Learning Goal: I’m working on a philosophy discussion question and need an explanation and answer to help me learn.
In this dialogue, Plato provides a provocative introduction to Socrates. We learn several things about Socrates and the practice of philosophy through his conversation with Euthyphro, a well-regarded priest in Athens. This interaction between Socrates and Euthyphro begins when the two run into each other outside of the courthouse. Euthyphro is on his way to file the paper work to prosecute someone for murder. Socrates is there to begin his trial. Both seem surprised to see each other there, especially for their respective reasons. Among the several things we learn from their encounter is the difference between genus and species, the nature of necessary and sufficient relationships, the charges against Socrates, the value of expert knowledge, and the nature of what have come to be called the Platonic Forms.
Early in the dialogue, Euthyphro asks Socrates why he’s there.
Socrates explains that a young man, Meletus, has brought charges against Socrates, claiming that Socrates has been corrupting the youth of Athens by introducing new gods into the city while refusing to believe in the old ones. Euthyphro finds such charges both shocking and intriguing: shocking because he sees Socrates as a sort of divine prophet like himself, though Socrates denies being like Euthyphro; and intriguing because he believes himself an expert in divine matters.
This belief in expertise is further illustrated when Socrates learns that Euthyphro is at the courthouse to prosecute his father for murder. Socrates finds the very idea shocking, because the understanding in Athenian culture, much like we believe today, is that a child should be respectful and supportive of his or her parents. So for Euthyphro to make this charge of murder against his father is not only startling but must, Socrates believes, be the result of some expert knowledge that most people lack. Euthyphro appears to agree with Socrates. Euthyphro argues that it is his expert knowledge in piety and other divine matters that is the foundation for his charge of murder against his father.
Socrates is similarly intrigued by this situation. After all, he is being charged with impiety, so if he can equip himself with knowledge of piety, he may be able to argue against Meletus and show that he is indeed pious and therefore not guilty of impiety. Excited by the possibility of learning Euthyphro’s expert knowledge, he asks Euthyphro to tell him what piety is. Euthyphro happily agrees to do so.
Notice how Socrates asks Euthyphro about the pious. At 5c–d, Socrates says, “So tell me now, by Zeus, what you just now maintained you clearly knew: what kind of thing do you say that godliness and ungodliness are, both as regards murder and other things; or is the pious not the same and alike in every action, and the impious the opposite of all that is pious and like itself, and everything that is to be impious presents us with one form or appearance insofar as it is impious?” What Socrates is in effect asking Euthyphro is “What is common to all that we believe to be pious and all that we call impious?” So if we find murder and other things – like stealing or treachery or disrespecting one’s parents – to be impious, what is it about all these different things that they have in common, namely what is that common thing that we believe to be the pious? So when Socrates asks Euthyphro, what is piety? He is asking what is the form that many different things have in common that make them all of that form. In this case, what’s the form that all these different things take that make them
pious or not?
Socrates is applying his test for knowledge of something real: Piety can be known only if there is a definition of piety (a Form of piety) which
(a) Does not contradict itself – doesn’t classify anything as both pious and not pious
(b) Has no counterexamples – there is nothing that meets the definition but isn’t pious When Socrates asks Euthyphro, What is piety?, he is asking for its form.
As the dialogue and many others in the early Platonic dialogues illustrate, coming up with an answer is no easy task. Most of the time when ordinary people – that is to say, non- philosophers – give an answer to a philosophical question of the form, what is x? (where x is some idea or concept, like piety or redness), the answer they give is just like the one Euthyphro first gives when Socrates asks him, what is the pious?
Euthyphro’s first answer is at 5d–6a. There, Euthyphro says, “I say that the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about murder or temple robbery or anything else, whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else; not to prosecute is impious. And observe, Socrates, that I can cite powerful evidence that the law is so. I have already said to others that such actions are right, not to favor the ungodly, whoever they are. These people themselves believe that Zeus is the best and most just of the gods, yet they agree that he bound his father because he unjustly swallowed his sons, and that he in turn castrated his father for similar reasons. But they are angry with me because I am prosecuting my father for his wrongdoing. They contradict themselves in what they say about the gods and about me.”
What Euthyphro and most people do when asked, “What is x?” is offer some examples. Here, Euthyphro offers the prosecution of wrongdoings, like murder, robbery, and Zeus’ own prosecution of his father. Today, many people may offer murder and robbery as impious things and agree with Euthyphro that prosecuting such things is the pious thing to do. However, they are not going to appeal to Greek mythology as a further example; but they very well might draw on their own scripture as an example of piety.
In any case, Socrates quickly points out two important points about what Euthyphro has said. First, Socrates asks for reassurance from Euthyphro – reassurance that Euthyphro grants – that the gods are at war with each other because they do not agree on many things. The second point Socrates makes is that Euthyphro did not really answer Socrates’ question. Remember, the question is what is the pious?, not what are some examples of pious things? To show Euthyphro the difference, Socrates says, at 6d–e, “Bear in mind then that I did not bid you tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious, for you agreed that all impious actions are impious and all pious actions pious through one form, or don’t you remember?”
Examples may prove to help us understand definitions, but without a definition clearly in mind in the first place, a list of examples does nothing to further our knowledge. Socrates pushes Euthyphro on this, getting Euthyphro to put forth an answer to the question, what is pious?, in just the manner Socrates wants. At 7a, Euthyphro gives this definition, “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.” Another way of putting Euthyphro’s
second answer is this: If x is dear to the gods, then x is pious, or, simply, if dear to the gods, then pious, or, still more simply, all things that are dear to the gods are pious things.
Socrates is excited by this answer because it has a form – whether it is true or not is another question – this form, as we will see, is one in which necessary and sufficient conditions are provided. This is why the conditional form – the if…, then pattern – is important to remember. Before I fully elaborate on this form, let’s consider how Socrates examines Euthyphro’s second answer to the question, what is the pious?, in order to find out whether it is true. To appreciate how Socrates examines the definition, let’s first be clear on the definition of piety Euthyphro gives here: if something is dear to the gods, then that something is pious. From this, we also get the definition of impiety: if something is hated by the gods, then that something is impious.
Socrates not only gets Euthyphro to agree on these definitions, but that these two definitions are indeed opposites of one another. Socrates then reminds Euthyphro that he agreed that the gods are in discord, that is, they are constantly fighting with each other because they do not agree on many things. What sorts of things do they disagree on, Socrates wonders. He looks at his own experience with other people. When two people disagree on things that can be quantified, such as the number of chairs in this room, or the weight of this desk, we find that there are external or objective measures that we can both appeal to in order to come to an agreement on how many chairs are in this room or how much this desk weighs. But there are other sorts of things for which there is no easy measure to establish agreement between two people.
Socrates, at 7d, elaborates, saying, “these subjects [of greater disagreement] are the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. Are these not the subjects of difference about which, when we are unable to come to a satisfactory decision, you and I and other men become hostile to each other whenever we do?”
Euthyphro not only agrees to this but also agrees to Socrates’ suggestion that the gods are no different. That is, as Socrates puts it at 7e, “different gods consider different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad, for they would not be at odds with one another unless they differed about these subjects, would they?”
The implications of this admission are significant for Euthyphro’s second answer to the question, what is the pious? As Socrates goes on to show, if something, x, is dear to some of the gods, then it is pious; but if that same something, that x, is also hated by some of the other gods, that same something, that very same x, is also impious. In effect, according to Euthyphro’s definition, some one thing, x, can be both pious and impious. How can something be both one thing and its opposite? This is clearly insane. It is absurd – this style of argument is now known by its Latin name, reductio ad absurdum, or, in English, Euthyphro’s argument has been reduced to the absurd. It contradicts itself, and thereby is a bad definition; that is, it is not true.
After some further clarification about how to create a definition, Socrates gets Euthyphro to provide a new definition of the pious. At 9e, Euthyphro says, “the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious.” Or, in its conditional form, Euthyphro’s definition comes to this: if all the gods love something, x, then that thing, x, is pious; and if all the gods hate that thing, x, then it is impious.
Euthyphro is quite pleased with this amended version. But Socrates realizes that the examination of this new definition rides on just how to understand the relationship between love and piety. To illustrate this, he gives Euthyphro the now infamous dilemma.Socrates says, at 10a, “Consider this: Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”
In other words, is something pious because the gods love it? Or do the gods love something pious because that thing is pious? The implications here are significant for both polytheists like the ancient Greeks and monotheists like Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Socrates is asking what makes something pious and what makes something god-loved. If god-love makes something pious, then we either have the problems of many gods disagreeing on what to love, or, in the case of just one god, we have the problem of what makes something worthy of god-love. But if something is loved by one or many gods because it is pious, then god-love has nothing to do with that thing’s being pious or not. It just is pious, regardless of whether it is god-loved. But this doesn’t tell us anything about piety itself, does it?
This problem is now called the Euthyphro dilemma. It arises for any religion that makes this claim: Only God decides what is moral. But how does God decide?
Either, God can recognize what morality is, and decides to follow what is moral because God is good,
Or, God just makes up morality and might change what is moral in the future.
The dilemma can be put like this: If you want morality to be based on God’s authority, such a supreme authority could make morality anything it wants morality to be. Right and wrong could have been different, and may change in the future, if God wills it. On the other hand, if you want morality to never change no matter what, even God has to respect morality and morality is the higher authority.
Euthyphro doesn’t quite understand the dilemma, but we must. If morality is something more than just what God thinks is right and wrong, then morality exists independently of God (and us humans, too). That puts morality up in the realm of the forms, for Plato – where else could the true virtues be? But if morality is in the realm of the forms, and that realm can be accessed by the human intellect, then people do not necessarily need God to inform them about morality. In fact, people can know morality first, and then pass moral judgment against any God. That is exactly what Plato expects philosophers to do. Socrates does it, in the first three books of the Republic.
Socrates again asks Euthyphro to tell him what piety is. Euthyphro is exasperated and tells Socrates so, using a pun on Socrates’ ancestor Daedalus, the great inventor of antiquity, who made wood statues capable of moving all on their own (his son Icarus fell to the sea after flying too close to the sun). After this seemingly strange interlude, Socrates pushes Euthyphro to consider the relationship between piety and justice as a way of getting Euthyphro to tell Socrates what piety is.
In asking Euthyphro about this relationship between piety and justice, Socrates is in effect asking Euthyphro if piety is a necessary or sufficient condition for justice. In other words, Socrates is asking whether piety is a part of justice or justice a part of piety. To help Euthyphro understand just what he’s after, Socrates gives a couple examples. The first is
about the relationship between shame and fear. Consider these two options: if someone is fearful, then that person is shameful; and if someone is shameful, then that person is fearful. The first option seems blatantly false. After all, Socrates points out, there are plenty of people who are fearful but are not shameful. The second option, however, seems to be on the mark. People who are shameful are also fearful: they’re namely afraid of getting a bad reputation for doing shameful things. This example illustrates that shame is a sufficient condition for fear, and fear a necessary condition for shame. That is, shame is a part of fear: wherever there is shame, there is fear. Fear is not a part of shame, however.
The second example Socrates uses to help illustrate this relationship of necessary and sufficient conditions is from mathematics. He notes that some numbers are odd, some even. An even number is any number than can be equally divided by the number two. An odd number is any number that cannot be equally divided by the number two. Keeping this in mind, which is the larger part, number or oddness? If oddness is larger, then number is a part of oddness. So wherever there is number there would be oddness. But this isn’t true. There are numbers that are not odd, namely the even numbers. So number must be the larger: so wherever there is oddness, there is number; but wherever there is number, there may nor may not be oddness. In other words, oddness is a sufficient but not necessary condition for number. If there is oddness, then there is number. But if there is number, there may not be oddness; there could be evenness.
Socrates’ aim in these two examples is to show Euthyphro a way to think about the relationship between piety and justice. I just put that relationship in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Another useful way of putting this relationship is in terms of genus and species. Similar to how taxonomists in biology distinguish between different forms of life, the genus/species distinction is a way of distinguishing between universal or general ideas and specific instances of such universals. Consider the universal, mammal. There are many different ways to be a mammal. One is cat; another dog. All cats are mammals, but are all mammals cats? No, of course not. There are dogs, which are mammals; but no cats are dogs; and no dogs are cats. So we see that mammal is the genus, and cats one species of mammal, and dog still another species. With regard to the number example just discussed. We see that number is the genus, and the two species are odd numbers and even numbers.
With regard to piety and justice, Socrates wants to know which is the more general or universal. Is piety a part of justice or justice a part of piety? Just as we can say truly, if x is a cat, then x is a mammal, but falsely say, “if x is a mammal, then x is a cat,” are we to say, “if x is pious, then x is just” or “if x is just, then x is pious”?
Euthyphro concurs with Socrates’ suggestion that piety is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for justice. In other words, the pious is a part of – a species of – the just. So wherever you find something that is pious, you’re also finding something that is just. But if you find something that is just, you do not necessarily find something that is pious. At 12e, Euthyphro explains, “I think, Socrates, that the godly and pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care of the gods, while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice.”
Two parts, then, to justice, each of which has to do with care. One part has to do with the caring of humans, the other has to do with the caring of gods. But what does Euthyphro mean by caring? Socrates uses a strategy known as reasoning by analogy to uncover what Euthyphro is getting at. The craft of caring for horses is horse breeding. The skill of caring
for cattle is cattle raising. So the activity of caring for gods is piety. Euthyphro finds this analogy to be satisfactory – at least at first.
Socrates goes on to clarify how this caring works. In the case of horse breeding, that care benefits horses. Similarly, cattle raising benefits cattle. So, Socrates wonders, does piety benefit the gods? Are gods improved by the pious acts of humans? Euthyphro does not mean to say that the gods, who are superior to humans, can be improved by beings inferior to them. After all, how could something great, like a god, be improved by something not as great, like a human? To think that the lesser can make the great greater is irrational to the minds of both Socrates and Euthyphro. Moreover, the very idea that the gods, who are perfect, could be improved is similarly absurd: that which is perfect cannot be made more perfect, for if it could be made perfect, it wasn’t perfect in the first place!
What then does Euthyphro mean when he says that piety is caring for the gods? He means that it is the sort of relationship one finds between a master and a slave. The slave serves the master, so humans serve the gods. But what kind of service do humans provide to gods? Shipbuilders provide the service of building ships; housebuilders, houses; farmers, food. After some hesitation, Euthyphro says that piety is the service of sacrificing and praying. Sacrificing is giving to the gods; praying is asking for something from the gods. Piety, it seems, is a sort of trading between gods and humans.
Socrates does not find it difficult to understand why humans would beg the gods for things. The gods are perfect and powerful: they can do much for humans that humans cannot do on their own. But what could humans possibly have to offer gods? Or is it that humans somehow have an advantage over gods in this trade, that we humans get something for nothing?
Euthyphro tries to clarify what humans have to give to the gods when he says, at 15a, “What else, do you think, than honor, reverence, and… gratitude?” Seeking further clarity, Socrates responds by asking, “The pious is then, Euthyphro, pleasing to the gods, but not beneficial or dear to them?” Socrates seeks to clarify because it was just decided first that something is not pious simply because it is dear to the gods, because it is loved by them. And then it was decided that the gods cannot benefit from human activity. But Euthyphro stops Socrates from moving forward with this reminder. Euthyphro corrects Socrates at 15b, saying “I think it [piety] is of all things most dear to them [the gods].”
Socrates points out to Euthyphro that they have come full circle, that “the pious is once again what is dear to the gods.” Socrates is relentless. He reminds Euthyphro that such a definition of piety is inadequate, and so they must continue to inquire. Socrates goes further still, reminding Euthyphro of what is at stake here. At 15d, Socrates says, “If you had no clear knowledge of piety and impiety you would never have ventured to prosecute your old father for murder on behalf of a servant. For fear of the gods you would have been afraid to take the risk lest you should not be acting rightly, and would have been ashamed before men, but now I know well that you believe you have clear knowledge of piety and impiety. So tell me, my good Euthyphro, and do not hide what you think it is.”
Euthyphro is no longer interested in continuing this conversation. He is now in a hurry; he has to go. But to where? Notice that Socrates returns to shame and fear, his example from earlier. But also notice, as you consider whether Euthyphro went into the courthouse to prosecute his father, or if Euthyphro went elsewhere, that the previous mentions of
Daedalus and his wood statues may carry through. When first mentioned, at 11c, Euthyphro seems to be accusing Socrates of making Euthyphro’s arguments move on their own and not staying where Euthyphro wanted them to, much like Daedalus’ wood statues. The second and last time Daedalus is mentioned is right before Socrates reasserts the need to start the inquiry all over.
Socrates, at 15b, in response to Euthyphro’s returning the definition of piety back to the start, says “will you accuse me of being Daedalus who makes [your arguments] move, though you are yourself much more skillful than Daedalus and make them go around in a circle?” In including Daedalus and his wood statues in this dialogue, is Plato suggesting that even though Socrates never gets an answer to the question what is piety?, Socrates nevertheless is able to get Euthyphro to do what is pious?
Write a 150-200 word Observation by telling us your thoughtful answer to this question: “Are believers in two different religions, such as Christianity and Islam, or Hinduism and Confucianism, able to be about as moral, on average, as each other?”
Now, keep in mind that a typical believer in any religion thinks, “Surely people in my religion are more moral, overall, since being a believer in the best religion means that people know what is right and what is wrong.”
Is that typical opinion correct? If not, why not? Tell us whether two people in different religions would end up being about as moral as the other one, so religion really doesn’t make much difference. If you do think religion makes a big difference,explain specifically what that difference must be.
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