Friday, January 13, 2006

Euthephro Dilemma and Biological Ethics.

We saw in that Schweitzer article that people were trying to do biologically based ethics even in Schwetizer's day. But I recently saw a lecture on SCTV in which a professor proclaimed that "Socrates Kicked the ass of moral philosophy." Of course she was quoting her student, but she clearly agreed with him. Her solution was to replace "Moral philosophy" as religiously based, with biologically based social contract theory. Unfortunately I never did catch the woman's name or what the lecture series was. But please bear with me, as these are commonly held opinions anyway.

First let's consider the idea that "Socrates kicked ass on moral philosophy." How did he do this? He supposedly did it with an argument that atheists sometimes use on message boards called "The Euthephro Dilemma." It goes something like this:

Socrates asks Euthephro (who is of course, an idiot and a priest--thus giving Soc religious people to be his foils) "Is the good good, because the gods say it is? Or is the good good because there's some reason beyond the gods?" Euthephro knows he can't say the good is good just because the Gods say it is, that will never work, the gods might change their minds tomorrow. This would leave morality as totally arbitrary, it wouldn't be really good and it could change daily. Today it's wrong to torture babies for fun, tomorrow it might not be. So Euthephro says there is something that makes it good apart form just the gods word that it is good. Then Socrates says that something is higher than the gods. So this is supposedly the ass kicking for moral philosophy, morality can't be based upon the word of God, because it would either be arbitrary (God says so) or based upon something higher than God.

To answer this problem the professor on TV said that we should ground our understanding of ethics in our own biology. We are geared as biological organisms to help the group, to share the load and to be part of the team. So being part of the team becomes our highest value because we are geared biologically to be part of the team. We will consider this in a minute.

The problem with the Euthephro dilemma as it has been so defined above is twofold:

(1) It seeks to ground morality in contingent gods who are not the basis or ground of being and who could never ground moral axioms to begin with.

(2) In this pre Christian paganism the Greeks did not have love as the background of the moral universe, precisely because they didn't have a single all pervasive God who was the ground of being and whose character defined reality.

The Christian God not only creates all that is, but is also the fountainhead of all potential being as well. Not even the possibility of being can exist apart from the mind of God. That means that no standard could be higher than God. Thus if good is good because the Christian God says so it is, it is both grounded upon the word of God, and based upon a timeless principle that establishes the good; God's character. Augustness tells us that love is the background of the moral universe. Thus all moral axioms that are truly good are grounded in the notion of love, they all relate back to it and seek to fulfill it. That means God's character is the basis of moral axioms. Thus, the standard of the good is not independent of God, but based upon God's very character. The Greek gods were not capable of this, the Christian God can provide this basis in the ground of being.


In any case, what about the biological part? What this professor overlooks is that there is no moral axiom attached to genetics, nor can there be. As Hume said "you cannot derive an ought from an is." Just telling us the facts about our genetic structure can never tell us that we should, or should not accept any particular axiom, no matter how scientifically it may be grounded in our genetic heritage. She is also overlooking the fact that humans are bundles of competing drives and interests. We are genetically predisposed to pull with the group, but we are also genetically predisposed to betray the group and seek our own way when it serves our interest to do so. Who is to say that this is not the true moral stance, after all this is also biologically based. Thus a biological basis for ethics is a pipe dream.

Did Socrates actually kick any asses? Too back we can't ask him, I'm sure he knows better now.

5 comments:

Weekend Fisher said...

It's interesting that people who say that someone would overlook the traditional grounding of Christian morality in God's nature and favor the move to ground morality in created nature / biology.

Gothamimage said...

Incidentally, there is a discussion of theology, of sorts, between President Bush and C. Hitchens, on our blog.

J.L. Hinman said...

I am afrid I can't really understand what weekend fisher is saying. I'll look for the discussion on the other blog.

Weekend Fisher said...

Well, fewer typos in my original comment would have helped; so would taking a little longer to explain it.

So for Eu's dilemma, the usual Christian solution is that morality is grounded in God's nature. Creation is grounded in God's nature. God's will is grounded in God's nature. Therefore there's no tension between "what is right" and "what God wills", since both trace back to God's nature. However, "what is right" is not higher than God (being rooted in his nature), and "what God wills" is not capricious or unrelated to what is right, for the same reason.

So far so good, right?

I've met a number of people who say that Eu's dilemma cannot be answered by grounding things in God's nature. They've claimed its a cop-out. (I've never met one who can say why, but that's another story.)

But the same people who say "grounding God's morality in God's nature is a cop-out", I've seen some turn around and say we should ground man's morality in man's nature.

Why should it be ok for man to ground morality in human nature but not for God to ground morality in his own nature? Go figure.

That was the point of my original comment.

J.L. Hinman said...

I've met a number of people who say that Eu's dilemma cannot be answered by grounding things in God's nature. They've claimed its a cop-out. (I've never met one who can say why, but that's another story.)

>>send them over here. I'll make them say it to my face, and knock a stick off my shoulder.

"But the same people who say "grounding God's morality in God's nature is a cop-out", I've seen some turn around and say we should ground man's morality in man's nature."


>>>that makes no sense.

"Why should it be ok for man to ground morality in human nature but not for God to ground morality in his own nature? Go figure."


>>they probaly don'tunderstand the bit about God's nature being love, or what Augustine said about love being the background of the moral universe.

"That was the point of my original comment."


>>>I see, thanks.