John Holbo writes:
Euthyphro Problems and Bad Religion – or – The Imaginary Invalidity: I’m a collector of occurrences of Euthyphro-type dilemmas. Please pardon the excessive use of force that it took to add this one to my collection of argumentative oddities.
Andrew Sullivan links to a Ross Douthat-Julian Sanchez exchange (that started as a Douthat-Saletan exchange, and concerning which Karl Smith and Noah Millman get words in edgewise, if you care to follow up the links.) Douthat suggests that secular liberalism has philosophical-metaphysical problems…. Sanchez makes the easy but surely correct response: Douthat is writing as though he’s never read "Euthyphro" and doesn’t see how all the same problems are going to arise for his own position, mutatis mutandis. It doesn’t prove anything to dunk secular ethics, but not theological ethics, in this skeptical acid. Either God’s commandments are arbitrary or they make sense. If they are arbitrary – well, that’s hardly an improvement over secular humanism, in the worst case scenario. If they make sense, they make sense. Secular humanists can help themselves to anything that makes sense. They can hold onto the commands but lose the Commander. So, whether the ethical news is good or bad, the news is the same for the secularist and the religious believer.
Douthat’s response is weak (see it below). As Sanchez says, it’s a ‘classic virtus dormativa.’ Here is Sanchez:
If God is the standard, why ought we accept the standard to emulate it?… If the fact that some action will cause suffering isn’t adequate motivation to avoid it without something further, why is the fact that the divine nature abhors suffering (or sin, or whatever we think) supposed to do any better? Why do we imagine someone could (rationally?) greet the first fact with a shrug, but not the second?
That’s bad enough, but I think the problem is considerably worse for Douthat, bad religion-wise…. Douthat is shifting from ‘you need to believe in God to be moral,’ to ‘you need to believe in God to be moral, because you have to have a coherent philosophy to be moral.’ This is meant to sidestep standard Euthyphro-style objections, but ‘you have to have a coherent philosophy to be moral’ is a strange major premise….
[W]hat’s wrong with incoherent philosophy? Is it ‘invalid’ to live your life without a coherent philosophical account that Goes All the Way Down (or, barring that, a coherent philosophical account of why you can get by without such a fundament.) Couldn’t the insistence on philosophical coherence be a sort of hypochondria, in a practical sense? (I mean: yes, it would be nice. But if you don’t have it, does it follow that you are, as it were, sick or dying?)
The belief that it is better to be certain even if wrong (especially if wrong?) than to be uncertain is remarkably common--it is, after all, the core of Alasdair Macintyre's After Virtue and perhaps of Max Weber's "…as a Vocation" essays.
From an economist's point of view, this is incomprehensible: to be certain and to be wrong is to do great damage with probability one. If you might be mistaken, it is surely better to know that you might be mistaken than to be an ignorant and destructive clown.
In the words of Oliver Cromwell before the battle of Dunbar:
I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken...
It is, indeed, criminal moral and intellectual irresponsibility for anybody like Ross Douthat to imagine that he has special access, better than anybody else, to the Α and the Ω...