Post Author: Bill Pratt
One of the most popular, but misguided, challenges that atheists fling at theists is Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma. I have written about why this is no dilemma at all for theists in other blog posts, so I won’t cover that ground again now.
Philosopher Matt Flannagan, though, has introduced a new wrinkle in this debate. Flannagan argues persuasively that the Euthyphro Dilemma is actually a serious problem for those who argue that morality is the product of evolution.
In an article in the Christian Research Journal (vol. 36, number 01), Flannagan specifically challenges the position of Jerry Coyne, a biologist and outspoken atheist. Flannagan claims that “Coyne’s own secular account of morality falls prey to the Euthyphro dilemma.” Here is Flannagan:
After claiming that moral obligations cannot be constituted by God’s commands, Coyne offers an alternative: morality comes from evolution—humans evolved a capacity to instinctively feel that certain actions are wrong.
This position is pretty standard among many atheists that I speak to, so Coyne serves as a useful proxy for the wider atheist crowd. How is Coyne’s account susceptible to the Dilemma?
Plato’s question [in his dialogue Euthyphro] is equally applicable here. One can ask, “Are actions wrong because we have evolved a disposition to condemn them, or do we condemn them because they are wrong?” If the latter is the case, then actions are wrong prior to, and hence independently of, evolution, and so ethics is independent of evolution.
So how does Coyne avoid this problem?
To avoid this implication, Coyne must adopt the first option: actions are wrong because we have evolved an instinctive disposition to condemn these actions. The problem is this option makes morality arbitrary. Couldn’t evolution have produced rational beings that felt that infanticide and theft were obligatory or that rape was, in certain circumstances, OK?
As Darwin himself noted, “If men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.”
So option 1, for Coyne, is also very troubling because now morality is arbitrary, based on the randomness of the evolutionary lottery.
Coyne is left with either affirming that 1) morality existed prior to and independent of evolution, or he must affirm 2) that morality is really just arbitrary because moral values could have turned out very differently. Now that’s a real dilemma.