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Published:March 12th, 2012 16:06 EST

Right or Wrong: Who are we to say?

By Vincent Gonzalez

In Euthyphro, by Plato we examine divine command ethics and its influences on human thought and behavior. In this case, Socrates questions the moral authority which leads his friend, Euthyphro to come to town to prosecute his own father for having inadvertently killed a murderous hired hand.

Socrates is intrigued by Euthyphro, suggesting that Euthyphro has to be a great expert in religious matters if he is willing to prosecute his own father on so uncertain a charge. Euthyphro boast that he does indeed know all there is to be known about what is holy. Further intrigued, Socrates urges Euthyphro to educate him and to teach him what holiness is, since Euthyphro`s teaching might help Socrates clear his name in his own indictment.

First, Euthyphro suggests that holiness is persecuting religious offenders. Socrates finds this definition unsatisfying, since there are many holy deeds aside from that of persecuting offenders. Euthyphro suggests that what is holy is what is agreeable to the Gods, in response to which Socrates points out that the Gods often squabble, so what is agreeable to one might not be agreeable to all. The debate, when it comes down to it, centers on the issue of what is right and wrong, and what insight or wisdom leads us to our definitions of what is right and wrong.

In the dialogue, both men question and defend each other`s respected beliefs and convictions, resulting in a discussion where readers feel sometimes confused, as the discussion seems sometimes one sided, repetitive, and even ironic. In the dialogue, Euthyphro, (who presents himself as an expert on the will/authority of the Gods), claims his justification in convicting his father on the grounds that the Gods favor punishment as a result of his fathers` actions. Socrates attempts to discern Euthyphro`s thinking by questioning Euthyphro`s wisdom on the nature of morality as it relates to authority or any set of rules.

When it comes down to it, the dilemma faced by Euthyphro is this: If it is upheld that certain actions and dispositions are good based on the belief that the Gods simply favors them, then it only seems fair to say that the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, is purely arbitrary; for no other reason can be given why the Gods should favor one kind of action rather than another.

Just as there is no reason that can be given why the Gods should favor justice or kindness, they could easily have favored their opposites. The readers are left to believe that the distinction in solely a matter of the Gods "taste" according to Socrates. Just like signing your name on a contract without first reading the fine print, Euthyphro`s morals consist in blindly following what he takes to be truth revealed to him by the Gods, or his own interpretation of it at least. Euthyphro makes himself out to be morally immature.

If we where to believe that the Gods created the world, then our own human nature and the conditions under which we find ourselves in this world dictate that the Gods could have easily made things differently, it`s an arbitrary matter at best. Nevertheless, given our human nature it is not an arbitrary matter what things contribute to our own happiness and fulfillment. Its only logic that if people are treated unjustly or cruelly they will be unhappy and unfulfilled, just as a child deprived of proper nourishment while in the womb might be born underdeveloped. By rational reflection on the human condition we realize that we don`t need any special type of revelation from God to tell us these things. Its only human nature for people to think justice and kindness lead to human happiness and fulfillment. Western scripture would have you believe that morality is not arbitrary, that it is

impossible for God to lie or sin, that much is clear from the Bible. If the standard itself is absolute such that not even God can violate it, doesn`t this make the Almighty himself beholden to a higher law? The sovereign now becomes the subordinate. At the end of the day you`re left with the dilemma that either God is not good or He`s not sovereign. In the dialogue, Euthyphro is charged with the task of identifying the logical grounding on which his morality, his piety and virtue stand on. Instead, the knowledge he claims has no basis for their assertion, his claims are clearly rooted in space.

The problem of grounding morality in a pursuit of defining ethics is that without God (or some transcendent Lawmaker) it`s hard to know what the term "moral" is ultimately referring to. Common sense would have you believe that the term "moral" generally means to comply with an objective standard of good, however without God, without no outside authority or sovereign, this higher law that Euthyphro espouses has no firm base to stand on, there`s no corresponding obligation to be good.

As best said by Trappist monk Thomas Merton, "In the name of whom or what do you ask me to behave? Why should I go to the inconvenience of denying myself the satisfactions I desire in the name of some standard that exists only in your imagination? Why should I worship the fictions that you have imposed on me in the name of nothing?" To us, living in reality, knowledge, and our idea of good are neither personal nor make believe. They are rooted in the belief that things happen for a reason and out of necessity. That`s all this fundamental universe we live in has to offer, and for us to try to make sense of it. In short: the best way to describe it is nature left alone is solid ground, but nature fabricated by a Creator is unsolid ground, where for all we know the ground below is in fact an unseen abyss.

If it is upheld that God favors certain dealings because they are objectively good, it seems that their goodness is independent of His will and control. This would mean that there is a world of moral values which exist outside of God`s creative will and to which His will must obey. Such a view as this must inevitably appear blasphemous to all those who believe in God in one form or another, for it makes God out to be less than He is. A being of higher power that created us and willed that we be unhappy and frustrated would clearly not be a candidate for a good and loving God. It might be argued that all that reason can determine about the nature of God is that He is an uncontrollable power to be feared above all else.

The notion and belief that God loves us, it might be said, is something we can know only because we were forced to believe this as we were growing up, they fed it to us day in and day out, whether by media, family or any institution of knowledge. On the other hand, it would be ambiguous to call a being who issued bad commands `God` without first meeting the criteria. Maybe the true motive for Euthyphro convicting his father resides in some other form; under which over time festered into a mindset that Euthyphro himself is blind to, maybe he was looking for revenge on his father for some past deed and just decided that this would be the perfect scapegoat to disguise his true intentions on.

Looking for revenge, in my opinion, never serves any good, only resurrecting bad memories and past shames. When Euthyphro found out about his workers death he was angry. Who can blame him for it? It`s perfectly normal as a human being, but he acted so abruptly in his decision making and without too much thought I think, to jump to conclusions that he acted rash in indicting his father for murder. He was so quick to charge his father he refused to stop and think. Maybe if he had first thought about the repercussions that where going to happen, maybe he would of realized that his family name might be in jeopardy of being put to more shame.

I also think it`s important to remember what time era this story is being told in. During this time in history murder was just another thing that happened daily in the streets, just as common as the birds fly through the sky. The time that this all takes place in is at a time in our world`s history that people where easily able to get away with murder and other acts of violence, where chaos was still part of the fabric of society.

The only difference between the era of Plato and today`s society` is our acceptance of some crimes. When Euthyphro`s father killed his hired hand, he still had a just reason for doing so according to him, regardless of what anybody else thinks. The two main ways to have a pious soul is by having devotion to God and family. Euthyphro showed obviously that he denied honoring his family. It is hard to prove that he did not show devotion to his Gods. He showed that he felt there was a need for justice, so he acted. In the end it never really matters if you fall within the standards but how you feel about yourself.

Euthyphro felt proud of himself; and that is all that he needed to be a happy person. Most people live their lives attempting to do the right thing but never stop and think if living there life is the right thing. This whole story behind Euthyphro reminds me of the death penalty that is used around the world as a form of punishment. I`ve come to find that no court system is immune to bias, corruption and error. It`s practically impossible to receive a fair trial without some outside forces conspiring against us.

Often enough, innocent people are sentenced to death under this so called fair system. We can`t rely on any authority to discern for us what is right and wrong because how are we to be sure that all the evidence relevant to your trial has been properly reviewed. Wisdom is obtained over a series of trial and error, accumulating over time and forming the bases for our morals to grow on and adapt. We use this as our own line of thought when presented with challenges that require rational thought. We entrust our authority with an absent minded belief that they are acting with our best interest in mind; for in the end, it`s only human nature for people to side with what relates to our own moral code of convictions and ethics. Our hope is that these actions don`t blind us to the true truth when examining issues pertaining to trials of right and wrong. 

As often as not people face the daily threats of reality as it relates to authority as it seeps into the fabric of everyday life. We attempt to counter these threats by equipping us with an arsenal of preconceived notions of what we know to be right and wrong. Socrates is aware of this and attempts to enlighten us by having us question the grounds onto which these notions reside. He notices that once you realize and examine all the issues relevant to the argument you are trying to defend; you are that much closer to producing answers to problems that are free from the internal dispositions that people harbor.

We need to lift anchor and cast away our own personal demons in a true attempt to evaluate issues of right and wrong. At the end of the day, what we find is that people are people, and most often enough people act on the grounds of their own interpretation of what they perceive to be right and wrong, some, as we have discover in Euthyphro stick steadfast to their beliefs, unwilling to accept what they fail to understand or even begin to understand. But once we start to notice the cycle, it`s much easier to figure out the proper way of going about handling the problem, but as long as humans remain human, right and wrong, life and death, good and evil is all the same thing.