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Unit Overview

In this unit we will look at two possible explanations of morality. One common explanation of morality is that morality is simply the rules of a particular culture. The other is that morality is commanded by God or the rules of a particular religious tradition.  Throughout history religion and culture involved gods, sacrifice, rituals, mythology, and moral principles. All ancient societies has had a culture and a religion and to this day culture and religion play important roles in people’s moral thinking. Throughout most of history culture, religion, and morality and were indistinguishable.  People argued about what the gods , or their traditional culture demanded, so in a sense they did a kind of moral philosophy but it was always in the context of religion.

In ancient Greece a philosopher named Socrates changed that forever with one question, “Do the gods love it because it is pious or is it pious because the gods love it?” He shifted moral discourse by challenging the authority of religion and the gods and seeking to do moral philosophy purely in terms of reason. This was the beginning of the Western tradition of moral philosophy.

Readings

  • James Rachels The Elements fo Moral Philosophy, Chapter 2 – The Challenge of Cultural Relativism
  • James Rachels The Elements fo Moral Philosophy, Chapter 4 – Does Morality Depend on Religion (You don’t have to read the portion on Natural Law but you can if you like.)
  • Plato – Euthyphro

 

Cultural Relativism

The Euthyphro Dilemma


Divine command theory is not exactly an objection to normative ethics but rather a competing normative ethical theory that many of you have probably come across at some point in your life, although without realizing it as such. Divine command theory is theory in which the rules of morality are divine commands or commands of God. The most historically influential version of divine command theory is the ethical theory found in the Torah or the old testament of the Bible which states that the commandments of morality, the Ten Commandments, are the commands of God and that one should follow them because God says we should. Divine command theory was also a popular and influential ethical view in Plato’s time in Athens Greece.

In Plato’s dialog Euthyphro presents a version of Divine command theory by claiming that whatever the gods command is the right action. Socrates responds with a type of argument known as a dilemma. A dilemma is a type of argumentative strategy that begins with an either-or statement in which both options are unattractive to the person one is arguing with. The two options are sometimes referred to as the “horns” of the dilemma i.e. you don’t want to have to grab, or be stabbed by, either one of the horns. The dilemma suggested by Socrates is that “Either (a) an action is pious because the gods love it or (b) they love it because it is pious.” Let us now see why this is such a dilemma. If one chooses option (a) that an action is pious because the gods love it then it seems to make morality arbitrary. One might respond to this claim by asking, “What if the gods declared killing babies to be morally permissible?” To which the obvious answer seems to be “No.” The alternative is (b) that gods love actions that are pious. So, the original questions resentremains in full force which

The dilemma suggested by Socrates is that “Either (a) an action is pious because the gods love it or (b) they love it because it is pious.” Let us now see why this is such a dilemma. If one chooses option (a) that an action is pious because the gods love it then it seems to make morality arbitrary. One might respond to this claim by asking, “What if the gods declared killing babies to be morally permissible?” To which the obvious answer seems to be “No.” The alternative is (b) that gods love actions that are pious. So, the original questions remains in full force which is, “What makes actions right or wrong, or pious (as Socrates calls it)?”

Another way to think about this is that even God must have reasons for loving right actions or wrong actions. Assuming God exists, we wouldn’t want to think that he prohibits murder, theft, and requires kindness merely randomly. He must have good reasons for why he proscribes certain things and prescribes other things. And, if that is the case then it makes sense to think about God’s reasons for saying that some actions are right and some are wrong. So, because God must have reasons for choosing some actions as right divine command theory doesn’t work as a normative ethical theory.

 

 Class Lectures

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