Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Apply to Evolutionary Ethics?

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.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Matt Flannagan doesn’t offer any direct quotes from Coyne, so we can’t judge exactly what argument Coyne was making.

    Generally I see biologists offering the argument that our knee-jerk reactions against violent acts, and the existence of guilt – both of which are often cited by apologists as evidence of God – can be explained in terms of pure naturalistic evolution.

    The above is not in any way an attempt to explain meta-ethics – it’s not trying to ground what is right or wrong – it’s simply offering a naturalistic explanation for particular behavioural phenomena. Therefore Euthyphro’s Dilemma has no relevance in attacking this explanation.

  • sean

    What you are missing here is that, at least to my knowledge, no one on the other side of this fence is trying to ground why morality is good in evolution, simply why it happened the way it did. That’s got nothing to to really with why it’s right.

    I may have missed it, but as the dilemma applies to God, have you offered a response to the idea of whether God authored his nature? That is to say, when we define ‘good,’ do we start from god (or his nature, etc.), or do
    we start from something else. If we choose the former, good is arbitrary, as good then stems from whatever god happens to be (there is no guarantee that justice, honor etc. being good). If we choose the latter, then goodness is independent of god. The choice, as always, is between arbitrary or external good.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill does address this on another blog on the site.

    However I find the following compelling:

  • sean

    Well that was long, thorough, and probably over the heads of most people who would read it. I had to reread several of the passages before I understood them. But the most important attribute it possesses is being a sound and valid way of attacking this question from a bit of a different angle to make the problem more apparent.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Yes, it’s a proper philosophical ‘paper’ on the subject. I think it covers it thoroughly, as you say.

  • Are actions wrong because we have evolved a disposition to condemn them, or do we condemn them because they are wrong?

  • Sean, in the post I linked to my answers to the Euthyphro Dilemma. Please go read them.

    Please answer this question: “Are actions wrong because we have evolved a disposition to condemn them, or do we condemn them because they are wrong?”

  • Andrew Ryan

    The latter. But if you want to explain guilt, and our knee-jerk reaction to witnessing violence etc, evolution fits perfectly.

  • So you believe that there exist moral facts that were not produced by evolution?

  • sean

    It depends how we define wrong just like it depends how we define good. I think in general ‘wrongness’ is something humans label stuff if that answers your question. I think that falls under the first prong; do you agree? Personally I am of the opinion that the external standard we should appeal to is the idea of doing the least harm in order to identify and label this wrongness, but I think the mere fact that people have different ideas about what actions are wrong demonstrates that it’s something people do.

  • So you think that actions are wrong because we have evolved a disposition to condemn them. That would be consistent with what you said in the past.

    You are a moral relativist who denies the existence of objective moral values and duties. I still find it incredible that you can actually live as if there are no real objective moral standards, but it seems that at this point in your life, that’s the lie you’re telling yourself. (sorry for the bluntness, but I think moral relativism is completely irrational).

    Please also note that Andrew chose the other horn of the dilemma, so he disagrees with you on moral relativism. I haven’t heard from him where objective moral facts come from yet, but maybe he will address that soon.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Very busy, sorry. I will note though that I don’t think your avoidance of Euthyphro’s Dilemma works, and I’m pretty sure I explained why in the past. Either morality exists objectively of God or it doesn’t exist at all. If it comes from God then I don’t think it’s objective.

    Also note that I only made an ‘evolution or objective’ choice above due to lack of time – mainly it’s the latter, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

  • sean

    Kind of. I don’t deny that we can use objective standards to gauge goodness, I just know that the picking of them is arbitrary. I cannot convince people that not killing themselves is wrong objectively. That would be more akin to an axiom, like harm and pain are bad, while happiness is good. Using that consensus we can come up with a system of situational ethics whereby we can evaluate actions with respect to an objective standard.

    It’s important to note here that I think your morality is just as subjective as mine, in that yes we both have an objective standard we picked, but that the picking of that standard was arbitrary. What if we picked Satan for our standard of goodness instead, why God? The decision you made that god was good was just as arbitrary as my decision. What I’m saying with the evolution thing is that it’s possible that if we evolved differently I’d have picked a different objective standard as a sociopath might. You mean to tell me that there’s some logical argument that can convince this hypothetical man to care about other people? I’m sure psychology would love and appreciate that very much if you shared it with them.

    So the theoretical measuring stick of goodness I’ve picked here would still existing this alternate reality, but I would not recognize it, I’d recognize some other measure, just as in this reality I’m ignoring the measure that says the best good is to violate other people. That measure still exists, but I don’t think we should use it. Just like with your position, a Satan worshiper could see what we would call evil acts as the thing to do. In your reality the picking of God’s ruler over the Devil is just as arbitrary as my choice to prefer pleasure to pain, which was hardwired into me through evolution.

    I have a standard for non-relative morality, but the reason I chose it was not the same as the type of objective comparison we can make once we have the standard. We are in the same boat here, just with different sticks. I’m not convinced that your stick, one that condemns behavior that is not intrinsically harmful and condones behavior that is, is the stick we should be using.