Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Divine Command and Euthyphro dilemma


What makes something moral? What is the nature of morality?

There are many answers given by philosophers. They range from answers by moral realists (different variations of "morality is out there") to moral subjectivists (different versions of "morality is each person's personal taste"). There are a few other brands and some groups in between (e.g., cultural relativists who assert that the morals are societies' norms, and in that sense they are objective and "out there", but, they can differ from society to society and in that sense they are subjective), but those are the major divisions of views.

Divine Command and Euthyphro dilemma

Then there is a view that morality is equivalent to Divine Command (DC). That morality = Will of G-d. It can be classified as either objective or subjective (I prefer the former logically). There are a number of "external" objections to the DC, such as "how do we know that G-d exists" which I will not address here (see this, for instance).

I have read about an "internal" objection called Euthyphro dilemma, named after a character in Plato's play, which can be summed up as:
Is what is morally good commanded by G-d because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by G-d?
Possible answers

Well, let's look at the options:

1. That which is morally good is commanded by G-d because it is morally good.

This is a problematic answer for a number of reasons:

a) It doesn't really give an answer about the nature of morality. G-d wants that which is morally good because it is good, but why is it good and what makes it moral? We are back to square one. If this were the essence of DC, then DC could not be a valid moral theory; it would be just a confirmation that G-d cares about morality.

b) This answer contradicts the very definition of morality. DC cannot logically tell us we should do something that we know is moral because it is commanded by G-d. Morality by definition is "that which ought to be done". So "because it is commanded by G-d" is superfluous as the impetus for doing morality. If we already know what is moral, we don't need to be told that we need to do it because X . We already know we need to do it.

(I.e., this argument is the flip-side of the previous one.)

c) This definition implies that there is something binding on G-d, which is problematic for a number of theological reasons (which I won't discuss in detail here) such as: primacy of G-d, omnipresence of G-d (not just physical, but logical), and omnipotence of G-d (ditto). I.e., G-d must precede all concepts, cannot be dependent on any concepts, and must be "found" in all concepts (the last point is controversial according to some schools of thought, but suffice it to say that I wouldn't eat their shechita).

So, what's the other option?

2. It is morally good because it is commanded by G-d

Let us define very clearly what might be meant by this statement. One possibility is that to find out what is good, one needs to ask G-d (or see what G-d told others, if it's applicable to one too).

I don't think this definition is logically problematic, but it is empirically problematic. I.e., if we look at Jewish tradition, we find that there are indications that humans (and Jews in particular) should know already what is moral, even without having been told by G-d. For instance, there is a statement by one of the meforshim that someone who has to pay his wife a kesuba doesn't only need to depend on what it says in Torah. He must know by himself that he has to pay the kesuba because he made a promise.

There is a statement that even if mishpotim were not given, one would be able to learn them oneself.

There is a sense, from learning various Jewish texts, that rabbis already have a sense of justice and morality independently of Torah. In fact, oftentimes, Torah is tested against those concepts: one asks, how can Torah prescribe X, or how can G-d do Y, and then people answer, revealing that in fact X and Y do not contradict our concepts of justice and morality. Why don't we merely say: "Don't asks stupid questions. Whatever G-d decided must be just by definition." (Similarly to someone who might say: "He who made oil burn will also make vinegar burn". I.e., don't ask how G-d can violate laws of nature: He created them!) It is assumed not only that Torah and Hashem must behave according to the concepts of morality (which is another issue, to be discussed below), but also that those concepts are known to us already.

Finally, it seems that Torah does not have a very detailed discussion of morality like it does, say, of laws of tefillin. Certainly there are moral statements in Torah and certain prescriptions pertaining to morality (such as laws of visiting the sick, loshon ho'rah, business dealings, etc.), but the general discussion of morality seems to be lacking. (Maybe I am wrong.)

(There are concerns brought by philosophers that usually rely on intuitionist moral conservatism: i.e., taking our moral intuitions seriously. The concern is usually voiced as: "If G-d told you to torture someone, would you do it? Would that make it moral?"

I don't think this is a valid argument because it presupposes the truth of moral intuitionism. The argument assumes that we know what is moral from our intuitions, and then finds a possible contradiction between that morality and DC-produced morality. But that basically amounts to saying: "I think DC is wrong because I think we know what is moral intuitively." I would classify this as an external critique of DC, not an internal one, and I am not completely sure that the intuitionist approach could defeat DC on these grounds.

In fact, it could probably be defeated on its own grounds: if we have two intuitions, one telling us directly that X is wrong and another telling us that we know that G-d told us X is right, we should probably trust the second intuition and assume the first one erroneous. If the first intuition is strong, we can double-check the second one multiple times to make sure that that is indeed what G-d said and there is no room for mistake, but once we are assured of that, we should probably go ahead and rely on the intuition telling us that X is right.

This is no different in principle from observing by eyes that a lake is shallow, but some independent measurement telling us that the lake is indeed very deep. If that happens, we should probably double-check the measurement, but, as my boss says, the data are what they are.

Which is not to say that intuitionism is useless. Keep reading.)

The Verdict

What does this mean? Well, I think it means that while we might identify the commandments that G-d gave us directly as moral imperatives, we must have an independent way of identifying the "regular" (mishpotim-like) moral truths.

So, actually I think one might say that intuition is actually a good source of morality. I have been exploring this idea recently and have found myself growing more fond of it. (I have discussed it here and here.)

But does this mean that DC has failed? I think that there can be an intermediate solution: We can identify morality as G-d's will, but say that it is not discoverable (only) directly as G-d's will. To quote myself:
We might say that our intuitive feeling of goodness is one of the good's principia cognoscendi (its giluim): the qualities by which it can be recognized (the other being the fact that G-d told us that he wants it to be done). On the other hand, the fact that good is G-d's purpose for the reality is good's principium essendi (its atzmus): the description of what it is
One can still identify good or bad through his intuition, not only through Halacha; I am just explaining what it is that he is identifying. (Likewise a physicist might explain that when I feel cold, I am sensing indirectly the average kinetic energy of molecules around me.)
This also solves the problem of whether G-d can order us to do something which we will intuitively feel as wrong. One might say that no. My wife recently gave me the following argument of why Halacha cannot contradict morality:

Both Halacha and morality are prescriptive systems (they tell us what we ought to do). Both come from G-d (because everything comes from G-d). Presumably, G-d cannot at the same time want us to do X (according to Halacha) and not want us to do X (according to morality). Therefore, Halacha can never violate morality.

(Importantly, I don't think one could argue that everything comes from G-d, but not everything is allowed by Halacha or morality. Our animalistic urges, although they come from G-d, are not binding on us. But morality is, by definition. So is Halacha.)

So, what happens if G-d tells one to sacrifice our child? Well, that's like asking: if Earth's magnetic North and South shift places, where will the needle of a compass point? Well, obviously to the new location of the North, the former South pole. Now replace the compass with intuition and North with good, and you get the analogue.

This is assuming that one's intuition picks up good automatically (sort of like compass points to North automatically). It could be that G-d set up our intuitions to work a certain way (or even that they developed biologically in a certain way — although that would amount to the same) which is more rigid. After all, our sensory perception is rather rigid: this is why we get optical illusions. But we have a way of dealing with illusions, as mentioned above: just compare them to observations from other, more reliable, sources.

So, it is possible that we might feel intuitively wrong to do X but at the same time know objectively that G-d commanded X. Some sources say that this is how Abraham felt at the time he was commanded to kill Yitzchok. He felt intuitively that this was wrong, but he also knew intuitively that G-d told him to do so. So, he figured that the second intuition makes more sense to follow.

(In our times, the situation regarding child sacrifice is actually reversed. If you have a strong intuitive feeling that G-d is telling you to kill your children, check yourself in to a mental health facility. This is because we know that G-d doesn't want us to kill children and will never command us to do so. Therefore, whatever you feel like "G-d's will" is probably just an illusion or psychosis. Assuming one has not lost all his logical capacity, he can figure this out on his own by reminding himself that he is not a prophet.

On the other hand, this problem may be philosophically unsolvable. If I accidentally take a strong hallucinogenic drug and think my wife is a bear attacking me, I will have to defend myself. How am I to know better? (Remember that illusions don't just come as perceptions; they come with intuitive feeling of reality to them.) It seems there is nothing to be done in this case except to lock me up (hopefully temporarily, until the drug wears off). But it also seems I cannot be blamed for my actions.)

In any event, I think the above answers the Euthyphro dilemma to some extent.

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