Just to be clear … Morality precedes religion. Morality itself evolves and changes over time (and culture). In fact, religious morality conforms to the needs of the society in which it resides; and not the other way around. Plain and simple.
This philosophical dialogue explains it all.
By Phil Zuckerman Ph.D. for Psychology Today
It was around 7:00 in the morning. A Monday. Butch, age 35, was sitting on a wooden bench in front of the Rowan County Courthouse. No one else was around and the courthouse wouldn’t be open for another hour. But Butch was already there and he was eager — he wanted to be sure to be the first in to see the district attorney.
At around 7:30, a woman, the same age as Butch, walked up to the entrance of the courthouse. She peered into the glass of the two large, locked doors. And then Butch realized that he knew her.
“Uh, yes…and you are…?”
“Butch Dickerson. From high school.”
“Oh, my goodness – Butch — how are you?”
“I’m just fine. And you?”
“Good, yes – I mean — other than the fact that I’ve been called in to see the D.A.”
Butch scooted over to the right side of the bench, making room for Wendy.
“It’s so nice to see you,” Wendy said.
“You, too. Been a long time,” Butch acknowledged.
“You look great. I mean, you look –”
“Different? I know. Its true. I was pretty scrappy back then.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“It’s OK,” Butch continued. “I was rough. I know it. Heck, I was really struggling back then. School, things at home, drugs. I was getting into a fight just about every other week. Didn’t really mind my manners or my appearance much.”
“Well, you know, high school’s a tough time for everyone,” Wendy offered.
“But you left, didn’t you? I don’t remember you being at graduation.”
“That’s right. My folks split up at the end of tenth grade and my dad moved way out into the country and then my mom took off for Cincinnati and I ended up staying with my Dad, but I dropped out that summer.”
“It’s alright. It all worked out. I’m doing really well. Married to a wonderful woman. Four kids. Meaningful work. I’m a pastor. Lighthouse Church, out on Highway 99.”
“Seriously? Butch Dickerson is a preacher? I can’t believe it!”
“Believe it,” he said with a smile. “You should come on out sometime and see what we’re doing. Saving souls, Wendy. Saving souls.”
“I would have never guessed it.”
“Yeah, I’ve changed a lot. I’m a different person. Jesus will do that to a man.”
“I’m so glad to hear it.”
“And what about you? What have you been up to?” Butch asked.
“Well, after graduation I went to State and studied history and then I got my credential and now I teach at Woodland Middle School. My husband also works at Woodland and we have a son, Henry. He’s six.”
“Good for you, Wendy. So what’re you doing here at the courthouse?” Butch asked.
“I got a summons from Mr. Hardesty, the District Attorney,” she explained. “It’s a long story.”
“That’s OK. You don’t have to get into it.”
“Well, I guess I don’t mind. It looks like we’ve got a while to wait here, until the courthouse opens. It’s just a bit complicated. See, um, I teach history, right? And last year I started a unit on religion and the idea was to teach students about the various religions of the world in the context of human development. It is just so crucial for understanding the growth of civilizations, for understanding the development of government and various political struggles, for understanding nationalism, and for understanding gender relations, and –”
“—and for understanding morals—”
“Sure…um, yeah…and there’s just so many aspects of history that involve religion. So I wanted to do a unit on various world religions, but some parents weren’t happy about that. They were concerned that it might affect their children’s faith. And then when we got to Islam, there was a big uproar. A bunch of parents complained to the school board, saying that Islam was evil and that they didn’t want their children being indoctrinated.”
“Hm…but what does this have to do with the D.A.?”
“During the unit on Islam, I invited Mr. Zadeh to speak to my students. He’s the Imam at the new mosque in Morehead. He came in and talked a little about how Islam started and about different Muslim communities around the world — things like that. And then last month, after the terrorist shooting in California, I guess the cops started sniffing around the mosque and so now Mr. Hardesty said that he wanted me to come in today so that he could ask me some questions about my ‘dealings with and knowledge of Mr. Zadeh and the Morehead mosque.’ So here I am.”
“It’s a good thing that Mr. Hardesty is looking into this.”
“Yes. Its his job and his duty to protect the people of Rowan County.”
Wendy suddenly regretted telling Butch about the whole affair. She could plainly see his opinion of Islam (low) and she could readily tell that he was just as suspicious of Mr. Zadeh as the parents of her students were — without ever even having met the man. She felt frustrated. She didn’t have the energy to explain why the whole business of coming to the courthouse made her feel complicit with something bad, something wrong, something almost dirty. She didn’t feel like going on about the fact that the Imam had done her a good turn by speaking to her class, that he’s a nice man who took time out of his schedule to come down to the middle school and give a really informative talk to her students – or at least the students who’s parents didn’t take them out of class — and now she felt like she was somehow betraying him by meeting with the D.A. She couldn’t explain to Butch that she actually felt quite torn about it, and thought that maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do, and that she in fact might just tell Mr. Hardesty that she had nothing to say to him and resented being called to his office for no good reason.
So Wendy changed the subject.
“And what about you, Butch? What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to provide information about a very serious crime. I’m here to help see that justice is done. I’ve come to assist Mr. Hardesty with his work concerning the prosecution of a murderer.”
“That’s right. My father killed a man last night and I’m here to help do the right thing.”
“Wait – your — your father? He – killed a man?”
“And you’re…turning him in?”
“More like providing all the facts. Mr. Hardesty is already aware that a death occurred at the hands of my father. I’m just here to help him as best that I can.”
“To help your father?”
“No. To help Mr. Hardesty.”
“I’m confused,” Wendy confessed.
“Murder is murder,” Butch declared.
“Sure, but –”
“No ‘but’ involved. When the Lord said ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ there wasn’t an ‘if’ or an ‘and’ or a ‘but’ attached.”
“Who did your father kill?”
“What does it matter? Like I said, murder is murder.”
“Was it self-defense?”
“I’m sorry, Butch. I still don’t understand.”
“Last week my father hired a couple workers to help him with some things around the farm – some construction, some repairs, irrigation and what-not. He had them sleeping in a tent near the barn. One of the fellas, Lem, started causing trouble right from the get-go. He got in to it with my Dad and also with the other worker. He also harassed Mrs. Meuller, who lives down the road. Just a real nasty fellow, as far as I can gather. Anyway, last night Lem got drunk and ended up going after the other worker. They started fighting, and Lem smashed this other guy’s head so badly — with a brick — that he passed out cold and looked like he might die. My dad put him in the back of the car to take him to the hospital. But you know, my dad’s place is pretty far out of town. It’s a good 40 miles to the nearest hospital in West Liberty, and the road is nothing but bends and twists. So before he left, my Dad tied Lem to a chair in the cellar. Then he called 911 and told them to come fetch Lem while he left to take the other guy to the hospital. It took the cops about two hours to get to my Dad’s place, and when they got there, Lem was dead. They say that the rope was tied too tight, which hindered his breathing or affected his circulation or his heart, and then he had thrown up and I guess choked on his own vomit.”
“So it was an accident?”
“It was my father’s doing. He tied up that man up. He left him there. And Lem died a miserable death.”
“Yeah, but your father was taking the injured man to the hospital.”
“And its not like he meant for Lem to die.”
“Whatever his intentions were, he killed that man. He was negligent. He tied the rope too tightly and just took off. It was his responsibility. And he needs to face justice.”
Wendy didn’t know what to think. It was all so horrible, so brutal, so sad. And yet Butch seemed so matter of fact about it, so steady-headed, clear-eyed, earnest, and sure. How could that be? It was his own father, after all. And this guy Lem seems like he was dangerous. And violent. The whole thing was, in Wendy’s eyes, anything but clear-cut.
“So you’re not here to plead for mercy on your father’s behalf?”
“No. Like I said, Wendy, murder is murder. It’s a sin. And I’ve devoted my life to combatting sin.”
“But isn’t your duty to your father –”
“My duty is to the Lord, above all else. Jesus said, in the Gospel of Luke — chapter 14, to be exact — that he comes first and foremost and that our duty is to love Him above all, even above our own parents.”
“Well, I obviously can’t quote scripture like you can. And I’m not one to go against Jesus. But I’m struck by your conviction. You really seem to know what’s what here.”
“Just following the Bible, Wendy. Just doing what is moral.”
“Maybe. I guess. But, I mean, isn’t it moral to be on your father’s side? Don’t you love your dad?”
“Of course I do. And that’s why I want him to pay for what he’s done. There is salvation in atonement. There is redemption in righteousness. There is deliverance in justice.”
“Such big words: ‘justice,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘righteousness.’ Doing what is ‘moral.’ Doing your ‘duty.’ But, you know what? I’ve often felt like these things aren’t always so black and white. Sometimes situations can be ambiguous – hard to be sure what the right thing to do is.”
“Not for me.”
“But how can you be so certain, so positive about what the right thing to do is?”
“The right thing to do is always the moral thing.”
“And what is ‘moral,’ Butch? I mean, who is to say, ultimately?”
“Now that, Wendy, is just the problem with the world today. Right there. You’ve just nailed it on the head: people who say that ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ are unclear, people who say that ‘moral’ is anything anyone says it is, people saying that its all relative, all subjective, all open for interpretation – well, I’m sorry, Wendy, but I despise that view with all my heart and soul. Wrong and right are not up for interpretation. There is morality, Wendy. And we, as Christians, can say so.”
“Is that right? OK, then, how would you define it? What is ‘moral’?”
“You’re seriously asking me that?”
“Yes, I am. What is being moral, Butch? It is being nice?”
“No. It isn’t about being nice, because sometimes we have to be hard and cold to do the moral thing. When I spank my son as a punishment, it isn’t particularly nice. But it is the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do as his father. Being moral means – at root — doing the Lord’s will. Yes, that’s pretty much it: ‘moral’ is what the Lord wills, what the Lord approves of, what the Lord commands.”
Wendy thought about this for a moment, and then quite quickly, she could see that Butch’s answer deserved more probing.
“So let me see if I understand you here: the moral thing to do is whatever God commands us to do…is that right?”
“Ok, but that then begs the question: is something moral because the Lord approves of it and commands it, or does the Lord approve of it and command it because it is moral?”
“What’s the difference?”
“They are very different. For example, when you eat a piece of sugary apple pie, and you declare to your wife how sweet it is, well, is the pie sweet because you say it is? Or is the pie sweet in and of itself, and then you taste it and recognize it as sweet and then remark on that fact?”
“The pie is sweet on its own — its full of fruit and sugar — and I’m just commenting on it.”
“Right. So then let’s get back to morality. You just said that something is moral if God approves of it or wills it or commands it. Correct?”
“Then here’s the question again: does God approve of something — or will it or command it — because it is moral in and of itself and He sees that it is moral, recognizes it as moral, observes it as moral? Or is something moral simply when and because God wills it or commands it?”
“I’m sorry, I still don’t see what you’re getting at.”
“The difference is quite significant, Butch. For if that which is moral is merely what God wills or commands, then morality is purely arbitrary, and there’s nothing ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ that is intrinsic to its quality or nature. It would have nothing to do with justice or fairness or love or pain. It would just be what God says it is. On the other hand, if God wills or commands things as moral because he recognizes that they are moral in and of themselves, then morality exists outside of and independently of God. And thus we’re back where we were, trying to define what is moral, and God does not — nor need not — have anything to do with it.”
“Wendy, I’m afraid you’ve lost me.”
Suddenly, the courthouse doors loudly unlocked. Butch and Wendy stood up and gathered their belongings. The conversation had gotten awkward at the end, which was hard to deny, despite the polite smiles they exchanged as they perfunctorily agreed how nice it was to see one another and wished each other luck with their business with the District Attorney.
The above conversation did not actually take place on a bench outside the Rowan County courthouse in Eastern Kentucky. It didn’t take place anywhere. I made it up. But it is specifically based upon a dialogue written some 2,300 years ago, in ancient Greece. My created exchange between Butch and Wendy is my best attempt to update, reinterpret, and modernize one of the most important, foundational philosophical conversations ever written concerning God and morality. Known as the “Dialogue of Euthyphro,” it was written by Plato, in the latter decades of the 4th century, B.C.E.
The background of the original dialogue is this: Socrates – the father of Western philosophy — was in trouble. His skeptical teachings and questions concerning religious and political authority had gotten him in trouble with, well, the religious and political authorities. He was eventually summoned to court and then officially charged with not believing in the gods and concomitantly corrupting the minds of Athens’ youth. Some suspected him of being an atheist. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to death in the year 399 B.C.E..
But before his death, and prior to his trial, Socrates was at court, awaiting a pre-trail hearing, and it was then that he encounters Euthyphro, who was also at court for a different pre-trail hearing. In the original dialogue by Plato, Euthyphro is at court to file manslaughter charges against his own father; Euthyphro’s father had had a hired worker who had killed a slave, so Euthyphro’s father threw the worker into a pit — bound and gagged — and then left for another city to ask the authorities there how to proceed. While gone, the worker died in the pit from starvation and exposure to the elements. Socrates is stunned by Euthyphro’s confidence in bringing charges against his own father, and the discussion/debate between the two men ensues — a discussion/debate which runs along similar lines as the one I wrote between Butch and Wendy.
Now, whatever Plato’s own personal view of the gods — and he was a believer, to be sure — the dialogue he wrote, featuring Socrates and Euthyphro, provides strong and compelling insights that cut to the very core of God’s relationship to morality. Or rather, the lack of one.
To better understand the pointed dilemma raised within the Euthyphro dialogue, let’s consider a specific matter: feeding a hungry person. Is this act moral in and of itself — and God then understands or realizes this — and thus commands us to feed the hungry? Or is it rather that feeding the hungry is morally neutral in and of itself – neither good nor bad — but the act becomes moral only when and if God commands it? If you think it is the former, then that means that morality clearly exists independently of God, and derives it status from something other than God. And if this is indeed the case, then God is essentially irrelevant to the matter, for we can define or recognize the morality in a given action — such as feeding a hungry person — without any need of or reference to God. In this case, feeding a hungry person is moral because it alleviates the suffering of a sentient being; no God necessary to deem feeding a hungry person as a moral act.
However, if you think it is the latter proposal — that feeding a hungry person is a neutral act, neither moral nor immoral, but only becomes moral when and if God wills or commands it — then what we call “morality” is nothing more than the unjustified whim and potentially unreasonable caprice of God. And this is a rather precarious position to accept, because it means that morality is simply whatever God says it is. Heck, God could command cruelty, and then by the logic of the argument, cruelty would be moral.
But God wouldn’t command cruelty, you say?
Well, actually…God does. According to the Bible, God commands cruel and unjust things left and right. For example, God commands that we kill people who have sex outside of marriage (Leviticus 20:10) and he commands that we kill homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), as well as people who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2). God even commands that entire peoples — such as the Canaanites and Jebusites — be exterminated (Joshua 1- 12). And, as University of Michigan Professor of Philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson soundly documents, when it comes to genocidal, murderous commandments issued by God, “that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Indeed, to provide a comprehensive list of all the heinous commandments God issues would entail the writing of an entire book in and of itself – which former pastor-turned public-atheist Dan Barker has already done in his recently published God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction.
I’ll lay out a few highlights here, just to make the point: in Deuteronomy, chapter 20, God commands his followers to lay siege to various cities thus: “Put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock…you make take these as plunder for yourselves.” And as for laying siege to other cities: “do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them.” So, such genocidal actions are moral because God commands them? In Numbers, chapter 31, God commands his followers to “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.” So, it is moral to kill small children and women — unless the latter happen to be virgins? In I Samuel, chapter 15, God commands his followers to go and smite the Amalekites, “and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.” So, killing babies is moral because God commands it?
With such morality, who needs evil?
But perhaps you don’t believe in those particular passages from the Bible. Perhaps your God is not that God. The God that you believe in does not command people to kill homosexuals or to commit genocide. Fair enough (for now). But even if you willfully discard those passages from the Bible and maintain that your God is a good and loving God who only commands things that are moral – you still have to confront the logic of Wendy’s/Socrates’ question: if your God commands things because he sees that they are moral, then morality clearly exists independently of your God.
Think of the apple pie that Butch eats, and then declares that it tastes sweet: that pie exists, all riddled with sugar, whether Butch notices it or not. In other words, the pie does not owe its existence — or its sweetness — to Butch. Not in the least. And so it goes with morality and God: the former does not owe its exist to the latter.
Plato’s philosophical dialogue, although written over two millennia ago — poses a two-pronged, skeptical pitchfork attack on the hay bale notion that morality comes from God. The first prong is this: if an act is moral simply because God commands it, then that means that any act – even the slaughtering of babies – is potentially moral. And if that is the case, then morality is intrinsically arbitrary, and the very word “moral” loses all meaning. Moral could just as easily be called evil. And if moral can be evil and evil can be moral, then it makes no sense to even use the words “moral” or “evil” to begin with. They cancel each other out. At best, we would just say that an action is something that God commands; calling it “moral” no longer signifies anything at all. The second prong of Plato’s Euthyphro pitchfork is this: if you agree that something doesn’t become moral simply because God commands it, but rather, believe that God commands actions that are moral because he sees or recognizes them as being moral in and of themselves, then morality exists outside of, and independently of, God. In short, God becomes redundant. He is not necessary for morality. As Dartmouth philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong concludes, based on his interpretation of the Euthyphro dilemma:
Assume that God commanded me not to rape. Did God have a reason to command this? If not, then His command was arbitrary, and an arbitrary command can’t make anything morally wrong. On the other hand, if God did have a reason to command us not to rape, then that reason is what makes rape morally wrong, and the command itself is superfluous. Hence, divine commands are either arbitrary or superfluous. Either way, morality cannot depend on God’s commands.
You may recall that in the opening conversation between Butch and Wendy, there is no real conclusion: Butch can’t seem to understand the point of Wendy’s questions. He remains confused, and in his confusion, avoids and evades their implications. And that’s exactly what happens in Plato’s original Greek dialogue: Euthyphro can’t seem understand Socrates’ question: does God command actions because they are moral in and of themselves, or do actions become moral only when and if God commands them? Perhaps its’ not that Euthyphro – or Butch — can’t understand the piercing significance of this question, but rather, that he can’t or won’t allow himself to understand it. For to understand it is to inhale the truth of the matter: that morality cannot depend on a god for its existence or content.
The razor of philosophical skepticism is rarely as steely and sharp as it is in the questions Plato had Socrates pose to Euthyphro. And for well over two thousand years, no logical or plausible solution has ever been put forth by even the most learned of theists or theologians. As intellectual historian Kenan Malik succinctly notes, “There is no getting away from the Euthyphro dilemma.”