the Actual Euthyphro Dilemma

It’s impossible to read Euthyphro without being struck at how utterly off-track the Euthyphro dilemma is.  The dilemma arises in the process of Socrates investigating Euthyphro’s claim that “Piety is what the gods love”. Socrates takes this as the equivalent of “A thing is pious because the gods love it”, then questions how love can work that way, leading to the dilemma.

If you list of why a pet is lovable you get, say: fluffy, big eyes, well-trained, fun to be with, etc. No one lists “because I love them”, for the very good reason that this makes no sense. Love is a response to lovable qualities and not a cause of them.

One of the themes of Euthyphro, however, is Euthyphro’s inability to stay on a point. In a conversation that lasts less than an hour he cycles through no fewer than five different accounts of the topic under discussion, and appears completely powerless in the face of any challenge to what he believes. The “Euthyphro Dilemma” as it actually occurs in the dialogue is really just an aporetic tension of two conflicting beliefs:

1.) Something is lovable because the gods love it (or, conversely, something is evil because the gods hate it)

2.) Love is always a response to lovable qualities of an object.

While this suggests the modern Euthyphro dilemma it is a very different thing, if for no other reason than exceptions to #2 are suggested even by human loves. Loving others does have transformative power and is not just a passive response. Ideas become actual out of our dedication to them, and a whole slough of entities owe their existence to our care for them. Creation stands at the far limit of this – one sense of ex nihilo is to describe the character of the love at the basis of things as a cause and not a response.

But even if God qua creator has a love that is in no way responsive, given creation, i.e. considered hypothetically, the love is responsive. God’s unchangibility and pure actuality belong to him considered absolutely or so far as he is taken as relating to creation as ex nihilo, but taking creation as given is not to consider God in this way. Given creation, God’s love is both transformitive and responsive in such a way that it can both be taken as transforming evil and as responding to it, as elevating the imperfections of things and yet still working within the parameters of what is possible to the imperfect.

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3 Comments

  1. September 13, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    So, if I may try to put it in other words: in saying, “Loving others does have transformative power and is not just a passive response,” you are holding that love as love is or can be a productive or fabricative activity.

  2. September 14, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    The tale of Beauty and the Beast and Pauline theology notwithstanding, it seems to me that the activity of love can be fruitfully compared with that of knowledge. That is, the activity of knowledge does not, precisely as such, transform the knowable, except as making it known. But unless the knowing agent engages in an activity distinct from that of knowledge, the known itself remains otherwise untransformed. Likewise, as I see it, the activity of love does not, precisely as such, transform the lovable, except as making it beloved. But unless the loving agent engages in an activity distinct from that of love, the beloved itself remains otherwise untransformed.

    To hold to the view that the activity of knowledge does, precisely as such, transform the knowable, beyond simply making it known, is, as I see it, to take a first step towards idealism, according to which knowledge is fabricative or productive of the real. And to hold to the view that the activity of love does, precisely as such, transform the lovable, beyond simply making it beloved, is, it seems to me, to take a first step towards an analogue of idealism, according to which love is fabricative or productive of the good.


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