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Ethical Naturalism and the Euthyphro Dilemma

April 12th, 2011 by Matt

Some people argue that moral obligations can be grounded in scientifically verifiable facts about human wellbeing and flourishing. This view is a form of ethical naturalism.  For these people moral rightness is just the property of promoting or enhancing human flourishing.

Plato and Aristotle arguing in the School of Athens

Plato refuted this argument over 2,000 years ago in his famous dialogue The Euthyphro. The Euthyphro argument is commonly appropriated in the form of a dilemma: “is an action right because it promotes human flourishing or does it promote human flourishing because it is right?

If ethical naturalists take the second horn of this dilemma and claim that something promotes human flourishing because it is right then things are right prior to, and hence independently of, whether they promote human welfare; so the ethical naturalists’ position here is false.

If the ethical naturalists take the former horn then morality is arbitrary. If rape or murder or cruelty for fun had the natural property of promoting happiness then rape and murder and cruelty for fun would be morally required but it is impossible for these things to be morally required; so ethical naturalism is clearly absurd.

Moreover, if things are right because they have natural properties, like promoting human flourishing, then one cannot meaningfully say that human flourishing is good. To say “human flourishing”  is good is just to say that  “human flourishing is human flourishing,” which is just an empty tautology.

So in short, Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma refuted ethical naturalism 2,000 years ago. Contemporary ethical naturalists who say otherwise just have not read Plato and have never come across this argument before.

In any event, ethical naturalism is deeply problematic. Throughout history people have appealed to human flourishing and forms of ethical naturalism to justify atrocities. The Inquisition, for example, was often justified by Dominican Theologians on the basis that it was in accord with natural law, and natural law was understood to be grounded in human flourishing. Similarly, wars have been justified on the basis of moral theories based on human flourishing. Stalin and Lenin wanted to bring about human flourishing through a communist utopia and murdered millions in their pursuit of that. And the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Japan because they wanted to promote the flourishing of American soldiers that were going to invade.

Finally, it is obviously insulting to suggest that right and wrong are grounded in scientifically verifiable properties like this. There are a large number of people who live morally upright lives who do not believe in ethical naturalism. The suggestion that these people are all immoral is obviously false. Name me one moral action a person who is not an ethical naturalist cannot do? This unanswerable question shows that ethical naturalism is clearly false.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • Would a theistic version of ethical naturalism (Say, classical natural law/virtue ethics) by exempt from this criticism? On this view, morality is grounded in our God-given human nature (Moral duties consist of acting in accord with our telos).

  • That is some excellent Satire! Brightened my afternoon.

  • Doesn’t really translate across that well… in a couple of places.

  • Tim, its actually a satire, I don’t think the argument above is sucessful, and for the same reasons I don’t think its sucessful in the DCT case.

    There is perhaps one acception, and that is that I think something like the arbitrary objection might apply to certain naturalistic accounts of “goodness” as opposed to “obligation” in that one might think that its possible for a person to enjoy, flourish and satisifaction from inflicting pain and misery on others. And one would have to say this satisifaction was good. It might be outweighed by the harm inflicted on others, but it still would be good.

    There might also be objections like this with a naturalistic account of obligation as well, along the standard anti utilitarian arguments of killing one person harvesting there organs for others.

    On the other hand I don’t think its possible for a perfectly good God who is omniscient to command something that is wrong.

  • What do yous think of this response to Euthyphro?

    Hint: It’s not satire. :)

  • You surely meant “moral rightness” instead of “moral wrongness.”

  • Grant, I see some commonality between Pastor Bob and Matt’s arguments.

    Where I think Bob errs is in looking at Divine Command Theory and saying that all forms believe that God “decides” what the right is. Matt has, if I recall correctly, defined DCT as a series of moral obligations placed by God on us. God is not morally good by that standard, because no one can place moral obligations on God. God is characteristically good, that is he has characteristics like justice, kindness, etc that we recognize as good.

    Another friend of mine simply takes apart Euthyphro and shows it only works because of the competing authorities of the pagan gods. Socrates was engaged in a game of bait and switch. The Christian God values obedience and it is meaningless to ask “is obedience loved by God because it is obedience, or is it obedient because it is loved by God?”
    He also has no problem with the idea of arbitrary commands, inasmuch as it is entirely possible for a law to be arbitrary, yet fixed through the authority of the issuer of that law.
    That said, he’s a game designer, not a philosopher. :-)
    A PDF version can be downloaded here.

  • Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?…

    A couple of points here: 1. The Roman Catholic Church does not constitute the whole of Christianity. If you want to fight something other than a straw man it would behoove you to rely on primary sources. 2. While you seem to be stuck on the Sabbath iss…

  • [...] way of articulating the dilemma for atheists can be found here, where Matt questions the idea of “human [...]