What Euthyphro Said
Simon Blackburn, not surprisingly, talks about this matter of metaethics in his short introduction to ethics Being Good. He starts right off with the question of god as the backer or guarantor or prop for ethics.
For many people, ethics is not only tied up with religion, but is completely settled by it. Such people do not need to think too much about ethics, because there is an authoritative code of instructions, a handbook of how to live.
But the trouble with that, of course, is that the code is only as good as it is. If the code in question is a bad code, then this business of not thinking too much is not good.
Blackburn goes on the mention some of the not so good parts of the Bible, then adds,
Obviously there have been, and will be, apologists who want to defend or explain away the embarrassing elements…What is interesting, however, is that when we weigh up these attempts we are ourselves in the process of assessing moral standards. We are able to stand back from any text, however entrenched, far enough to ask whether it represents an admirable or acceptable morality, or whether we ought to accept some bits, but reject others. So again the question arises: where do these standards come from, if they have the authority to judge even our best religious traditions?
Then he cites the Euthyphro, and quotes from it, which, since it is available online, I will do too.
Euth. Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.
Soc. Very good, Euthyphro; you have now given me the sort of answer which I wanted. But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words…But I will amend the definition so far as to say that what all the gods hate is impious, and what they love pious or holy; and what some of them love and others hate is both or neither. Shall this be our definition of piety and impiety?…
Euth. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious…
Soc. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods…And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?
Soc. Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?
Euth. No, that is the reason.
Soc. It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?
People keep on getting that back to front. Approving something, thinking of it as holy or good, and thinking also (because they think god is good) that god agrees with them, but then getting the whole arrangement turned around so that they think god started the whole process. But no. Suppose god said you and some friends should go round up a few random people and torture them for fun. Would you conclude that would be a good thing to do? I can only say I hope not. It’s not god saying what’s good and you agreeing with god, it’s you thinking what’s good and also thinking god agrees with you – only without realizing you’re doing it.