Barth in Meta-ethical Terms, part VI: Euthyphro

In the last post in the series, we covered the basics of divine command theory (DCT), or theological voluntarism, reducing the discussion to just ethical systems that rely on the will of a deity (or more than one) to set moral values. DCT might also be taken to describe any religious moral system, justified by appeal to the will of its deity. This can be a difficult point, but the problem is basically this: How do we know what is God's will, and how do we distinguish it from the will of the religious establishment, which is merely human will?

This is a question Barth has an answer to, and it has to do with his understanding of the Word of God and divine self-revelation. Dogmatics is the task of correcting the human doctrinal and ethical understanding of the religious establishment so that it better corresponds to the divine will. And so Barth's theological voluntarism, rightly understood, is in no danger of standing sentry over a self-authenticating human religious system. In fact, the dogmatic context of Barth's ethics sets up theological voluntarism against religious ethics, and as the only proper posture for Christian ethics, because the church does not owe its existence or proper priorities to itself or its history—it owes them to the Word of God. That Word may be present in church proclamation and teaching, but that presence is never either certain or guaranteed. The Word appears in the witness of scripture, and so our primary and direct responsibility in proclamation is to the Word of God in scripture. Note that we are not here responsible to the Bible itself, but rather to the One to whom it bears witness, according to the styles of its witness to God. And so the third form, the most basic form of the Word of God, is also the most direct: the Word of God properly is divine self-revelation, and it is nowhere more complete than in Christ. It stands free and independent of us, just as God does, and speaks where we can only respond. And so Barth's question, in ethics as well as dogmatics, is how well and faithfully we have received and understood that Word as command here, now, today.

But while we're in divine command theory, and not yet practice, there's one absolutely mandatory, classic hurdle to clear in meta-ethics. And that hurdle goes by the name, "the Euthyphro dilemma." And really, all it is is one last check to make sure we really mean to make a god our moral standard. Socrates, the archetypal skeptical moral naturalist, is a tool that Plato (the classic moral non-naturalist) uses to force his students into honesty. If you believe that a god (or several gods, but any god will do) is a better moral standard than people, you must defend that position respectably. And in any case, you must also be able to defend your moral subjectivism, cognitive or not, against objective moral realism. Or you must become a moral realist.

Now, that's what the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro does as diatribe pedagogy. And I've already attempted to give an account of divine command theory that speaks closer to the language of Plato's polytheistic pagan world.

The "Euthyphro dilemma" as more popularly asked is fairly closely related to the dialogue: whether something is moral because a deity commands it, or whether the deity commands it because it is moral. But in modern discussion we tend to have done away with the most basic objection of the dialogue: the character of the deity or deities in question. Modern theism, with a deity defined in negative absolutes and no positive character, leaves us with no real ability to defend the god's moral authority. We accept from the beginning that gods are not the sorts of things with valuable moral subjectivity. And then we're stuck objecting to the fact that such a deity might command simply anything, and we'd have to say that whatever it was, even an atrocity, would be good and right. (Never mind that we'd never have accepted the moral authority of such a deity, nor would we attempt to defend it.)

Now, this is not the only problem an ethics of divine command has to answer, by any means, but I've attempted to preempt many of the others by introducing the topic in terms of the character of particular deities—rather than the ambiguous philosophical theism in which the problem is usually framed. And, as long as we refuse to say that God has taste, and piety consists of having comparable taste (something we could pursue independently), character will get us much further with Barth.


The dialogue is, of course, named after the character of Euthyphro himself, whose name means "straight-thinking," or "of upright mind." He is a Greek pagan, and moreover a mantic prophet who has apparently delivered accurate oracles before. So, before he starts answering like a naïf, Euthyphro has at least been established as a good-faith expert in what Socrates is discussing with him.

The topic Plato covers in the dialogue is conflict of duties, inspired by conflicts of piety. It's a classic topic: whom do you obey? The gods, or men? Antigone is the immediate example, though Sophocles leaves the gods offstage. Defiance of divine piety for the sake of a human decision is what dooms Creon, and defiance of human decisions for the sake of piety (in this case Antigone's familial piety is supported as the repetition of a divine act) is what constitutes Antigone's triumph. The faithful servants of the gods will be vindicated (even in death) against the unjust demands of merely human justice. And Plato's response is simple: are gods really the sort of things you should prefer to obey, rather than people? Is piety really justice? Are the holy and the just comparable, or competing? It is, as the last post in series attempted to show, a question about the character of our moral exemplars.

(The fact that moral exemplars are always questionable, and everything reduces to principles and abstractions that can be discussed as though they existed independently, will of course come up. Because, in the end, no moral value can be permitted to belong to individuals or particular things. If there is a moral value, the individual and particular examples can only demonstrate pathos, what it just happens to be like here or there, not what its essential nature is. Remember that ousia is real being. We are bound to moral realism from the very beginning.)

So: Euthyphro, being mantic, is driven to pursue the demand of justice against his own father for the death of a hired hand who had murdered a slave. His father did not kill the man, but did leave him bound and exposed while he sought divine advice in the matter, and the man died like that before the messenger returned. Another Greek might have considered the death to be divine judgment on a murderer, and considered the case closed. After all, no one caused his death. Euthyphro, a pious man and an accurate prophet, is compelled to disagree. And, scandalously, Euthyphro chooses his duty to the gods over his familial duty to his father.

Since Socrates is up on charges of impiety, we get a discourse between these two on piety, holiness, and justice. And so we have three moral values here. The first is eusebia, "piety," or what is due the gods. The trial of Socrates is for the accusation of asebia, "impiety," or failure to give the gods their due—and, of course, for teaching and spreading the same. Think of the children! The second is hosios, what is "holy," which is a combination of a) what the gods sanction, and b) what is the right service of the gods. And the third is dikaios, what is "just," which is a combination of a) what people sanction, and b) what is observant of social custom. In Euthyphro's case, social custom is represented by filial respect, and divine service by prosecution without respect for personage.

And, since the dialogue is about the character of our moral exemplars, it begins with character assassination. The gods quarrel famously, and even violently, with one another. What could justify such a quarrel? Certainly not anything objectively verifiable! That could be decided, and an agreement reached. It could only be a disagreement over ideals—and for our concern, the key ideal is justice. But if the gods disagree over what is just, they must also approve of different things, and love and hate different things. This means that something could be both holy and unholy at the same time, not to mention just and unjust. This makes them unreliable moral exemplars.

Euthyphro attempts to fix this by polling the gods as a jury: "what all the gods love is holy, and what all the gods hate is unholy." But the trick in Euthyphro is to escape being tied to the character of any single deity, having impugned them all. We begin by denying their value as moral authorities entirely.

Given that, we now go grammatical. Socrates proceeds to demonstrate that an object is verbed because of the subject verbing it. Seems simple enough. Grammatically, the holy is loved by the gods because the gods love it. So the next question is whether the loving makes the holiness, or whether the holiness causes the loving. If we think of the meanings of the words, this becomes nonsensical; how much does it matter if loving constitutes approval, or approval constitutes loving? However, it works nicely if you've already made "the holy" into a moral cipher by denying its meaning. Then you can ask whether the gods love something because it is holy without having to bother about the fact that its holiness is precisely the fact that the gods approve of it. This is how we get the dilemma question, which is quite different: does something have a moral value because of the gods, or does its moral value exist prior to and independent of the gods?

Since Plato has made "the holy" and the quality of holiness into a cipher for ambiguous moral value, and an agent-independent attribute, we have an aporetic dialogue. We abandon the defense of theological voluntarism precisely where Euthyphro, the bona fide expert with an ear for the gods, decides that the gods have taste. That there is a class of things that the gods like. Which militates against the value of divine subjectivity, making it a divine endorsement of a moral value, rather than a true theological voluntarism. Now even the advocate of divine command theory has decided in favor of objective moral realism. But if that's the case, we then discover through trial and error that the class of things of which the gods approve cannot be logically and consistently explained, which suggests that it cannot be a true objective realism. And there is the aporia.

And this is intentional; it's part of the pedagogy. The dialogue leaves the concept under discussion doubtful, but not proven right or wrong. This is the function of a diatribe; final arguments belong to the students. You lead them toward the right answers, and let them go after them. (Leaving aside, of course, the question of whether the answers are right because Plato approves of them, or whether Plato approves of them because they are right.)

Ah, but I've been premature. The dialogue isn't finished yet. The next question from Socrates is whether justice and holiness are coextensive. If people approve everything that the gods approve, then do the gods approve everything that people approve? Are there things that are just, of which the gods disapprove? Very tricky question, given Antigone and Creon, but Euthyphro is in court because he chose holiness over justice. If these two are coextensive, then Euthyphro cannot be wrong—and neither can Socrates, for choosing justice over holiness. A preference for holiness would necessarily be just; and the gods necessarily could not be offended by teaching justice.

But it seems that there is a conflict between justice and holiness, because both Socrates and Euthyphro face their respective trials. So, after having treated holiness like a cipher, now we ask what it means. What part of the just is holy? The obvious answer is that justice having to do with serving the gods is holy, and having to do with serving human beings is merely just. Ah, but we don't use diakonia or leitourgia to describe the divine "service" here; we use therapeia. The clear implication is that gods are things that require maintenance. Euthyphro tells us that such maintenance is worth doing because it teaches us how to give things to and get things from the gods. So in what way are gods superior to people? In what way is such superiority not simply equivalent to relative power? So now the fact that holiness is what the gods approve of means, pejoratively, that "holy" applies to any arbitrary thing the gods might approve of. At this point, we've basically disqualified holiness as a moral value altogether.

So the verdict, even though the dialogue ends in aporia, is twofold. Either theological voluntarism is arbitrary (which is the redundancy of the day, from a sheer verbal roots perspective), or it demonstrates that the gods have taste. If the former, it's unclear that we have a right to defend the morality of divine service, any more than we have a right to defend any given human service. If the latter, the fact that we can't come to a definition of the genre of holy things suggests that it's a bad value concept as well. Which may have something to do with its inextricability from the vagaries of divine character. So, one way or another, holiness is pathetic, and has no essential nature. Socrates' dismay at this possibility is where Plato's lesson begins: there is no good or bad, right or wrong, only obedience to arbitrary caprice—because that is the character of the gods.


So what does my play-by-play get us that the standard form of the dilemma doesn't? For one, a touch of how objectionable the "argument" is. It is persuasive rhetoric, and the question in the end is whether you are persuaded and why not. Critique like I've rendered here is only possible with texts; even granting the strength of memory training in the classic world, oral performance simply does not permit one to restructure the argument at leisure on first reception, and thereby track its flaws. The impression it gives is tour de force, which is the origin of its authority. It can be argued with or against, but the simple fact of Socrates' adaptation of his arguments means that at each stage the audience is being persuaded away from Euthyphro's errors and toward Socrates' logical corrections. Socrates wins each point. As a diatribe, the job Euthyphro performs is to open discussion in Plato's classroom, building on Socrates' arguments. And it works! The reason we take the "dilemma" seriously is because we admit that gods are, across the board, questionable moral exemplars and we should find our ethos elsewhere.

We do it for our own reasons, surely. Modern theodicy is built on imagining a formal nature for deity, typically that any god worthy of the name is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, and on defining the character of this deity strictly in terms of the necessities of attributed acts. The act of creating the universe is our de facto standard—for the existence of which universe said deity is therefore at all points totally responsible by nature as the superior agent. We then impugn such a deity for making a universe in which there are unpleasantnesses and injustices. The point, as in Euthyphro, is to deny deity any standing as a moral exemplar. However, Socrates asserts an ideal moral ousia with respect to which actual divine pathos falls short. The modern version, instead, asserts an ideal divine ousia with respect to which the actual moral pathos of the world falls short. Anything deficient with respect to this standard of divine nature can't plausibly be called a god; anything that fulfills it can't plausibly be called good in face of the world as it is.

The fix for the modern version is to deny that the operational definition is suitable. The morally relevant nature of a god, as in Euthyphro, is defined by the god's character. That character is shown in actions that are demonstrably products of divine agency. Which the existence of the world is not! It may be asserted as such, but the Christian has an answer to that, and Barth follows it: that the present state of the world owes much to the character of the creature and its capacity for negation. And that the character of God is revealed in divine action against this state of affairs, for the sake of the good of the creature.

That raises a further problem. Euthyphro asserts that all gods are alike, and no gods are morally superior. The modern version asserts that if there were a god, there is no way we could grant its moral superiority. There's a basically normative result, which is "don't obey gods." If we're doing non-cognitive ethics, we've already accepted that there are no statements of moral fact, and therefore accept this as a negative evaluation of all divine moral judgments. If we're doing cognitive ethics, we accept that there are moral facts, and therefore accept the normative claim also as a meta-ethical claim that divine judgments do not issue in true moral values. In any case, the claim is that there is an ontology of divine beings, and this ontology carries negative value for ethics.

Neither of these is the world of scripture. (I find it kind of sad that that needs to be said!) In fact, Christian Platonism frequently elides the Socratic critique of deity with the critique of idols, and makes God into the formal existence and origin of moral truth. So we get Platonish strict monotheism. Which is still vulnerable to the modern version. However, the reality of the ANE and Hellenistic environments in which we get actual apologetic in scripture is one in which there are multiple gods and they don't agree—and you pick which one you serve. Let me say that again: the difference between Euthyphro and real life is the relevance of human choice among competing, relevantly morally different divine authorities.

In the end, the solution to the "Euthyphro dilemma" is to renounce formalism and moral realism, and develop a defensible anti-realist theory of moral subjectivity. But with gods, just as with people, we need to take the intersubjectivity seriously. It makes a difference which one, which subjective authority you choose. At this point we're basically out of meta-ethics and into questions of normativity. To the extent that there is still a meta-ethical issue here, as far as I can see from where I'm sitting, it has to be a question of the morally relevant difference between individuals. I'm not sure I'm willing to do that ontologically, as though God's moral authority stems from a superiority of being itself, and not being-in-act, or character.

And so, given what has gone before, and if we address Plato and we're going to hold a Barthian divine command theory, I believe we must abandon any assertion that God is objectively good. At least, in any sense separable from God's subjective goodness. We obey God because God is good for us. There is no goodness of God which is not practically good. We obey God because of the character of his Word, and of its quality in contact with us and the whole creation. Inevitably, if we choose to value material particularity over formal essence, emphasis on the character of the deity in question brings the argument down to choice to be in this relationship.


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