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The Euthyphro Dilemma

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The Euthyphro Dilemma:

Socrates asks Euthyphro the following question:

Is the holy holy because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love it because it is holy?

[Socrates and Euthyphro use the word ‘holy’.  For our purposes, we’re going to substitute the word ‘good’—as in ‘morally good’.]

To see what Socrates is getting at here, suppose we take a particular good thing, let’s say honoring one’s parents.

There are two ways of looking at the relationship between the goodness of honoring one’s parents, and the opinion the gods have of this.

1.  Honoring one’s parents is neither good nor bad until the gods decide whether they love it or not.  If the gods decide they love this action, then it becomes good; if they decide they do not love it, it is bad, or at least not good.  In other words, the positive opinion of the gods transforms something  neutral into something good.

2. Honoring one’s parents is already good, independent of what the gods happen to think.  And it is the fact that it is good that is what attracts the gods to it—they come to love honoring one’s parents precisely because it is good.  On this view, the opinion of the gods is irrelevant to whether something is good.  

Now, once Socrates spells out this distinction to Euthyphro, Euthyphro  chooses option 2:  The gods love what is good because it is good.

But this enables Socrates to show that Euthyphro’s definition of goodness (what all the gods love) cannot work.  Here’s how:

Euthyphro has defined the good as what is loved by the gods.  In any acceptable definition, whatever is true of the concept being defined will be true of the definition (anything you can say about the concept ‘bachelor’ will also be true of ‘unmarried man’)



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