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THE HORNS OF A MORAL DILEMMA

Have you heard of Euthyphro? No; that’s neither a country nor a newly discovered planet. It is the name of a character in the writings of the ancient philosopher Plato. Picture this scene: Socrates is waiting outside of the Athenian court building to face trial for supposedly leading the youth of Athens astray when he encounters Euthyphro who is looking forward to his day in court for an entirely different reason; he’s going to court to seek the death penalty for his own father. The dialogue between these two has produced for us one of the most profound questions — actually considered by philosophers as a dilemma — in debates and discussions of ethics and morality. The question is this (now put on your thinking cap and digest this slowly): Are right actions right because God commands them, or are right actions commanded by God because they are right? This was the question posed to Euthyphro by Socrates. Do you see the subtle but important difference here? If we go with the first option, that some actions are right simply because God says they are right, we may find ourselves accusing God of being arbitrary in determining what is right and what is not right. On the other hand, if we conclude that right actions are commanded by God because they are right, that would suggest to us that God is not the final authority in matters of values, ethics and morality, but just like us, he in some way has discovered what is right and has passed that on to us.

Obviously, this dilemma has very long and sharp horns, so much so that we can’t come anywhere near giving them justice in this little essay. But it does lead us to think about why we believe what we believe about what is right and what is wrong. Are there objective or absolute grounds for deciding what is right; or are values, morals and ethics entirely up to each individual or each culture? And if the latter is the case, whose morals should we then follow; or is it “every man for himself” as we used to say?

Clearly one of the things that those who opt for the first choice in this dilemma has going for them — at least from the Judaeo-Christian perspective — is the conviction that the character of God as revealed in the Bible, as well as his nature as revealed there, leads us to believe in a God who is completely good in his being (character) as well as omniscient in nature. In other words, we would accept that the God of the Bible is not a capricious God who arbitrarily sets down moral rules simply because he can, but that the rightness of his commands are based on the fact that they are objectively good and right, independent of how individuals or cultures may feel about them. To put it simply, most Christians would conclude that right actions are exactly that because God commands them, and that this is because God himself is good and therefore only commands what is good. Of course there are those who will argue against this; this is why the question is referred to as the “Euthyphro dilemma”.

The relevance of this “thinking point” is to draw our attention to the fact that we are living in a culture that apparently has chosen neither horn of this dilemma, but instead have promoted themselves as the final arbiters as to what is right and wrong. The end result of this approach to ethics and morality is a sort of moral relativism that rejects not only religion as the basis for right and wise actions, but rejects reason itself as the basis for decision making. For example, whereas marriage was based on the self-evident reality of human heterosexuality, a fact that even the most primitive human understood from the textbook of nature, today we are faced with the arbitrary notion that marriage can be whatever one wants it to be. Forget religion, science and nature. Right is what we want it to be! What is most disheartening about this approach to morality is that this delusionary approach to community life is fast gaining judicial and legislative approval in western cultures.

This leaves me with the task of revising the “Euthyphro dilemma” to fit today’s moral chaos: Are right actions right because the Courts command them, or are right actions commanded by the Courts because they are right? (Pastor Alson Ebanks)

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