PHIL 111: Introduction to Philosophy

LARKIN: Spring 2003



Plato’s Euthyphro


A.     Socratic Questioning

1.  Challenges authority and assumptions—demands of those who claim to know that they demonstrate their professed knowledge.

a.        Euthyphro sets himself up as an authority on piety by confidently claiming to know that he is being pious in prosecuting his father for murder in a controversial case.

b.       Euthyphro, as a kind of preacher and expert on the gods, is by trade supposed to be an authority on piety.

2.  Searches for deeper understanding of concepts—an explanation of why certain things fall under a certain concept.  (see Euthyphro’s First Attempt)

3.  Critically applies rational standards—Socrates criticizes views on the grounds that they fail to abide the norms of rationality.  (Euthyphro’s Second attempt is criticized for leading to contradiction, the third because it is circular.)


B.      Euthyohro’s First Attempt

1.  Definition:

The pious is what I am doing, says Euthyphro, and other such acts.

2.  Criticism:

Socrates is not looking for a list of pious acts—he does not want merely to know which acts are pious.  He wants to know what all those acts have in common that makes them pious acts.


C.      Euthyphro’s Second Attempt

1.  Definition: The pious is what the gods love.

2.  Criticism:

a.        The gods quarrel over what they like and dislike.

b.       So there are many acts that are loved by some gods but hated by others.

c.        According to the above definition those acts would be both pious and not pious at the same time.

d.       But that is impossible—it is a contradiction.

e.        Socrates is using here a Reductio Ad Absurdum strategy—showing that a certain view leads to an absurdity (a contradiction) and therefore cannot be true.


D.      Euthyphro’s Third Attempt

1.  Definition: The pious is what all the gods love.

2.  Socrates’ clarification question: 

Do the gods love pious acts because they are pious or are those acts pious because the gods love them?  (In other words, did the piety of the acts come first and make the gods love them, or did the gods love come first and make the acts pious?)

3.  Euthyphro’s Response: The gods love pious acts because they are pious.

4.  Criticism: 

Well then we still have no explanation for what made the acts pious in the first place.  The explanation runs in a circle—it commits the fallacy of Begging the Question.  Euthyphro effectively claims that acts are pious because the gods love them but that the gods love them because they are pious—which amounts to saying that acts are pious because they are pious, and that is no explanation at all.


E.       Hypothetical Alternative

1.  What if Euthyphro had said that acts are pious because the gods love them?

2.  It is likely that Socrates still would have been dissatisfied with this answer.  For the question remains why the gods love pious acts—what is it about those acts in particular that all the gods love?  The answer to that would seem to be the real explanation of what makes an act pious.  Without an answer to that question, it seems we do not really have an explanation for why certain acts are pious.

3.  If we just say that there is no further reason why the gods love those acts, then the piety of an act is arbitrary and accidental.  And that seems to be a difficult view to maintain about morality.  We certainly do not ordinarily think of moral claims as just arbitrary and unfounded.


F.       Anti-Authoritarian Dilemma

1.  Euthyphro’s Problem can be generalized into a problem for any authoritarian view that claims:  What is the case is whatever authority A says is the case.

2.  Dilemma Question:  Does A say X is the case because X is the case, or is X the case because A says so?

3.  If we say that A says that X is the case because X is the case, then we have a circular explanation of why X is the case—and thus no explanation at all of why X is the case.

4.  If we say instead that X is the case because A says so, then X’s being the case is just arbitrary—and thus there is still no real explanation of why X is the case.