What is the Origin of Morality? - Plato's "Euthyphro"

In this Platonic dialogue Socrates questions a young theologian, named Euthyphro, who is thought to be the most learned on religion in the area. It becomes clear in the dialogue that this may not be the case. It may be another example of Socrates exposing as ignorant the supposedly wise men of the time. There is certainly some frustration that is felt between the two of them as they dialogue. The Euthyphro ends without really coming to a clear conclusion about the nature of piety. One thing is clear, though, Socrates is searching for a philosophical definition of piety rather than a theological one. He is trying to get at the nature of piety in itself as one of the eternal forms, while Euthyphro is working from a religious and poetic tradition, thus the source of their conflict. 

Meletus' Indictment Against Socrates

The dialogue begins as Socrates runs into a young man named Euthyphro outside the building of the King's Magistrate and they get to talking. He explains to Euthyphro what charges he is being indicted on by a man named Meletus. Socrates has been accused to corrupting the youth, and thus betraying the state by supposedly undermining belief in the traditional gods while positing new ones. They speculate that the cause of these indictments, for Euthyphro had been the subject of mocking as well for his religious fervor, is that of jealousy. 

Euthyphro's Prosecution Against His Father

The conversation then shifts to Euthyphro's reason for being at the King's Magistrate. He says that he is actually the one bringing up charges on someone... he charging his father with murder. Socrates, shocked, asks what happened and why he would do that. 

"God almighty, Euthyphro! How little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary person, and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to bring such as action." 

Euthyphro, clearly a virtuous man, corrects Socrates, saying that it doesn't matter if the man is his father or not, if someone has committed murder then justice must be sought. He then goes on to explain the nature of the incident which took place. On their family farm there was a hired hand who showed up one day drunk, got into a fight with one of their house servants, and ended up killing him. Euthyphro's father immediately bound the man's hands and feet and threw him in a ditch outside while he sent a messenger to a soothsayer to ask what should be done with the man. Meanwhile, before the messenger returned the man died from the cold and lack of food. Their family then became upset when Euthyphro took the side of the dead man and sought to indict his father, claiming that regardless the man who died was a murderer anyway. They call Euthyphro "impious" for doing this. 

Socrates is surprised that Euthyphro was so confident that he was doing the right and pious thing in this regard. It becomes clear that Euthyphro is a theologian and had studied the religious texts of the time. Socrates asks that Euthyphro teach him, if that is the case, so that it might help him in his own case. 

"Therefore, I insist that you tell me the nature of piety and impiety, which you said that you knew so well, and also of murder, and of other offences against the gods. What are they? Is not piety in every action always the same? Again, is impiety not always the opposite of piety, and also the same with itself, having, as impiety, one notion which includes whatever is impious?"

First Definition of Piety: Punishing Someone for Murder

The first attempt that Euthyphro gives to Socrates regarding the nature of piety is to tell him that piety is exactly what he is doing, persecuting his father for murder even though he is his father. Euthyphro pulls examples from the gods who did the same, such as Zeus punishing his father Cronos for his crimes. Socrates, though, expresses his unbelief in the mythological stories of which Euthyphro is an expert and so guides Euthyphro to instead try to give him a clearer more precise definition of the nature of piety, not just examples or stories. So Euthyphro continues on. 

Second Definition of Piety: That Which is Dear to the Gods

Coming to a more universal definition, Euthyphro throws out that piety is, "...that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them." In other words, whatever or whoever the gods love will be pious and vice versa. Socrates quickly points out though that the gods often fight with one another in disagreements. But why would they fight about disagreements except that these disagreements were not able to be solved between them, and thus must deal with topics which are not as clear as others, just as when men fight about that which is "...just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable..." And if this is the case, Socrates says, then the gods are taking different sides as to what they love and honor, the good and the evil, the just and the unjust. Doesn't that then make piety to be different depending on the god? 

Euthyphro admits this but claims that when it comes to murder that he thinks all the gods would be in agreement. Socrates says that while in general it is true that there is agreement that the unjust be punished, figuring out the particulars of a case to be just or unjust is much harder and leads to the quarreling. 

Socrates then pushes Euthyphro to give a clear cut proof that what his father did was wrong and that all the gods would be in agreement about this particular case. "How would you show that all the gods absolutely agree in approving of his act? Prove to me that they do, and I will praise your wisdom as long as I live." 

Third Definition of Piety: That Which All the Gods Love

Instead of pursuing that line of conversation, Socrates pivots here and instead asks Euthyphro a more pointed question which gets at the heart of the nature of piety. And that is, do the gods love things because they are pious in themselves, or are things pious because the gods choose to love them? Socrates is going to catch Euthyphro in a circular reasoning here. He points out that there is a difference between the doer and receiver of an action, and that one must precede the other. The action must be done before the thing can receive the action. 

Therefore, if piety is what is loved by the gods, but Euthyphro claim's that the gods love something because it is pious, then a contradiction still ensues. Do the gods give something its piety, or does it already have its piety. If it already has its piety, then it can't be that which the gods love because that implies that the gods grant something its piety. 

"Thus, Euthyphro, it seems to me that when I ask you what is the essence of piety, you only offered an attribute of it, and not its essence, where the attribute is being loved by all the gods. But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of piety. Therefore, if you please, I will as you not to hide this from me, but to tell me once more what piety really is, and also what is impiety, regardless of whether it is dear to the gods or not..." 

Socrates, then a bit frustrated with Euthyphro, takes charge of the conversation to try to define the nature of piety. He asks Euthyphro if justice is a subset of piety, or if piety is a subset of justice. He then clarifies what he is asking by appealing to a clearer example of shame and fear. Socrates points out that not everything which people fear makes them feel shame, but that whenever people feel shame they also feel fear about that shame. Therefore, shame if one part of fear just as odd numbers are part of numbers as a whole. Piety then is clearly one subset of justice, but Socrates wants to know which part. Thus they arrive at a fourth definition. 

Fourth Definition of Piety: Caring for the Gods

Euthyphro then throws out this answer. He says that piety is the part of justice which "cares for the gods." Socrates, of course, wants clarification. What does it mean to care for the gods? Does it mean something like a craftsman who specializes in horses, or dogs, or oxen and thus cares for them, making them better. Is piety to make the gods better? 

Euthyphro says, no, not to make the gods better, but simply to serve them. But, what does it mean to serve the gods? "Tell me then, please tell me, what is that magnificent work that the gods do by the help of our services?" 

Fifth Definition: A Sacrifice to the Gods

Euthyphro then says that our main service to the gods is the art of sacrifices and prayers which lead to the success of society instead of its destruction. We ask of them what we want, and try to give to them what they want from us. "On this view, then, piety is a science of asking and giving? ... an art which gods and men have of doing business with each other?" But what is it really that we can give to the gods that benefits them? If nothing, then is it us who really have control over them in getting such a good deal? 

Euthyphro says that we give gods honors and praise, which is what they really want. This is why he said that which is pious is that which is pleasing to the gods. Socrates gets a bit more fed up by this point, claiming that Euthyphro has walked in a giant circle with his argument because we are now back at the beginning definition, which does not tell us anything about the true nature of piety as such. 

Euthyphro is clearly uncomfortable and decides to take his leave of Socrates as he is now "in a hurry." Socrates says not to leave him. How can he be so sure to take up his father on such serious charges if he doesn't really even know what the nature of piety is. And what about the help that Socrates needed in clearing his name? 

"If you had not certainly known the nature of piety and impiety, I am confident that you would never, on behalf of a servant, have charged your aged father with murder. You would not have run such a risk of doing wrong in the sight of the gods, and you would have had too much respect for the opinions of men. I am sure, therefore, that you know the nature of piety and impiety. Speak out then, my dear Euthyphro, and do not hide your knowledge. EUTHYPHRO: Another time, Socrates, I am in a hurry, and I must go now."


- Plato. The Euthyphro. in Philosophy: A Historical Survey with Essential Readings. by Stumpf, Samuel Enoch. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Kindle Edition.