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This idea has always been very strange to me. The first time I encountered this idea was when I was required to read about the Euthyphro Dilemma in college. It felt like a whole dialogue about something that was obviously false. The dilemma being about whether "For something to be good means that that something is loved by the gods". Just struck me as a bizarre idea, and I didn't understand why anyone would think that. The natural sequence seemed to me that there is this idea of goodness... and since gods are supposedly good and want goodness... they would love things that are good. The notion that "to be loved by the gods" is the meaning of "good" itself made no sense to me. It seemed like Plato constructed this bizarre idea that was obviously false... then spends an entire dialogue discussing why the idea is problematic, when nobody in their right mind would think of it in the first place.

But this idea seems extremely popular in Western popular culture, and at least amongst Christian philosophers. I'm wondering what the initial source of this idea is. Is it the Euthyphro Dilemma itself? For example: did Plato came up with this notion?

Or has it occurred before that in either Western philosophy or other philosophies?

Also, is this actually a natural idea? The Socratic dialogues usual concerns "natural" assumptions which upon further examination turn out to be problematic... But to me this idea seems completely unnatural and only something a very clever philosopher could come up with in the first place. But maybe I'm an outlier in this regard.

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    A quick Google search confirm the two words are not related. The coincidental resemblance is also specific to German/English related language, and does not exist in Latin based languages, for example (dieu/bon, dios/bueno, deus/bonum). Armchair etymology does not make for a good critique of concepts.
    – armand
    Apr 14 at 5:13
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    Yeah, sure, if one does not give a sh*t about the facts and the opinion of scholars, examples abound...
    – armand
    Apr 14 at 5:42
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    Euthyphro discusses not "good" but "pious", and piety naturally presupposes gods. "Good" or "right" is a later gloss introduced by medieval monotheists, like Averroes and Aquinas, in discussions of God's omnipotence and its limits. The moral realism angle is modern and traceable to Hume, who objected to seamless transitions from is to ought. It is natural on its own terms, a law requires a law-giver, what else can "objective moral law" possibly be? This is fleshed out in Mackey's argument from queerness.
    – Conifold
    Apr 14 at 6:16
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    I'd say this is a natural consequence of Scholastics picking up Aristotelian philosophy: If there is something like predestination, the origin of the causal chain (the unmoved mover, God) has to make it so that there is good/perfection. Conversely, if there is no absolute good in the beginning, there can be no good in the consequence (but by mere chance, which is a weird concept of good). I think there are Scholastic arguments to that effect, but I have to admit I dodged this part of philosophy as much as I could.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 14 at 8:17
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    Yes, roughly, objective prescriptions are the only plausible way to ground moral properties, and a law-giver is the only non-queer way to explain objective prescriptions. However, for Mackie these abductions are counterfactual, he does not believe in either objective prescriptions or moral properties.
    – Conifold
    Apr 14 at 17:47
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Your understanding of Euthyphro sounds inverted. At the time, the idea that "good" was just a name for what the gods approve of was a commonplace. Plato's goal here, in fact, is to replace the arbitrary and often contradictory morality of Greek mythology with a more perfect, abstract, consistent and eternal philosophical notion of "good" as something that has reality in itself, independent of the Greek pantheon. As is typical for a Socratic dialog, however, he goes about it in a circuitous manner, that features Socrates arguing on both sides of the issue.

For a highly abstract thinker like Plato or yourself, it may indeed be more natural to think of the good as a freestanding ideal. But you are correct to surmise that's an outlier conception. Many, perhaps most people around the world do conceptualize the good primarily in relationship to their own religious framework.

It's such an ancient and pervasive idea, in fact, that it's not possible to assign it a definite source. But it definitely predates Plato --you can find it, for instance, in the oldest books of the Judeo-Christian Bible.

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    Ok. Thanks. very interesting. I find this a bit difficult to believe, because people don't follow the moral precepts of their religion exactly. They pick and choose according to some other standard... maybe that standard is just the law? I always figured they had some internal moral sense that filters the religious content. Apr 14 at 14:41
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    The point is that most people don't perceive the inconsistencies. The reason Socrates was so hated in Athens was because he challenged people on things they didn't usually consider. // Keep in mind that we're addressing what people THINK about morality, and not necessarily how they actually behave and/or judge. Apr 14 at 14:52
  • ok. I see what you mean. But this does feel like a Western civilization thing. Because Buddhism is atheistic and has been fairly popular in the world for a long time. I don't know if Buddhism is older than Judaism. Apr 14 at 14:57
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    @AmeetSharma If you're not getting philosophical about it, Buddhism is a younger religion.
    – wizzwizz4
    Apr 14 at 21:30
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since gods are supposedly good and want goodness

And therein lies your problem.

For a polytheistic pantheon where gods embody aspects of human nature, what each god wants will be different. Greek and Roman myth is entirely centered on conflicts between the gods. And some gods (Bacchus, Anansi, Loki) are explicitly defined as tricksters. In polytheism therefore, it is clear that behaviour approved by a specific god is very, very rarely virtuous behaviour. The Greeks (and Romans) could then separate philosophy and religion so that one did not need to impact on the other.

Monotheism breaks this dividing line, because if there's only one god who made us all then we could follow what they want. Even monotheists still have the problem of demonstrating that their god is virtuous though (a regular problem for the Abrahamic God, considering the amount of mass murder, rape, torture and other stuff which It commands). But when your monotheistic religion also has significant temporal power, questions about "is God good?" have been addressed for two millennia by "if your answer isn't yes, then this hot poker is going in your eye". This tends to put a terminal end to the debating!

This is why you see through the question so clearly. It is clearly a false dichotomy - but it was necessary in order to build a framework for debate which didn't involve the participants being burned at the stake. The Christian church has a long tradition of deciding what the acceptable answers to questions are, and of ensuring anyone who comes up with other answers either changes their mind under torture or is executed as an example to others. Philosophy in a Christian context was very much a high-risk sport!

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Just to keep this in a Platonic vein, whenever we consider a moral concept, we are considering an ideal. So, when we say it is morally correct — or in Socrates' terminology, virtuous — to do X in case Y, what we mean is that there is an ideal form of being that naturally does X in case Y, and that we should strive to attain that ideal form for ourselves. But what is an 'ideal form of being' except a god? Something being 'good' means:

  • it is something our ideal form of being would naturally do
  • which means it is something our ideal form of being would naturally approve of
  • which means it is something a god would naturally approve of

Of course, with the rise of Christianity in the West, that Greco-Roman pantheistic worldview shifted into monotheism. Our ideal selves became divine souls; the measure of perfection was not an abstract god-like ideal form but a singular God projected in the physical manifestation of Jesus. But the basic logic remains the same. To be moral (in this context) means to reach for a perfected version of the self that is ultimately indistinguishable from divinity.

Of course, this is all couched int he language of Virtue Ethics. I could make similar-but-different argumunts in the language of consequentialism, deontology, or pragmatism. But I trust the basic theme comes across...

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  • So you're describing an evolution from the form of the 'ideal' to the Christian god which gives us this concept. So you don't see the Euthyphro Dilemma already embedding idea? Apr 14 at 9:29
  • @AmeetSharma: You've reversed what I said. The concept of an 'ideal self' predates Christianity and monotheism. It's an essential element of virtue ethics. But cultural contexts change, and concepts transform to fit. Apr 14 at 15:32
  • sorry by "this concept" I meant the concept described in my original post... that the source of morality is god. I wasn't referring to the concept of an ideal self. Maybe to clarify... we have an evolution of the Platonic form of the ideal, to the Christian god Jesus. And this leads to the idea that god is the source of morality? Apr 14 at 15:41
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    @AmeetSharma: More or less, yes. Platonic idealism led to Christian idealism; the ideal (godlike) human form of Greek philosophy morphed into the manifestation of the singular Abrahamic God in human form as Jesus. If one believes in Jesus-as-God, then Jesus-as-God becomes the model of ideal — aka moral — behavior. Or more simply (in the Christian worldview) God is a perfect ideal form; Jesus is God in flesh; Jesus' behaviors and attitudes are ideal; ideal behaviors and attitudes are (by definition) moral. Apr 14 at 16:51
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    I would note that moral realism doesn't actually presuppose the existence of such an "ideal form of being". A person can aim to be perfect, without a perfect person existing. And that's the point of the OP - it is reasonable to conclude that, if a god (fitting the typical monotheistic conception) exists, it is reasonable to conclude that they would conform to such morally correct behaviour, but it is not necessary that the god exists for the morally correct behaviour to exist.
    – Glen O
    Apr 15 at 1:40
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The natural sequence seemed to me that there is this idea of goodness... and since gods are supposedly good and want goodness... they would love things that are good.

The argument basically comes in two versions, be it the one that your title describes (that the facts' existence would have a divine cause), or the claim that, without following a specific religion's instructions (however that's to be done), one cannot know what the facts are. If gods have awareness of external moral facts, they could share that without having created them. Of course, this doesn't imply there's no other route to such knowledge. The Euthyphro dilemma notes we may have alternative routes if the details are external of gods, and are arbitrary and hence uninteresting to us if god(s) created them on a whim.

(There's a third one claiming external facts gods cannot choose undermine their claim to omnipotence, but I'm skipping that one because it's more of an omnipotence paradox than a response to a knowledge challenge addressed toward atheists.)

But this idea seems extremely popular in Western popular culture, and at least amongst Christian philosophers.

Each version of the argument is convenient for certain reasons. The first lets them paint nonbelievers as anti-realists, with all the capable-of-anything danger they may argue is inherent in that. It also lets them try to convince anyone who already ascribes to moral realism as obvious to accept their explanation of where moral facts come from, just like their numerous other "X exists, therefore God made it" arguments.

A sufficiently well-educated Christian (to choose a religion for definiteness, as in the OP) has to address the Euthyphro dilemma, especially if their intended audience is also that well-educated. They may claim, for example, we cannot in fact gain moral knowledge any secular way. This leads into the second version of the argument, which still allows them to argue a sense in which non-believers are morally adrift, which would be of concern both to such individuals and their colleagues.

Or has it occurred before that in either Western philosophy or other philosophies?

Others have already implied it's an ancient question, which is a purely historical matter I won't dwell on, partly because surviving texts might not document it all. But since Plato's statement of the dilemma refers to gods rather than a monotheistic god, we can expect at least informal debates of this issue to have occurred in several ancient polytheistic cultures.

Also, is this actually a natural idea?

It depends what you mean by a natural idea. In theory, only sufficiently sensible-seeming ideas are natural. Alternatively, the fact religion has been more or less universal throughout cultures for millennia makes religion "natural" to humans. The latter perspective may also imply all arguments that give religion succor are natural, at least if the knowledge needed to invent them isn't recent. ("DNA is too complex to originate on its own" wouldn't qualify, but arguments about meta-ethics could be as old as civilization itself.)

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