Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Euthyphro problem as a wrong order problem

Lately I have given a lot of thought to and become tremendously impressed by the Euthyphro problem, presented by Plato in the dialogue of that name, which makes life distinctly uncomfortable for a particular kind of moral view. The Euthyphro problem drives us to distinguish what makes something good from how we know that it is good. I want to suggest that this points to a general problem, to do with what type of property could count as a good-making feature. I think problems of the Euthyphro form give reasons to believe that many higher order properties of the targets of a moral theory. I have in mind what I call 'reflective stance properties', like attitudes toward something, some function you have in mind for something, and so on. I want to suggest that they can only indicate goodness, not be good-making features, and the Euthyphro problem is a paradigmatic example.

The Euthyphro problem simply is a knockout objection against divine command theory, and can be usefully introduced as such. Divine command theory claims that everything that is ordained by the divine are by that fact things we should do, setting aside all questions of what counts as 'ordained by the divine'. As Plato remarks, there are two ways this could go: either those acts ordained by the divine are good just because they are so ordained, or they are good independently of what the divine might have to say on them. But the first options is simply crazy: how could it be that anything, anything at all the divine might say goes, and not only goes but is demanded by morality? There are simply too many things a divinity might conceivably ask of us for that to be the case. There is no shortage of people who try to find ways in which 'divine sanction' is necessarily a good-making feature, but we must conclude that this is an industry of piety rather than good judgement. It must be that divine sanction indicates goodness, rather than ordains it. Not that managing 'mere indication' is a small feat: we value a compass even if the needle tracks north rather than north the needle. Believers should do as their divinity proclaims because it is so wise and compassionate and smart and so on that it will never be mistaken. But there is a lot of ground to cover between never being mistaken and the fact of the matter being at your behest. What the Euthyphro problem does, and does with great force, is make us distinguish between moral ontology and moral epistemology: divine sanction can't make good, it can only indicate the good.

The question is: what is it about the Euthyphro problem that delivers this result? Notice that divine saction of X is an attitude towards X – this is clearer in Plato's formulation, where the target of the attack is the view that the good things are those 'loved by the gods'. The fact that some party A has an attitude towards X is a higher order property than those aspects of X that invite the attitude. That is, there is some properties P, Q etc. of X which leads to A having that attitude towards X for the reason of it having P, Q, etc. This relfective stance property R, 'being the target of some attitude of A's' (for reasons of having P, Q, etc.) , is a product of properties of X (P, Q, etc.) and is thus a higher order property than P, Q, etc. To apply this schema to the Euthyphro case: For R 'is loved by the gods' there are the properties P,Q, etc, that the gods love X for, whatever they might be, and R is of a higher order than P,Q, etc. The problem is that R isn't the good-making feature, P,Q, etc. are: R indicates their presence in some way or the other, and P,Q,etc. constrain R's application – in this case, what the gods could rightly love. R is a property of the wrong order to count as a good-making feature. This shouldn't be a surprise. 'Loved by the gods' tells us more about the gods than it does what it attaches to, and this is the same for all reflective stance properties. But discovering which items in the world are moral goods isn't a project to do with us or any other audience, it is a project to do with the goods. If such unanchored properties such as attitudes we have toward something were to be the good-making features, without any restriction, then we would find such absurdities such as intractable moral disagreement about whether or not to run around trees clockwise, as Phillippa Foot points out. And if there are such constraints on what these reflective stance properties could rightly attach to, then the wrong order problem kicks in, and these reflective stance properties aren't the good-making features, but merely indicate them.

More can be said, and a lot more needs to, but I believe that this problem has some power and can tell us a great deal about how we should go about ethical reflection. A strong consequence is that the wrong order problem makes a nonsense of almost any utilitarianism, especially ones concerned with happiness, desire satisfaction, and so on. This I'm sure is the right result, and in the near future I will give a few examples where I cast famous objections to utilitarianism as cases of the wrong order problem. Because the wrong-order problem concerns moral goods, the objections I have in mind are to do with the aims that various forms of utilitarianism aim at: Nozick's 'experience machine' objection attacking hedonism and Sen's 'dominated housewife' example against desire satisfaction in particular. I also want to work up to Williams's subtle and devestating attack on utilitarianism for being unable to make sense of what it is for someone to have a project. The reader might anticipate how these might go, and this is right and good.

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