It was taken as a given that morality had its indisputable and immutable place in religion until Plato challenged the way that we think about our cosmic authorities. In the dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks the titular religious scholar to enlighten him about what piety is. After some of Socrates’ world-famous and unflinching dialectical reasoning, he asks Euthyphro a question which has continued to nonplus monotheists for centuries:
“Is the pious loved by the Gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the Gods.” – Plato, Euthyphro
In a more modern fashion, we could swap the term pious for ‘morally good’ and see that there is an unresolved ethical conundrum whose implications are severe. If the former proposition were true, then there would be a morality that existed outside of God and his omnipotence would also come into the question since he could not act contrary to that moral goodness. If the latter were true, then we open the proverbial floodgates to nihilism, morality becomes completely subjective and it lends God’s authority a petty arbitrariness. However, what if the dilemma were false?
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), arguably one of the best theologians ever, argued that the dilemma is nonexistent. To be fair, Plato never actually took the time to explain what ‘goodness’ was in relation to the above proposition. Aquinas argues that desirable things are good, and since God is omniscient then he is the ultimate standard by which we must evaluate morals. There’s a bit of a slip-up in the first part of that argument, because ultimately a serial killer could not be condemned under that logic since it was his ‘desire’ to murder people. Alternatively, the American pragmatist philosopher William James (1842-1910), suggested that morals necessarily derive from personal demands and the weaker we are in nature, the more our exigency for a moral system will arise. We are fraught with a humanistic question and not a hermeneutic one, says James, morals are an anthropomorphism and are not divine in any way.
The dilemma is as fascinating as its repercussions are. Generally, theists will try to place God in a position directly outside of morality – beyond good and evil as it were – and atheists will argue that humans should be the arbiters of their own moral values and that there are no inherently good morals. The dialogue culminates in Euthyphro having to scurry off before the dilemma has any resolution whatsoever. Perhaps that is symbolic of how much ethics is a question of interpretation and nothing more.