Here's a thought-provoking passage from Plato's "Euthyphro" that you can throw into your next coffeehouse conversation about the meaning of life (you do have them, don't you?). Socrates says:
The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.
This is the Euthyphro dilemma. I ran across it for the first time while reading "The Top 10 Myths About Evolution." The authors, Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan, were making the point that morality is a natural inclination of humans, not something imposed by divine command.
It's sort of difficult for me to fathom which side of the Euthyphro dilemma Plato comes down on. Guess that's why it's called a dialogue rather than a monologue.
But wiser minds than mine (namely, the collective wisdom of Wikipedia) say that Socrates demonstrates the absurdity of holding that something is good because it is beloved by God (or all the gods, if you're a polytheist). As Smith and Sullivan say:
The problem with this view is that whether an action is wrong (or right) becomes completely arbitrary. God could have said that killing and stealing are morally right, and then those actions would be morally right.
Of course, this whole question of whether God loves what is already holy, or makes it holy by loving it, presumes that a God exists. To my mind that resolves the Euthyphro dilemma right off the bat, since there's no evidence of God. Case closed by virtue of irrelevancy.
However, supposed God substitutes do exist. Gurus, priests, clergy, imams, and other religious authorities claim that they know what God wants us to do. Holy books, the same.
So it's worth considering whether Socrates gets the better of the argument. I think he does. The notion that whatever God (or his stand in) wants is okay to do makes morality a matter of divine whim. It leads to crazed fundamentalists flying planes into buildings and devotees drinking poison-laced Kool-Aid.
In my case, it led me to not drink even a drop of alcohol (aside from a single lapse at a high school reunion) for more than thirty years. The guru who initiated me back in 1971 prohibited the imbibing of alcoholic beverages. So I took the non-Socratic route, viewing this command as worthy of being obeyed not because it made moral sense, but because it had been commanded.
With more than a little chagrin, I remember going to an artsy function during my fully devoted days and running into a fellow Radha Soami Satsang Beas initiate. He was holding a wine glass in his hand. I looked at him as if he were wearing the Devil's horns.
Not outwardly—I understood the need to maintain an air of detached "Hi, nice to see you." But inwardly I thought, "Oh my, another fallen soul."
And now I am one, having just taken a sip of my nearly-nightly glass of red wine, which I've concluded confers enough antioxidant and coronary benefits to warrant breaking my 1971 vow of abstinence (along with my first wife, I've also broken our 1970 vow of "till death do us part"; moral conceptions change, along with marriage partners).
Looking back, what surprises me is how fully I bought into Euthyphro's flawed view of piety:
Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.
Socrates points out this would mean that the gods get some benefit from certain actions or beliefs. They are made more "dear" by piety and seemingly disturbed by impiety. But if a god (or guru) is perfect, how could this being be affected by what someone does or doesn't do?
I used to believe that I'd let my guru down if I had a sip of wine, or failed to put in every minute of the time that I was supposed to devote to meditation every day. I should have read "Euthyphro" earlier (though it wouldn't have made an impression on me during my fundamentalist period).
Now I resonate with the scientifically-minded Smith and Sullivan. Morality isn't imposed from outside. It springs from within.
We're left with morality being independent of God in the same way that arithmetic and logic are independent of God…But notice that, because morality is independent of God, we can recognize the same reasons for not killing and not stealing that God recognizes [again, assuming that God exists], although our thinking is certainly slower.
We recognize the irreversible harm caused by killing as a reason not to kill, and we recognize the unfairness of stealing as a reason not to steal.
Because morality is independent of God, both the believer and the nonbeliever are in the same boat when it comes to making moral choices. So we can see that one does not have to believe in God in order to be a genuinely moral person.
The ongoing dialogue as synthesized in Plato provides the stage for ascribing to God certain characteristics.
Of course, this whole question of whether God loves what is already holy, or makes it holy by loving it, presumes that holiness, or sacredness, exists.
In order to show just how important and central my irrational moral choices are, I point to God, the author of all. And, in order to show how powerful and omniscient is my God, I'll point to the high moral character of our religion.
Bosh. Forswearing an action, a beverage, an oath are all the gestures of selfhood. "I'd like to lie to get into the army to kill people, but they must be older than 75 trimesters." Hey, there's a god for that!
In our elfin coffee shop, some consider killing to be non-negotiable. (The RC church does not.) Others have felt that way about divorce, and then, like you, have altered their view. Drink... or no drink?
Show me holiness, weigh it, measure it. I suspect holiness is less real than the elves themselves.
Posted by: Edward | February 14, 2007 at 09:22 AM
Wait, wait, no, I changed my mind...
Morality can't be divine whim. Whims are mine.
If this plane is the ever-created eternal now, then everything is holy. Plato's dialogue is a false bifurcation into dualism. Godhood is sacredness personified, and morality is the construct of God acting now.
Of course arithmetic and logic are not independent of God: any ideation of God must include these symmetries as aspects of the "all." Really, because nothing is independent of God, the believer and non-believer are in the same boat when it comes to making moral choices. There is no genuinely moral person, only participation in genuinely moral being.
I will never be able to make a prior decision on a supposition about a moral act, not because morality is relative, but because God only acts now.
The elves tell me that is the reason for the proscription against judging others. Not because you shouldn't, but because external judgement is logically excluded from moral choices.
So, now that holiness is real, it is the only light by which to see other realness.
Posted by: Edward | February 14, 2007 at 10:49 AM
I have a really funny "Water Leak" e-mail. Anyone interested, just send me a request and I will e-mail it to you.
Posted by: Roger | February 14, 2007 at 12:25 PM
Now I know I'm lost... I was happy just comprehending a bit of what has been said and somehow I missed the Water Leak stuff.
C'mon, are you people speaking in some form of code? Or maybe this is just a Divine proscription to regarding my posting...
Happy Valentine's Day, everyone.
Posted by: benandante | February 14, 2007 at 01:00 PM
Edward, yes. I just read an article in which someone mused: how likely is it that the concepts contained in language (such as English) truly reflect reality?
We say "morality." But as you point out, where is this thing? Only in our language mind.
A glass of wine has physical effects. Those are a lot more real than "drinking is bad" or "drinking is good."
I was told that you can't meditate and drink alcohol. Not true. A glass of wine at night doesn't seem to affect my meditative consciousness-- and certainly not the next morning.
So, where is the "right" or "wrong" of drinking? Certainly not in a thought, but rather in the actual effects.
Posted by: Brian | February 14, 2007 at 01:17 PM