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Symposium – divine command theory

Socrates (470-399 B.C.) – a renowned Greek philosopher from Athens who taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Socrates used a method of teaching by asking leading questions. The Greeks called this form “dialectic” – starting from a thesis or question, then discussing ideas and moving back and forth between points of view to determine how well ideas stand up to critical review with the ultimate principle of the dialogue being Veritas – Truth.


{Setting: Symposium of Socrates}

Reference: Ben Dupre, “50 Philosophical Ideas You Really Need to Know,” Pages 56-59.

Socrates: We are gathered here today at this symposium to discuss the subject of ethics, specifically the divine command theory which posits this question: Is what is good, good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?

Without God, of course, the divine command theory immediately collapses, but even allowing that God does exist, there are still a number of serious problems threatening the theory. Probably the gravest of these is the so-called Euthyphro dilemma, first raised by Plato some 2,400 years ago.

Plato: In my dialogue Socrates engages a young man named Euthyphro in a discussion on the nature of piety (goodness).

Euthyphro: What is goodness?

Plato: Through the course of the dialogue they agree that goodness is whatever is loved by the gods, but then Socrates poses a crucial question: Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because they love it?

Socrates: In the minds of billions of people, morality is inseparably connected with religion: Ideas of right or wrong, reason, ethics are based on that God (or a god) has ordained that it should be so; good is good and bad is bad because God says so.

Moses: In each of the three religions of the book – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the system of morality is based on divine command: It is for God to command, humans to obey. Since obedience is better than sacrifice, therefore, virtuous behavior requires obedience, while disobedience is sin.

Socrates: Then surely such a code of ethical rules, underwritten by God’s own hand, should banish the concerns that beset subjectivist accounts of morality – the spiteful suspicion that we are making up the rules as we go along?

A.J.: Ayer: No morality can be founded on authority, even if the authority were divine.

Socrates: Professor Ayer, in your famous book, “Language, Truth and Logic,” written in 1936 when you were just age 26, your proposition was that a sentence could be meaningful only if it is verifiable through experience or self-evidently true or false.

A.J.: Ayer: Yes, Socrates, and as a logical positivist I would add metaphysical, aesthetics and theological statements as belonging to neither group and, therefore, are meaningless.

Socrates: Indeed, yet, professor Ayer, as you neared the end of your life (as we all tend to do), you doubted your theory of logical positivism. On a TV show in 1979, when asked what the main defects of your book were, you replied, “I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.” After your near-death experience in 1988, the year before you died, you told your doctor, Jeremy George: “I saw a divine being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my books and opinions.”

Professor Ayer, how could you propagate ideas to the world you knew were utter lies?

Moses: Numbers 16:1-40 chronicles how God was so passionate about rooting out inter-generational heresy and apostasy that when Korah rebelled against the law God gave to me, he was immediately punished for his rebellion when God sent fire from heaven that consumed him and 249 of his fellow co-conspirators. God then caused the ground to split open beneath their feet and swallow them up with their families and everything they owned. The next verse records God killing an additional 14,700 men with plague, as punishment for objecting to Korah’s destruction.

Plato: The Euthyphro dilemma without God would immediately cause the divine command theory to collapse, but even allowing that God does exist, there are still a number of serious problems threatening the theory. The biggest danger facing the divine command theory or the Euthyphro dilemma is the risk of losing its divine commander: We may be less than fully persuaded by the various arguments put forward to prove the existence of God, and we may not have the benefit of faith.

Socrates: Yet Bible prophets like Moses, Isaiah and St. Paul were undaunted and have ingeniously turned the theory to their advantage, using it as proof of God’s eternal existence. Their syllogism follows:

1) There is such a thing as morality – we have a code of ethical laws/commands;

2) God is the only candidate for the role of lawmaker/commander. So –

3) God must exist.

The first premise, implying that morality is essentially something that exists independently of humans, begs one of the most basic underlying questions. And even allowing that morality does exist independently of us, the second premise has to bear the full brunt of the Euthyphro attack.

So, is what is good, good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?

Applying the Euthyphro dilemma to modern America politics, for more than 100 years the progressive revolution has essentially removed God from the marketplace of ideas and replaced “God” with the “god” of humanism or the idea that man is the center and arbiter of all things. Therefore, all public policies are not judged constitutional, moral or true, but whether they are for the common good. Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” FDR’s New Deal and welfare state, Truman’s “Fair Deal, LBJ’s Great Society and Obama’s New Deal, Part 2, all confiscated and spent trillions of taxpayers’ money to improve the human condition, yet in all respects society is more ignorant, decadent, alienated and poverty-stricken than preceding generations of the past 100 years.

So why did these tyrants pervert the Constitution and make their own citizens slaves to the federal government?

Euthyphro: For power, for money and to control the masses?

Socrates: Indeed, like it was in antiquity so it is in modern times: Questions of right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice are the kinds of things that we might expect to lose sleep over: abortion, euthanasia, human rights, treatment of animals, stem cell research … a never-ending list of perilous and controversial issues.

Perhaps God and his guidebook for humanity, the Bible, was right all along? That God (not the gods) is identical with good(ness) and, therefore, His commandments in the Bible applied to law and society is the only good government. Humanity has followed the contrary argument of the progressive revolution for more than 100 years, which has only brought mankind to the brink of spiritual poverty, anarchy and death.