“Do the gods love holiness because it is holy, or is it holy because they love it?” So asked Socrates as reported by Plato in the Euthyphron. It’s a deceptively simple question but one that has had wide-ranging ramifications down the millennia and remains one of the most important ever asked. For if the answer to the first part of the question is ‘yes’, then the possibility arises that the holy – or as we might say today, the ‘good’ – is not dependent on the gods, or God, and is, therefore, independently accessible to humanity. If, however, the answer to the second part of the question is ‘yes’ it means that whatever God loves is good and humanity has no idea what the good is – and, perhaps, neither does God. Morality, as we know it, disappears.
Although he doesn’t formally acknowledge it, the Euthyphron question courses through Soren Kierkegaard book Fear and Trembling, which he wrote under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio. The central premise in this beautifully written book is what Kierkegaard calls the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical.
What this means is an ethics that eschews any sense of consequentialist normative theories like Utilitarianism. In fact Kierkegaard actually sets himself up in opposition to Fredrich Hegel for whom the ethical life involves behaviour that is moral only when it adds to the good of society. But presumably even Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is also unacceptable. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant writes ‘act only in accordance with that maxim which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’. Kant is often categorized as being a non-consequentialist but in Kierkegaard’s eyes the categorical imperative still retains a teleological element.
To make his argument Kierkegaard chooses the extraordinary story of Abraham in which God tests him by demanding that he sacrifices his much-loved son Isaac, as told in Genesis 22.
Abraham’s faith is such that he is moved to carry out the order without question only to have his hand stayed at the last minute by an Angel, allowing the son and father to return home unscathed.
For Kierkegaard this is the ultimate test of what he calls the knight of faith. It’s the second of two moves the first of which he calls the knight of resignation who can find ‘peace and repose’ in retiring from life, as in a monastery.
But the knight of faith takes the next step because his faith in God is absolute. This faith remains constant even if, unlike the story in Genesis, the Angel does not intervene. Kierkegaard writes: “Let us go further. We let Isaac actually be sacrificed. Abraham had faith…God could give him a new Isaac, bring the sacrificial offer back to life. He believed in the strength of the absurd, for all human calculations had long since been suspended.” At the heart of this is the paradox ‘that the single individual is higher than the universal though in such a way be it noted…that having been in the universal the single individual now sets himself up apart as the particular above the universal’. One might be forgiven for seeing in this the religious version of Nietzsche’s ubermensch.
So, what are we to make of all this? The Swedish philosopher Martin Hagglund in his This Life – Why Mortality Makes us Free argues that to say, as some do, that Kierkegaard ‘has found a way to combine devotion to God with devotion to finite life’ rings hollow because the ‘double movement of religious faith actually denies the experience of finitude by precluding the experience of irrevocable loss’. Hagglund contrasts this with what he calls ‘secular faith’ in which every time ‘you care for someone who may be lost or leave you behind, every time you devote yourself to a cause whose fate is uncertain you perform an act of secular faith’. On the other hand if there is a ‘God for whom everything is possible, then anything can be permitted, even the killing of your own child for no other reason other than God’s command’, because even in death, as Kierkegaard acknowledges, Isaac will be returned to him.
Writing in the latest edition of Philosophy Now Roger Caldwell goes further when he writes that it ‘is not difficult to find passages in his writings to make one suspect he is somewhat unbalanced’. In all of this it is astonishing that the Euthyphron question is not mentioned, although Caldwell comes closest when he writes that ‘if it is possible for divine commands to take precedence over human ethics, then faith is higher than morality’. Indeed, it could be argued, as previously suggested, that if you answer in the positive to the second part of the question then morality itself vanishes for humanity – and for God. And there is a dark symmetry here because according to Clare Carlisle in her biography Philosopher of the Heart, Kierkegaard warned in Fear and Trembling that ‘once God is absorbed into the ethical sphere he will become dispensable, and eventually disappear altogether’. So, the stark choice is between morality and God. For those who don’t believe in God, of course, there is no choice, but it does remain for believers. One of Kierkegaard’s aims in the book is to draw a distinction between what he regarded as dead Christianity, where people merely go through the motions of faith, and his live Christianity as exemplified by Abraham. For most Christians, one suspects, the move to the knight of faith is a step too far and for atheists and agnostics it’s a very good reason not to believe in God.