He is asked to explain what he means by piety.

3 Mar

The laws or commandments thus “God-given” are held to be sacred and enforced by divine decree. According to the purely formalistic interpretation, these divine laws are right simply because God commands them. The opposing point of view is that it is that the right is not established by God’s arbitrary decree it has an independent nature.

The issue involved in this clash of opinion is set forth clearly in Plato’s Euthyphro. As portrayed in this dialogue a soothsayer named Euthyphro, impelled by his sense of religious duty, has come to the Athenian hall of justice to file a charge of murder against his father who through cruel negligence has cause a death of a slave.

He happens to meet Socrates, who has come to the hall to respond to the charge of “introducing false divinities and corrupting the youth” for which “crime” he will ultimately be sentenced to drink hemlock.

Socrates as is his habit, soon draws Euthyphro into a philosophical conversation.

He is asked to explain what he means by piety, and very soon as a result of Socrates’ searching questions, a basic issue is formulated: Is an act right because it is commanded by the gods, or is it commanded by the gods because it is right? The former alternative is embraced by Euthyphro, who asserts that “piety is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety it that which is not dear to them,”*

*In The Dialogues of Plato, translated Benjamin Jowett, Oxford University Press. London, 1924, V, p. 1.

Through the entire discussion, Euthyphro never argues on the ground of humanitarianism or utility. His position is that certain acts, being disapproved by the gods, are sacrilegious, and certain other acts, being approved by the gods, are holy. Although he later modifies this position, he is unable to advance clearly and unequivocally beyond a formalistic conception of religious ethics.

The criticism of Socrates calls into question this entire approach. He points out that Euthyphro’s definition of the pious act as an act approved by the gods is a purely externalistic characterization. It tells us nothing about the essence of the act- the quality that excites the gods’ approval. Socrates implies that there must be something about the act itself that makes it right-that the gods are on the side of the right because it is right, not that it is right because they are on that side.


Ethics and Society: An Appraisal of Social Ideals

Melvin Rader (Greenwood Press Publishers, New York 1968 Copyright 1950 By Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc) pp. 22-23

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