Gods and morality

One of the most common and profound misconceptions about faith is that God is necessary to be moral and to … Continued

One of the most common and profound misconceptions about faith is that God is necessary to be moral and to find meaning in life. The ancient Greeks would have been surprised by this odd way of looking at things. To begin with, for them there was no distinction between the moral and the meaningful life: Aristotle thought that life can only be meaningful (“eudaimonic,” as he would say) if it is lived morally. The immoral tyrant or robber baron may think he is happy, but he actually just doesn’t get it.

Indeed, Plato tells us a little story that is still considered — 24 centuries later — a pretty definitive refutation of the idea that gods are necessary for morality (and hence, to live a meaningful life). Come along back in time with me, and imagine seeing Socrates heading for the Athenian courts, where he will eventually be condemned for corrupting the city’s youth and put to death. On his way to hear the charges, he meets Euthyphro, a pompous fellow who confidently tells Socrates that he always does the right thing because he knows what the gods consider the Right to be (does that sound familiar in these times of perennial political campaigning?).

Socrates professes great humility and begins to probe Euthyphro about his alleged knowledge (this is a splendid example of the so-called Socratic method). At some point during the discussion Socrates poses a question that has ever since been known as Euthyphro’s dilemma: is something right because the gods say it is, or do the gods say that something is right because it is? Euthyphro’s first answer is to take the first option, just like many religious believers would do today. But, Socrates immediately points out that, if that’s the case, then this simply means that morality is arbitrary: should the gods decide that rape and genocide are right, then they would be (for a number for examples, check your copy of the Old Testament).

Euthyphro concedes the point and takes the second horn of the dilemma: the gods simply know what is right. Ah, says Socrates, but if that’s the case, morality is independent of the gods, and just as they can figure out what is right and what is wrong, so can we (through philosophy, of course). No middle man — or middle God — needed, thank you very much. At which point Euthyphro, seeing no way out, beats the hastiest retreat in the history of intellectual disputations.

Plato’s point in writing the dialogue remains vital today: gods are unnecessary in order for us to figure out the right thing to do, and consequently the right way to live. How do we do it, then? In “Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life “I explore the possibility that we can get our guidance from what I call “sci-phi,” a combination of science and philosophy.

Think about it: after all, science is by far the best approach human beings have devised to learn about how the world works — and surely that sort of knowledge is necessary to make good decisions about how to live. Philosophy, on its part, is a way to reflect about our choices, our priorities, and in general why we do what we do. It seems to follow, then, that the smart thing to do is to learn from the best of what science and philosophy can tell us in order to make the most informed decisions we can in our lives. Aristotle (and Plato, and Socrates) would have approved.

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of “Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life.” His essays can be found at rationallyspeaking.org

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  • edbyronadams

    This article doesn’t rate a posting on the “On Faith” page for some reason.

    Secular moral philosophy is all very fine but limited. Kant is limited because human situations are more variable than taken to account by rule and Mills is limited by an inability to predict the future.

    Taking “God” out of the equation can help but unless you believe in a mystic connection between bad acts and bad result, the ambiguity in moral philosophy provides rationale for all kinds of excuses along the lines of “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”.

  • @blamer

    Perhaps strangely, I see moral ambiguity as a feature not a bug.

    It’s good to hear that you prefer your eggs unbroken because I’d honestly prefer to eat an omelet. Now we’re getting somewhere as social beings…

    An individual’s inner monologue suddenly becomes very interesting to other H. sapiens when it becomes a public announcement about “what ought”. That is, what ought we do with these specific eggs? is it better to leave these ones unbroken?

    Historically the “talk of ought” effects the human animal deeply, albeit sometimes only briefly …say here because we’re only talking about metaphorical therefore unbreakable & inedible eggs.

  • backspace1

    Apologies, I’m bored.
    it’a an AP course for us inmates.

    i don’t agree, the lost art of stratus(?) and higher intellect? comes to mind
    then i looked it up and found strato.

    thank you for the direction. of course this doesn’t pay the bills and, I will continue to apply for hourly positions.

    and as usual , i often speak without understanding. let us not challenge our teachers? i am just a hungry mind seeking answers,

    so again i ask you, how does one come back from the abyss of tempral judgement.
    as we have discussed before, why are you telling me now, when later would be better.

    i made myself laugh