Bertrand Russell once said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Similarly in his poem, “The Second Coming,” Yeats says, ““The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
This problem is clearly illustrated in matters of morality and God. There are many people who passionately assert that morality cannot exist without a belief in God. This issue is dealt with in a dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro.
Socrates was awaiting trial on the charge of corrupting youth and denying the existence of God. He was visited by Euthyphro who had come to have his father charged with murder since the father had killed a man. Euthyphro’s father had had a hired worker who had killed a slave, so Euthyphro’s father threw the worker into a pit — bound and gagged — and then left for another city to ask the authorities there how to proceed. While gone, the worker died in the pit from starvation and exposure to the elements. Euthyphro explains his father is angry with him for taking the part of the murderer and prosecuting his father. Euthyphro explained that some suggest my father did not kill him, and that if he did, dead man was but a murderer, and a son is immoral who prosecutes a father.
Socrates is stunned by Euthyphro’s confidence in bringing charges against his own father for murder. Socrates asked Euthyphro if it is always moral to prosecute someone for murder. Euthyphro explains that prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder or of any similar crime-whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be-that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is immoral. Ultimately, Euthyphro explains that morality is that which is dear to God, and immorality is that which is not dear to God. Clearly Euthyphro has told us that without God there is no morality.
The idea that morality cannot exist without God is interesting. If an act is moral simply because God commands it, then that means that any act – even the slaughtering of babies – is potentially moral. And if that is the case, then morality is intrinsically arbitrary, and the very word “moral” loses all meaning. Moral could just as easily be called evil. And if moral can be evil and evil can be moral, then it makes no sense to even use the words “moral” or “evil” to begin with. They cancel each other out. At best, we would just say that an action is something that God commands; calling it “moral” no longer signifies anything at all.
However, if you agree that something doesn’t become moral simply because God commands it, but rather, believe that God commands actions that are moral because he sees or recognizes them as being moral in and of themselves, then morality exists outside of, and independently of, God. In short, God becomes redundant. He is not necessary for morality.
As Walter Sinnott-Armstrong who is Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University concludes, based on his interpretation of the Euthyphro dilemma:
Assume that God commanded me not to rape. Did God have a reason to command this? If not, then His command was arbitrary, and an arbitrary command can’t make anything morally wrong. On the other hand, if God did have a reason to command us not to rape, then that reason is what makes rape morally wrong, and the command itself is superfluous. Hence, divine commands are either arbitrary or superfluous. Either way, morality cannot depend on God’s commands.
Euthyphro can’t seem understand the implications of Socrates’ question: does God command actions because they are moral in and of themselves, or do actions become moral only when and if God commands them? Perhaps its’ not that Euthyphro cannot understand the piercing significance of this question, but rather, that he can’t or will not allow himself to understand it. For to understand it suggests that morality does not depend on a god for its existence or content.