Noah Smith: You With the Fro

   image source : Plato talking to Euthyphro

image source: Plato talking to Euthyphro


“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- Huckleberry Finn

My hair is naturally curly. When I was in high school, I grew it out, and a few of my friends took to calling me “you with the ‘fro.” So you can imagine how happy I was to find that a character in one of Plato’s dialogues had almost that exact same name.

I was not, however, a big fan of the moral and epistemological theory espoused by Euthyphro, the eponymous character. In a classic line, Socrates presents Euthyphro with a question “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, is something good simply because the gods (or, to our modern monotheistic sensibilities, God) like it?

Euthyphro says yes. “Piety is what is dear to the gods and impiety is that which is not dear to them,” he tells Socrates. In other words, goodness is something the gods assign. Socrates asks about the case when the gods disagree, and Euthyphro amends his statement to require unanimity - if all the gods think something is good, then it’s good. To a monotheist, the question is simpler. Are good and bad properties of the Universe that God assigns to things, like length, mass, and temperature? If there’s only one God, He can’t disagree with Himself.

But Socrates’ question still nags at us, because we, humans, can disagree with God.

As an example, take a recent moral issue: homosexuality. Lots of people think that gay sexuality is immoral. As justification, they often cite the Bible, which clearly says that homosexual sex is evil. Proponents of this viewpoint have become increasingly alarmed as homosexuality has rapidly become more and more accepted in American society. 

Now suppose I wanted to argue that homosexuality is morally OK (which I do). I could argue with the standard interpretation of the Bible. I could point out a lot of other things that the Bible condemns that we ignore in the modern era. I could even start a new religious faith that says that the Bible is not the exact, perfect word of God. In past eras, I probably would have done one of these things.

But instead, I’m just going to say: No. Homosexuality is not evil, even if God says it is. If God thinks homosexuality is evil, well, I disagree. And lots of other people disagree.

Preposterous, right? How can a mere mortal disagree with a being who is both omnipotent and omniscient? Well, suppose that instead of “Homosexuality is evil,” God said “Radiohead is the best band.” Well, you can bet I’d disagree. No matter how much evidence God brought to bear, no matter what arguments he made, I wouldn’t agree that Radiohead is the best band. Even if God blasted me with a thunderbolt, I wouldn’t agree. Even if He slaughtered my whole family and threw me into a pit of fiery agony for all eternity (things that God actually does to people in the Bible!), I would not agree that Radiohead is the best band.

And even if I did - even if my mind broke under the pain and convinced itself that Radiohead was the best band - so what? Since God is omnipotent, He could have just reached into my brain, switched around a few circuits, and made me have whatever opinion He wanted me to have. But the point is this: it hasn’t happened yet. I am not yet convinced that Radiohead is the best band, and I’m not yet convinced that homosexuality is evil. In fact, I am convinced that homosexuality is just fine. God could mind-control me into having a different opinion, but He couldn’t convince me simply by giving me information.

See, morality is different than length, mass, or temperature. Knowing those things is just a matter of information. Knowing right from wrong is not. To know right and wrong, you need to have an opinion. David Hume made this point in his 1739 book A Treatise of Human Nature. You can’t get from facts to opinions without some kind of moral intuition or emotion. People don’t discover right and wrong from observing the Universe - they feel right and wrong by observing their own emotions.

Philosophers since Hume’s day have tried to overturn Hume’s conclusion, without (as I see it) much success. Yes, there are some moral propositions on which almost all humans agree. But there are obviously others - homosexuality, for example - where we don’t all agree. Disagreements exist. And God weighing in on one side or the other isn’t going to change that.

Detractors of the Humean point of view sometimes denigrate it as “relativism,” or even “nihilism.” But it is neither. Just because my idea of right and wrong comes from my own moral intuition doesn’t mean I think your intuition is OK for you, and we all have our own little pocket universes of right and wrong, and they’re all equally acceptable. My moral intuition often brooks no disagreement.

For example, take homosexuality. The other day I watched this video of fan reactions to the airing of the last episode of The Legend of Korra, a cartoon show whose final moments depict the beginning of a homosexual relationship between the two female protagonists. I never watched the show, but the video of crying, cheering fans provokes an unequivocal emotional reaction in me. These kids are beautiful. Seeing their happiness makes me happy (note especially the reaction at 6:30, where a girl breaks into Christian prayer at the anticipation of seeing two women enter a romantic relationship). To me, there is no question that this is good and moral and right. If you tell me it’s evil or filthy or immoral, yes I know that your opinion comes from your own moral intuition, but so what? My own moral intuition says you’re totally wrong. Even if you have an army behind you, with nukes and rocket artillery. Even if you torture me and everyone I know. 

Even if you’re God. Even infinite might doesn’t make right.

In fact, the recent acceptance of homosexuality in American society - which is quickly spreading to other countries, like Japan - seems like it represents a watershed in the moral evolution of human society. In the old days, those of us who believe homosexuality is OK would have tried to enlist religion and God on our side, as abolitionists did in the fight against slavery. But this time, we didn’t have to do that. This time, when traditionalists told us that God condemned homosexuality, we shrugged and said “So what?”

To me, this seems like the democratization of morality. The democratization of politics was a grand experiment, a test of the radical idea that humans are mature enough to govern themselves without having order imposed by a higher power. The democratization of morality is the realization that we are mature enough to know what’s right and wrong, without having our morality imposed by a higher power. 

So humanists should be happy. But at the same time, theists shouldn’t despair. After all, human moral intuition had to come from somewhere, right? My sympathy with the fans in the Korra reaction video didn’t just come from nowhere - nor did their sympathy with the imaginary cartoon characters. Humans are built a certain way, and if you believe in God, you (probably) believe that God made us the way we are - that God created us to watch two cartoon women kiss and think “This is good.” (As for why He would create us to have that reaction and then tell us the opposite in the Bible - well, I leave that one to you to figure out!)

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the best band is The Flaming Lips. You can’t beat the 'fro.