* My notes from my presentation at the Glendale Community College panel discussion "God & Truth V: God, Morality, and the Euthyphro Challenge. For more resources related to this presentation see HERE.
**Note: a cleaner copy of these notes can be found at my Academia.edu page.
“What’s Your Problem?”: How Euthyphro Challenges Us All
October 24, 2017
Glendale Community College’s “God and Truth V:
God, Morality, and the Euthyphro Challenge”
1. Everyone has a worldview: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics
2. What happens when worldviews come into conflict? At least three things are attempted…
a. Proof: the positive demonstration of one’s worldview using reasons and evidence
b. Defense: answering and defending against objections
c. Offense: critical probing of the weaknesses of alternative worldviews
· This is nothing new. Think of “debates” about what the best movie is or where the best pizza place is—we offer reasons for our choice, defend against criticisms, and attempt to undermine the reasoning offered for alternatives.
3. Euthyphro dilemma has been used to challenge either:
a. the coherence of the conception of God or
b. the need for a theistic basis for morality since if the “good” exists independently of God then God is not needed to ground moral value
4. As such the Euthyphro challenge is usually seen as challenge to which the Christian theistic worldview must provide some defense.
5. I want to step-back and look at the actual dialogue that Plato gives us in the piece Euthyphro. Here we see that it is about the concept of moral value.
* In particular… about justifying the basis for moral value.
6. Every worldview faces the challenge of moral value!
a. Defining its nature
b. Explaining its basis or grounding (or lack thereof)
7. My presentation … go on the offense and probe some other worldviews as to how they deal with the issue of moral value.
a. Not necessarily a moral argument for God’s existence
b. Rather, a critical exercise that will clear away some intellectual debris
· Will make space for a consideration (or reconsideration) for a theistic alternative as the proper grounding for moral value and obligation.
8. Focus: Naturalism—(naturalism can be difficult to define)
a. “Naturalism denies that there are any spiritual or supernatural realities transcendent to the world or at least we have no good ground for believing that there could be such realities… It is the view that anything that exists is ultimately composed of physical components.”
b. By all accounts naturalism is the reigning philosophy influencing higher education today.
9. How are naturalism and moral value related?
a. Naturalism does not comport well with moral realism.
b. Moral realism:
· objective moral values exist; moral values are discovered—not created
· these moral values are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not
10. Quotations regarding the difficulty of reconciling naturalism/atheism with moral realism.
a. Jean-Paul Sartre
“The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.”
b. Julian Baggini
“If there is no single moral authority [i.e., no God] we have to in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves… [and] that means that moral claims are not true or false… you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error.”
c. Friedrich Nietzsche
“There are altogether no moral facts”; indeed, morality “has truth only if God is the truth—it stands or falls with faith in God.”
d. Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg—“Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life” (2003)
“Darwinism thus puts the capstone on a process which since Newton’s time has driven teleology to the explanatory sidelines. In short it has made Darwinians into metaphysical Nihilists denying that there is any meaning or purpose to the universe its contents and its cosmic history. But in making Darwinians into metaphysical nihilists, the solvent algorithm [random variation acted on by natural selection] should have made them into ethical nihilists too. For intrinsic values and obligations make sense only against the background of purposes, goals, and ends which are not merely instrumental.”
“…morality is at most an instrumentally useful illusion.”
“But when we combine an evolutionary account of ethical beliefs with the conception of Darwinian theory as a ‘universal acid’… the result is moral nihilism. If all apparently purposive processes, states, events, and conditions are in reality the operation of a purely mechanical substrate neutral algorithm, then as far [as] explanatory tasks go, the only values we need attribute to biological systems are instrumental ones. An evolutionary account of moral belief will not only explain ethics but it will explain it away.”
11. This leads Christian philosopher Mitch Stokes to conclude:
“If naturalism is true, there’s no morality apart from what humans value, want, or prefer. Morality is purely a matter of taste. In short, naturalism implies moral nihilism, the view that there are no human-independent moral rules.”
12. How can the naturalist respond to this charge of moral nihilism?
a. Accept moral nihilism—but this has problems
· Violates our fundamental moral intuitions (e.g., “Torturing babies for fun is wrong” is not reducible to relatativism)
“Like sense perception, we have certain moral intuitions or instincts that are basic to properly functioning humans. If we don’t have them, something’s wrong with us. And in the absence of strong reasons to overturn these intuitions, they should be taken seriously.”
· Lose the objective basis for human rights
· Lose the objective basis for condemning morally abhorrent people and practices
-Hitler, Bin Laden
· Lose the objective basis for moral motivation—“Why uphold some arbitrarily chosen moral standard; especially if such a standard puts unwanted restrictions on me?”
b. The other option a naturalist might try: reject moral nihilism and attempt to ground moral realism on a naturalistic basis.
13. Some attempts to ground moral realism in naturalism
a. Evolutionary accounts—evolutionary mechanisms simply produce moral realism
· Stuart Kauffman Reinventing the Sacred (2008)
· Kauffman attempts to show how moral norms evolved:
“A wonderful experiment was carried out with Capuchin monkeys. The experiment consists of two monkeys in two cages facing one another but separated by a partition so neither can see the other. Adjacent to these two cages is a third cage in which a third monkey can observe both of the other two. The experimenter feeds one of these two apples, bananas, and so forth. The second monkey receives scraps. At some point, the observer monkey, well fed himself, is given extra food. What does this animal do? It gives the extra food to the monkey who received the scraps. These monkeys have evolved a sense of fairness.” (Kauffman, 2008, p. 260)
· Problem: Kauffman begs the question!
“…two questions will illustrate the fallacy. 1) Is fairness ethical simply because monkeys evolved it? 2) Or did monkeys evolve towards an ethical standard that is independent of themselves?” (a Euthyphro-like dilemma!)
--can’t be second option since this takes us out of the range
--If (1) then what about other behaviors that have evolved
among animals: male lions hoarding female harems, some
animals eat their young
“Clearly, Kauffman presupposes ‘fairness’ is ethical, and then
goes looking for an example to support his conclusion. But if evolution is the source of our moral norms he cannot appeal to a standard external to evolution to discriminate between naturally evolving behaviors. Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s book, A Natural History of Rape (2000) defends rape as a normal reproductive strategy developed to guarantee the survival of one’s genes. Few evolutionists will sympathize with their thesis. But how can an evolutionist condemn the evolution of rape and condone the evolution of fairness without presupposing an ontologically, transcendent standard of behavior?”
· Problem: Reduces morality to conduct and neglects non-behavioral components such as motive and intentions.
“We can’t infer actual moral obligations from the mere fact of a chimp’s conduct. We can observe that chimps in community share food and that when they do they survive better. But we cannot conclude from this that Bongo ought to share his bananas or else he’ll be immoral because he hasn’t contributed to the survival of his community.”
“Motive and intent cannot be determined simply by looking at behavior. In fact, some good behavior might turn out to be tainted, depending on the motive and intent: giving to the poor when one wants to be well thought of, instead of having a genuine concern for the recipients. Indeed, it seems one can be immoral without any behavior at all, such as plotting an evil deed that one is never able to carry out.
“Morality informs behavior, judging it either good or bad; it’s not identical to behavior. Rather it is something deeper than habitual patterns of interaction. Therefore we can’t draw conclusions about animal morality simply based on what we observe in their conduct.”
· Problem: Kauffman concedes his arguments are insufficient
“Still ethical and moral reasoning goes far beyond what can be accounted for by evolutionary arguments.” (Kauffman, 2008, p. 262)
b. Sam Harris: grounding objective value in scientifically demonstrated well-being
· Problem: reduces moral value to prudential value
-prudential goods: good for a subject
-moral good: good, period.
· “In other words, he [Harris] seems to be in danger of changing the subject and not giving us a theory of morality at all. Well-being alone seems to be a prudential good, something that is merely good for the subject experiencing it. Another way of stating the problem with Harris’s view is that the concepts of morality and well-being can come apart.”
· “At the end of the day Harris is not really talking about moral values. He is just talking about what’s conducive to the flourishing of sentient life on this planet.”
c. Erik Wielenberg’s non-theistic moral realism. Paul Copan summarizes key components of Weilenberg’s view:
“Atheist Erik Wielenberg claims that objective morality’s foundation consists of certain brute ethical facts: they “have no explanation outside of themselves; no further facts make them true” (the ontological claim), and we can know these brute ethical facts immediately without inferring them from other known facts (the epistemological claim). Necessary moral truths didn’t evolve with humanity but are “part of the furniture of the universe,” he claims. They “constitute the ethical background of every possible universe,” creating the framework for assessing the actions of any moral agent (whether human or divine).”
· Problem: Arbitrary and unwarranted assumption that objective value has emerged from valuelessness.
“But to assert is not to justify, and this claim hangs on a mere metaphysical wish that maybe value could emerge from valueless matter; the claim is not anchored in ontological realities.”
· Problem: massive cosmic coincidence (“lucky coincidence objection”)
“Earlier he admitted that if ‘there is no God, then it is in some sense an accident that we have the moral properties that we do.’ He also acknowledged that his ‘view undoubtedly entails that certain elements of the universe (the actual laws of nature and basic ethical facts) fit together in a nifty and perhaps amazing way.’”
“An example may help to illustrate: One evening in the middle of a Scrabble game you notice the phrase ‘do not go’ formed in the random spray of letter tiles on the table. Is this a command that ought to be obeyed? Of course not. It’s just a random collection of letters.”
“The non-naturalistic moral realist in this case holds that (a) certain necessary moral facts exist and (b) self-reflective, morally responsible and intrinsically valuable beings eventually appear on the scene (through unguided, highly contingent evolutionary steps) who both can recognize these pre-existing facts and are duty-bound to them. This Platonic-like moral realm, it appears, was anticipating our emergence, just waiting for us to comply with it—a remarkable cosmic accident! A far simpler, less ad hoc explanation is available, however: a good, personal God—the very locus of objective moral values— created human beings with dignity and worth. Moral fact-hood and moral worth have always existed since both applied to God before his creation of human beings. Theism affords a far more elegant and natural explanation.”
d. Impersonal Transcendent Source of moral value (Platonic and Platonic-like views): see appendix
14. What I’ve attempted to show (in a quick fashion)… naturalism cannot provide the preconditions for moral realism.
15. In contrast… Christian theism does provide a worldview that more readily comports with moral realism.
a. God is the standard of moral value—he is himself “the good”
b. God’s commands provide a basis for our moral duties
Excursus: More fully developed thoughts on the above by William Craig
· William Craig offers the following three points that are illustrative of Christian-theistic ethics and compatible with the teaching of Jesus.
· (1) “First, if theism is true, we have a sound basis for objective moral values. To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independently of whether anybody believes it to be so. It is to say, for example, that the Holocaust was morally evil even though the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust thought it was good.
“On the theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God. He is the locus and source of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus, if God exists, objective moral values exist.”
· (2) “Second, if theism is true, we have a sound basis for objective moral duties. To say that we have objective moral duties is to say that we have certain moral obligations regardless of whether we think so or not.
“On the theistic view, God’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of divine commands that constitute our moral duties. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from his moral nature. On this foundation we can affirm the objective goodness and rightness of love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectively evil and wrong selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression.”
16. Proof, Defense, & Offense… again!
a. My primary goal has been to be on the offense—critically probing the internal consistency of naturalism as a foundation for moral realism.
b. This does not prove Christian theism
c. But it does provide a ground-clearing function so that a fresh hearing for Christian theism and its philosophical resources for undergirding moral realism may be heard.
d. And that is what I would commend to you!
Appendix: Impersonal Transcendent Source for Moral Value
Perhaps moral value is simply a brute given—a primal reality without explanation. This seemed to be Plato’s view of the form of the Good. We can call this the impersonal transcendent source view (ITS). Some might attempt to argue that the ITS view is simply a species of naturalism but this seems to be too quick and facile. Naturalism, as defined above with the illustrative quotations, is a different sort of philosophy than ITS. George Mavrodes draws attention to the contrast between a Platonic world and a “Russellian” world. By “Russellian” world he is drawing on Bertrand Russell’s ideas of naturalism in which all of life is an “accidental collocation of atoms” as noted in the following quotation:
“That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
In light of Russell’s view, Mavrodes notes:
Perhaps, Plato did think that goodness, or some such thing related to morality, was an ultimate fact about the world. But a Platonic world is not very close to a Russellian world. Plato was not a Christian, of course, but his world view has very often been taken to be congenial (especially congenial compared to some other philosophical views) to a religious understanding of the world.
Mitch Stokes outright denies that Platonism is a form of naturalism. He argues:
You might reasonably think that a view like Plato’s is a way to support moral realism on the assumption of naturalism. On the Platonic view, moral reality is ultimately dependent on eternal forms that exist independently not only of humans but also of the cosmos itself. Although the issues surrounding Platonism are deep and perplexing, the fact that this independent moral reality—if such there be—is outside the natural world immediately renders naturalism false. Platonic forms, strictly speaking, would be supernatural.
So ITS seems more metaphysically robust than naturalism but it can still be atheistic since it denies a personal nature to the transcendent source. Perhaps it can be considered “quasi-atheistic.”
There are, however, problems for a view that posits an impersonal transcendent source for moral value. Remember that for ITS there is no subjectively aware being with causal powers that has teleological intentionality (i.e., no personal deity). Consider the following problems and tensions:
1. The issue of the origination of humans with the requisite reasoning capacity to perceive the moral value derived from ITS seems problematic—especially if conjoined with the naturalistic accounts of evolution. The standard neo-Darwinian model of evolution gives no reason to think that its non-teleological process will sufficiently ground the needed reason which is a precondition for understanding and engaging with moral value. J. P. Moreland, in a short essay analyzing Thomas Nagel’s recent work Mind and Cosmos, draws attention to Nagel’s critique of naturalistic evolution and the mind in this way:
Since our natures/capacities are contingent (they didn’t have to be this way), how is it that they are able to gain contact with the realm of necessary truths of, for example, logic and mathematics, when we can easily imagine worlds in which they fail to have this ability? How can we explain creatures with these abilities, especially when they go far beyond what is needed in the struggle for survival?
Moreland goes on to summarize Nagel’s objections to naturalistic evolution as the source for reason.
But there are several problems Nagel mentions with the naturalist attempt to account for the faculty of reason itself:
(a) Reason isn’t just pragmatically useful; indeed it is self-refuting and circular to assert that it is.
(b) Reason isn’t a contingent, local, perspectivalist feature of our evolved nature. It has universal applicability. Evolution produces local, contingent dispositions, not universal, necessary ones.
(c) Reason is intrinsically normative.
(d) Reason takes us beyond appearances to the hidden, intelligible structure of the world.
(e) In contrast to the senses, which put in contact with objects via causal chains, reason is not mediated by mechanisms that could be selected by evolutionary processes; rather, reason puts us in immediate, direct contact with the rational order.
(f) Reason is active and involves agency (for example, it isn’t Sphexish); sensation is passive.
2. Apart from the issue of humans’ rational faculty above there is also the problematic correlation between the impersonal transcendent source of value and the contingently developed human being. Naturalistic evolution is a contingent process but the ITS view has to maintain that this process produced a being sufficiently correlated to necessary moral facts. Paul Copan notes that “This Platonic-like moral realm, it appears, was anticipating our emergence, just waiting for us to comply with it—a remarkable cosmic accident!” Of course, one could attempt to circumvent this objection by positing some teleological mechanism that guides the evolutionary pathways in a purposeful manner. But this runs into at least two problems. One, this appears ad hoc in that arbitrarily positing such a teleological mechanism within a background of an impersonal transcendent source does not seem to fit well. One is ultimately alleging a purposive process directed to some teleological end by a transcendent source that is not subjectively aware, does not have causal power, and cannot engage in teleological intentionality. The second problem is that such a teleological mechanism places one at odds with contemporary neo-Darwinian explanations of human evolution.
3. Apart from the reason problem (#1 above) and the contingently correlated problem (#2 above) there is the further difficulty of explaining moral obligation. Even granting the ad hoc notion of a teleological mechanism that guides human evolution to be sufficiently correlated with previously existing objective moral properties, this does not explain why humans are morally obligated to align themselves with this moral source of value. John Frame brings attention to this issue:
The fundamental question is whether any impersonal principle provides a sufficient basis for morality. In my judgment, the answer is no. Even if the universe were governed by an impersonal principle, and even if it were possible for people to discern what kinds of behavior that principle rewarded or punished, it would remain an open question whether we ought to practice the rewarded behavior. And I cannot imagine any reason why we should feel morally bound by the dictates of any impersonal principle at all. Impersonal principles, like gravity, electromagnetism, and the like, have the power to push us around, but they don’t have the power to tell what we ought to do. To claim they do is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.
 Quoted in Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, Naturalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008), 9. James Sire’s The Universe Next Door—5th ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2009) has a chapter—chapter four: “The Silence of Finite Space: Naturalism”—which contains a good discussion of philosophical naturalism.
 Quoted in Peter S. Williams “Can Moral Objectivism Do Without God?” (2011)—online: https://www.bethinking.org/morality/can-moral-objectivism-do-without-god. Williams is quoting Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2007), 28.
 Quoted in Paul Copan “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalism’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success” in Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives, Angus J. L. Menuge, ed. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 5. Note: pagination is to online version: http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/pdf/Paul_Copan-Grounding_Human_Rights_in_Menuge_2013.pdf. Copan is quoting Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), 55, 70.
 This brief discussion and quotation of Kauffman’s work is dependent on the analysis provided by Brenton H. Cook, “Hume’s Guillotine and Evolutionary Ethics: Evaluating Attempts to Overcome the Naturalistic Fallacy” Answers Research Journal 8 (2015), 1-11. Available online: https://assets.answersingenesis.org/doc/articles/pdf-versions/arj/v8/humes-guillotine-evolutionary-ethics.pdf. For a recent analysis of Kauffman which argues that his entire philosophical program is at odds with the scientific endeavor itself see D. T. Timmerman “Are Naturalistic Theories of Emergence Compatible with Science?” Philosophia Christi 19 (2017), 37-58.
 William Lane Craig, “Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape” (2012). Online: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/navigating-sam-harris-the-moral-landscape. Also see the debate between Craig and Harris—video and text available here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/craig-vs-harris-notre-dame.
 Paul Copan “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalism’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success” in Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives, Angus J. L. Menuge, ed. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 3—bold-face added. Note: pagination is to online version. Copan is quoting Erik J. Wielenberg “Objective Morality and the Nature of Reality” American Theological Inquiry 3 (2010), 79.
 Adam Lloyd Johnson, “Debunking Nontheistic Moral Realism: A Critique of Erik Wielenberg’s Attempt to Deflect the Lucky Coincidence Objection” Philosophia Christi 17 (2015), 362-363. Johnson is quoting from Wielenberg’s Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 56, 175.
 Paul Copan, “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalism’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success” in Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 4—note this pagination is to online version: http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/pdf/Paul_Copan-Grounding_Human_Rights_in_Menuge_2013.pdf.