Sermon: Euthyphro’s Dilemma and us

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 6 February 2016

In about 395ish BCE, a question was raised which would become one of the most important and challenging questions of religious life.

It’s found in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. Euthyphro is a soothsayer – deeply dogmatic, and a self proclaimed moral authority who acts as if he knows everything there is to know about holy matters. As such he is ripe to be brought down to size by the cleverer-than-thou Socrates, and the book is their conversation about religious life.

They meet in a court house where Euthyphro is laying manslaughter charges against his own father.

In their discussion, Euthyphro – keen to justify his own actions – suggests that what he is doing is the right thing – in their language, “the pious”. He defines this as “that which is loved by the gods”.
Like many religious people he claims an equivalence between divine will and his own personal ethics.

But then clever Socrates raises the question: is it that the gods love that which is pious because it is pious – in itself the right thing – or is it that it is only pious because it is loved by the gods. Socrates points out – in a very Greek philosophy kind of a way – that if both options were true, they together would yield a vicious circle, with the gods loving the pious because it is the pious, and the pious being the pious because the gods love it. It has to be one or the other.
Now, this isn’t as complex as it sounds. The question, in essence, is: in a religious world view, what makes something the right thing to do, makes an act worthwhile?

If it is that acts are right or wrong in themselves, then things that don’t seem to be the right thing to do can’t be the right thing to do even if the gods – or God – want them – which means that there is an independent moral reality beyond god – which rather makes the gods redundant.

But, if something is right only if it reflects divine will then anything can become good, and anything can become bad, merely upon God’s command – what becomes known, rather pompously as Divine Command Theory. This leaves us with a religious life which many of us would find unliveable.

The question comes to be known as Euthyphro’s dilemma – and you see its echoes bouncing through all subsequent moral and religious philosophy. It’s there in Christian theological writings, in Muslim philosophy of the Middle Ages, in modern moral philosophy. And, of course, it is there in Jewish philosophy, too.

In fact, whether we know it or not, everyone who is grappling with Jewish – or any religious – practice is living out a version of this tension everyday of our lives. Unless we are really pretentious – as I have been this morning – we will never use the language of Euthyphro.
But the dilemma underpins the fundamental question of religious life – why should we?

As Jews, why should we keep the mitzvot, the commandments found in the Torah? Why should we do Jewish at all? When we look at a religious act – Shabbat, kashrut, any commandment – and ask whether we are going to and why, we are asking Euthyphro’s question. Is it simply a response to commandedness (or at least some unquestionable compulsion) or do we ask of our religious life that it have some greater value – that it somehow, independently, makes sense?
Is our religious life worthwhile because it is commanded, or only commanded because (or if) it is itself worthwhile.

There is a very strong voice in Jewish tradition that says the former – that asking why – beyond divine will – really misses the point – this is the Divine Command Theory voice. The primary mode of religious life, it argues, is commanded-ness – there either aren’t reasons for the mitzvot, or it is not for us to try to understand them – ultimately the choice we make is to obey or to not obey. The mitzvot are intrinsically holy, intrinsically pious by virtue of their being commanded – ours is not to reason why…
For much of Jewish history – and still in parts of the Jewish world – this is the dominant voice. We honour Shabbat because God tells us to. We keep Kashrut because God tells us to. We exclude women, or the non-Jew, from religious life – because God tells us to.

But this is a view that no longer sits well for most of us living in modernity. In truth, most of us in our religious context no longer believe in a god who asks us to do inexplicable things for no reason other than because. As parents we have worked out that ‘because’ is rarely a good enough answer. Commandedness is not sufficient to lead to action. We may feel a sense of obligation but recognise that it is a fragile thing, not to be probed too deeply.

Nor, we recognise, is commandedness a guarantee of morality. Things are right or wrong in and of themselves, whatever the position of God (as reflected in texts) – we all know that slavery is wrong, even though we just inflicted reading the biblical laws of indentured servitude on Jessie! We sit with Socrates in arguing that there must be another plane on which to judge our religious lives beyond divine will.

In other words, Jewish life must be good as well as commanded – there for a purpose – we act because somehow what we do is beneficial for us, or for society.

We can find something like this voice in Jewish thought, too. It is associated with the language of “Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvot” – literally the “reasons for the commandments” – the view that we are permitted, indeed, perhaps obliged to try to work out what the reasons for the mitzvot are, to see what good they do beyond being a commandment.
We may not always be able to work it out (some of the mitzvot are, after all, very odd indeed) but for others it might seem more straightforward. We might look at the health benefits of kashrut, the communal or meditative benefits of worship, or the divine pedagogic intentions behind the detailed structure of animal sacrifices laid out in the Torah.

Most associated with this view is the philosopher Maimonides – familiar with Greek philosophy – in Arabic translation and quite radical in his application of this idea.

But we can find this idea much earlier. In fact, it’s there – hidden – in our Torah portion, which is what led me to think about Euthyphro this morning: When Jessie began the Torah reading this morning, she read the words “eileh ha-mishpatim asher tasim lifneihem” – “these are the statutes that you shall set before them”. This is an odd phrase – why doesn’t it just say “these are the statutes you shall tell them”, or “command them”? According to the first/second century sage Rabbi Akiva we can learn from this that the best way to approach Jewish life, to teach about and think about the mitzvot, is to understand the reasons behind them – to “set them out”. This morning’s portion teaches us not just to do, but to enquire… There is here, at least, a recognition that as human beings we not only obey but search for meaning.

Of course, Akiva’s view is not just about a search for meaning. He takes from our portion that we should enquire – should seek to find the reasons – and then, whatever, we are still to do – commandedness still trumps. Akiva still exists with a paradigm of obedience. But if we don’t buy into this, as – for the reasons I’ve already said – many of us don’t, then we find ourselves caught on the other horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma. What if we can’t find meaning? Is our religious life contingent on us finding good reasons? Is religious life not binding without logic? And what if the reasons disappear? It might once have been true that circumcision or kashrut had health benefits. But in the days of antibiotics and fridges why bother?

While the permission to enquire is gratifying, if we separate the question of whether something is worthwhile from whether it is commanded we run the risk of removing any real sense of obligation from religious activity.
And yet, to say that mitzvot are binding because of their commandedness alone makes it impossible to apply our moral sense and intuition to our religious life, which is what allows us to live it with integrity.

This is the point in the sermon where I’m supposed to have the answer.
But I don’t.
Unlike Euthyphro I am not deeply dogmatic, and claim no authority about holy matters.
There is a reason that Euthyphro’s dilemma is still a dilemma 2500 years later.

Religious reasoning, when done with real thought is very complicated indeed. When we approach our religious lives, we do so with a strange mix of compulsion and conscience, of what the thinker Eugene Borowitz called the normative weight of ethnic practice, of a perhaps undefinable idea of a search for spiritual meaning, of the extraordinary sacred power of community. And the scary realisation is that what we do or don’t do might not stand up to the probing of philosophy, the demand for consistency of a clever Socrates.

For those of us who try to live at the intersection of rationalism and religion, of thought and tradition, of ethics and ethnicity, of enquiry and obligation – for us the dilemma of Euthyphro is everyday alive and kicking.