Friday, 27 August 2010

The Moral argument for the existence of God and the Euthyphro

Simply expressed the moral argument for the existence of God is:

- If God did not exist then morals would not exist
- Morals exist
- Thus, God exists

What are these morals of which we speak? Naturally, the argument envisages a theistic theory of morals. If a non-theistic theory of morals is accepted the argument fails. If we hold to nihilism, the second premise fails: morals do not exist. If we hold to naturalism, emotivism, or relativism then the first premise fails. Naturalist, emotivist and relativist ethics can get along quite well without the existence of God.

The result is a corollary argument, often in the background, about the adequacy of non-theistic theories of morals. Non-theistic thories, it is alleged, do not explain morals, provide no basis for morals. The Euthyphro is often invoked to argue that theistic theories neither explain nor provide a basis for morals and, so, the theist is on just as sticky a meta-moral wicket as the non-theist. This leads to attacks on the Euthyphro, defences, and on.

Let us just ignore non-theist theories of morals, accept that they do not explain morality, can never do so and are just plain wrong. Let us also allow that that the Euthyphro fails to establish that theistic theories are non-explanatory, groundless or whatever bad things about theories it seeks to establish. The Euthyphro still has an effect, a fatal one, on the moral argument for the existence of God.

The Euthyphro is a whole dialogue but one that boils down to one question which can be paraphrased in terms of modern discourse:

“is something moral/immoral because God says so or does God say something is moral/immoral because it is”.

The key aspect for the moral argument is not that the Euthrypho forces an impossible choice, but that it forces a choice. Is morality contingent on God or not?

If it is not contingent then the moral argument fails at the first premise. The second premise is fine, we are all able to agree that morality exists, after all torturing babies for fun is wrong. But to establish the conclusion both premises are needed and the first plainly claims that morality is contingent on God.

If we hold that morality is contingent, of course, the first premise is fine. But we’ve left ourselves with everything to do with the second premise. We cannot appeal to well-worn examples of morality unless we can establish that these examples are moral truths. “Morality exists” entails, under a God-contingent meta-theory, that God has willed moral laws. The contingency of morality on God begs the question of his existence and requires that any necessary “acts”, or “willings”, on His part, have taken place. But that is not the evidence commonly given by those putting forward the moral argument.

For its effect the moral argument relies on non-God-contingent morality to get us to agree the second premise but relies on God-contingent morality to support the first. The Euthyphro prevents that equivocation and, in doing so, reveals the fallacy.

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