The classic challenge to the idea that ethics can have a religious foundation is provided by Plato (c. 429-347 BC), in the dialogue known as the Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates, who is on the point of being tried for impiety, encounters one Euthyphro, who sets himself up as knowing exactly what piety or justice is. Indeed, so sure is he, that he is on the point of prosecuting his own father for a death.
Euth. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious.
Soc. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?
Euth. We should enquire; and I believe the statement will stand the test of enquiry.
Soc. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious of the holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved by the gods.
Once he has posed this question, Socrates has not trouble coming down on one side of it.
Soc. And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?
Soc. Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?
Euth. No, that is the reason.
Soc. It is loved because it is holy, or holy because it is loved?
Soc. And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them and is in a state to be loved of them because it is loved of them?
Soc. Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthyphro, is not holy, nor that which is holy loved of God, as you affirm; but they are two different things.
Euth. How do you mean, Socrates?
Soc. I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved.
The point is that God, or the gods, are not to be thought of as arbitrary. They have to be regarded as selecting the right things to allow and to forbid. They have to latch on to what is holy and just, exactly as we do. It is not given that they do this simply because they are powerful, or created everything, or have horrendous punishments and delicious rewards in their gifts. That doesn’t make them good. Furthermore, to obey their commandments just because of their power would be servile and self-interested. Suppose, for instance, I am minded to do something bad, such as to betray someone’s trust. It isn’t good enough if I think: ‘Well, let me see, the gains are such-and-such, but now I have to factor in the chance of God hitting me hard if I do it. On the other hand, if God id forgiving and there is a good chance I can fob him off by confession, or by deathbed repentance later ...’ These are not the thoughts of a good character. The good character is supposed to think: ‘It would be a betrayal, so I won’t do it.’ That’s the end of the story. To go in for a religious cost-benefit analysis is, in a phrase made famous by the contemporary moral philosopher Bernard Williams, to have ‘one thought too many’.
The detour through an external god, then, seems worse than irrelevant. It seems to distort the very idea of a standard of conduct. As the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1824) put it, it encourages us to act in accordance with a rule, but only because of fear of punishment or some other incentive; whereas what we really want is for people to act out of respect for a rule. This is what true virtue requires.
We might wonder whether only a vulgarized religion should be condemned so strongly. The question then becomes, what other kind is there? A more adequate conception of God should certainly stop him from being a vindictive old man in the sky. Something more abstract, perhaps? But in that mystical direction lies a god who stands a long way from human beings, and also from human good or bad. As the Greek Stoic Epicurus (341-271 BC) put it:
The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favour. For all such things exist only in the weak.
A really blessed and immortal nature is simply too grand to be bothered by the doings of tiny human beings. It would be unfitting for it to be worked up over whether human beings eat shellfish, or have sex one way or another.
The alternative suggested by Plato’s dialogue is that religion gives a mythical clothing and mythical authority to a morality that is just there to begin with. Myth, in this sense, is not to be despised. It gives us symbolism and examples that engage our imaginations. It is the depository for humanity’s endless attempts to struggle with death, desire, happiness, and good and evil. When an exile reminisces, she will remember the songs and poems and folktales of the homeland rather than its laws of constitution. If the songs no longer speak to her, she is on the way to forgetting. Similarly, we may fear that when religion no longer speaks to us, we may be on the way to forgetting some important part of history and human experience. This may be a moral change, for better or worse. In this analysis, religion is not the foundation of ethics, but its showcase or its symbolic expression.
In other words, we drape our own standards with the stories of divine origin as a way of asserting their authority. We do not just have a standard of conduct that forbids, say, murder, but we have mythological historical examples in which God expressed his displeasure at cases of murder. Unhappily myth and religion stand at the service of bad morals as well. We read back what we put in, magnified and validated. We do not just fear science, or want to take other peoples’ land, but we have examples I which God punishes the desire for knowledge, or commands us to occupy the territory. We have God’s authority for dominating nature, or for regarding them – others different from ourselves – as inferior, or even criminal. In other words, we have the full depressing spectacle of people not only wanting to do something, but projecting upon their gods the commands making it a right or a duty to do it. Religion on this account is not the source of standards of behaviour, but a projection of them, made precisely in order to dress them up with an absolute authority. Religion serves to keep us apart from them, and no doubt it has other social and psychological functions as well. It can certainly be the means whereby unjust political authority keeps its subjects docile: the opium of the people, as Marx put it. The words of the hymn – God made the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate – help to keep the lower orders resigned to their fates.
If all this is right, then the death of God is far from being a threat to ethics. It is a necessary clearing of the ground, on the way to revealing ethics for what it really is. Perhaps there cannot be laws without a lawgiver. But Plato tells us that the ethical laws cannot be the arbitrary whims of personalized gods. Maybe instead we can make our own laws.