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Plato’s Euthyphro: The Piety Argument Analysed

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

Part of the Philosophy Papers series

In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates discusses with Euthyphro the nature of piety and impiety. Euthyphro argues that piety is what is loved by the gods. Socrates challenges him on the relationship between piety and the love of the gods as to which causes the other. Does piety cause love in the gods, or is piety dependent upon what the gods love? Socrates argues that there is a distinction between the state of an action and the action itself. The state of being loved, for example, requires a prior act of being loved. Therefore, Socrates concludes that if piety is in a state of being loved by the gods, then there must have been a prior act of being loved. This would then mean that the gods love what is pious because it is pious. That piety is intrinsically lovable.

However, after this point, Socrates then shows the circular nature of this argument by defining piety as merely an attribute of what is loved by the gods. He creates another distinction between what is lovable and what is loved. The lovable thing causes itself to be loved by others while the loved thing is dependent on something loving it. This creates a circular relationship between the gods’ love and piety. The gods love piety because it is lovable, and piety is only lovable because the gods love it. Socrates, therefore, concludes that the gods loving piety is not sufficient for explaining the essence of piety. As this same argument could also be applied to morality, Plato would argue that the essence of morality can’t be defined as what is loved by God.

However, an objection to Plato’s conclusion is that God is not something that can be acted upon. Plato’s argument depends on a potency within God being actualised by morality to create this circular relationship. However, if God is pure actuality, then morality would not be able to cause love in God, but rather it is God that causes morality. As pure actuality, God only wills and loves what is good, and since morality is the pursuit of what is good, then the pursuit of God’s will ought to be the basis of morality. Therefore, the essence of morality is intrinsically tied to God’s love.

Another objection to Plato’s argument is that it presupposes the existence of Platonic forms such as piety and morality. If morality had no essential nature but was just a nominal description of individual actions that were desirable, then God could not love morality qua morality but only individual actions that were desirable. Yet, Plato does not give sufficient reason within Euthyphro that such concepts like morality could have an essential form. Thus, we can’t determine if the essence of morality is based on God’s love because there is good reason to doubt that such essences even exist.

The last objection to Plato’s argument is that the distinction between the state of being caused and the act of being caused is a mere tautology. The state of being caused refers to a process, while the act of being caused refers to passive causation. There is no real distinction here as they are both referring to a thing being passively caused. This false distinction is then used to argue that because the act of being caused is prior to the state of being caused, that the state of being caused infers some intrinsic quality. However, when you remove this false distinction, you are only left with a thing having the potential of being caused. A thing having a potency does not infer that it also has a corresponding intrinsic property. Thus, morality would only depend on the love of the gods and wouldn’t have an intrinsic property that forces the gods to love them in return.

Plato may respond to the first objection by saying that it presumes a certain Abrahamic conception of God as being pure actuality. Yet, there are plenty of other religions that do not hold this conception of God. They would teach that God or the gods can be acted upon and have a potential for change. Even within Christianity, God is spoken of as being moved with different emotions in the Bible and ‘walking alongside’ certain biblical figures, which would imply an ability to change.

To the second objection, Plato may respond that nothing would have meaning if things didn’t have some essential nature. There could be no justice or beauty without some corresponding essence of what it means to be just or beautiful. The fact we have language implies that what we say conveys meaning, and if there was no meaning, then language would be obsolete.

Finally, to the last objection, Plato may respond that for morality or piety to exist, there needs to be some intrinsic property that makes it what it is. If we agree that potency does not entail a corresponding intrinsic property, then we have only agreed that mortality’s essence must be dependent on some other characteristic distinct from the love of the gods.

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