Monday, September 28, 2009

A Moral Dilemma



“Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?" is the modern version of the so-called Euthyphro dilemma posed by Socrates. If God commands what is moral because it is moral per se, then God is merely a mouthpiece passing on to us what we could find out for ourselves. Conversely, if something is moral because God commands it, then he could make anything – rape, murder, incest, etc. – moral and we would be obliged to obey Him regardless of how heinous His command is.
As is usual for such a dilemma, philosophers and theologians have argued this proposition ever since Socrates voiced it, and as is also usual, both sides are partially correct. Let’s examine the record.
First we need to come up with a working definition of “moral.” I propose the following as a starting point: Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal. So if God commands any item to be moral, it is moral per se if it fits into our definition of morality even before God makes it a commandment.
Let us see how God’s Ten Commands fit into our definition. Assuming that there are many rational people in the world other than Jews or Christians, the first four:

1.) Thou shalt have no other gods before me ( Exodus 20:3),
2.) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” ( Exodus 20:4),
3.) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” ( Exodus 20:7),
4.) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” ( Exodus 20:8),

would not fit before God made them into commandments. As for the rest:

5.) Honour thy father and thy mother” ( Exodus 20:12),
6.) Thou shalt not kill” ( Exodus 20:13),
7.) Thou shalt not commit adultery” ( Exodus 20:14),
8.) Thou shalt not steal” ( Exodus 20:15),
9.) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” ( Exodus 20:16),
10.) Thou shalt not covet” ( Exodus 20:17).

they are probably acceptable to most rational persons everywhere, with or without God’s intervention. (I am not sure most teenagers would agree to number 5.)
In addition, God issued 600+ other commandments, and we do not have to look very far to find some that do not fit into our working system:

1. ) … none of your descendants … who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles … may come near to offer the food of his God. [Lev. 21:17-20]
2.) When a man sells his daughter as a slave…[Exodus 21.7]
3. ) As for the male and female slaves whom you may have…[Lev. 25:44]
4.) …anything in the seas…that does not have fins and scales…they are detestable to you.[Lev. 11:10]

It appears that the Euthyphro dilemma consists not of widely spaced horns, but is instead a continuum running from moral per se to moral per fiat. Thus there are opportunities for humankind to use its God given intellect. Although different systems of morality may agree to a large extent in their moral per se constituents, they differ substantially in there per fiat constituents. That makes them neither equal nor relative; but it surely makes them combative

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