this stage in the dialogue.
Euthyphro’s Definition of Piety
In spite of his confidence, Euthyphro begins with a definition which is obviously an inadequate answer to Socrates’ question:
“I say that the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about murder or temple robbery or anything else, whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else; and not to prosecute is impious”.
It is inadequate both because it is not a definition of piety, but an example of a pious action, and because it shifts the ambiguity around the term ‘impiety’ over to other concepts (‘the wrongdoer’ especially) which now must be defined in turn.
Socrates presses Euthyphro to be clearer, and to give him something, “so that I may look upon it and, using it as a model, say that any action of yours or another’s that is of that kind is pious”. To this Euthyphro replies simply that, “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.” Socrates is initially delighted, and says that Euthyphro has indeed answered just as Socrates wanted.
However, Socrates soon starts to feel let down. Euthyphro cannot explain how it is he knows what the Gods deem just, and ends up simply claiming that what the gods love or hate is simply obvious. Yet it is of course possible, in a polytheistic culture, to observe (as Socrates does) that what is obvious for one person is contentious for another, so what is pious for one god can be impious to another.
Socrates moves on from this first criticism, to make another; this one has come to be known as ‘Euthyphro’s dilemma’, so thoroughly has it consumed the dialogue. The dilemma is simply put: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”. This dilemma is used to tease out a weakness in Euthyphro’s definition of piety as that which the gods love.
If that is all that piety is, and there is no further criterion to it, then piety appears rather an empty concept, lacking in qualities which have force beyond the quality of being loved by the gods. Surely the gods love what is pious for some reason, which we could specify.
The Implications of Euthyphro’s Dilemma
Yet beyond the dialogue itself, Euthyphro’s dilemma appears to present a somewhat deeper worry about the nature of piety and religious morality more generally. If we take ourselves to believe in some deity, we simultaneously appear to wish that god to make judgments about goodness, and for us to appeal to some seal of divine approval to justify our own actions. Yet, if that seal of approval is justified just because it comes from a god, and no other reason, it appears our concept of morality rests exclusively on an appeal to divine authority.
For some believers this is fine, but for many it isn’t sufficient. One option is to attempt to recharacterize ‘authority’, and to add certain features which make it more justifiable. For instance, we might wish to claim that divine authority is deserved, given our god’s infinitely superior wisdom. Yet, though we may have softened the blow, we nonetheless characterize the grounds of morality as a divine mystery.
It remains down to the believer to determine if this is a necessary consequence of religious belief, or if there is yet some way to define religious morality in less condescending terms. Euthyphro, for his part, leaves the scene disgruntled, responding to Socrates’ repeated demand for an answer to his dilemma by claiming that he has somewhere else to be.