Comments on the Euthyphro
“Socrates encounters Euthyphro outside the court of Athens. Socrates has been called to court on charges of impiety by Meletus, and Euthyphro has come to prosecute his own father for having unintentionally killed a murderous hired hand. Socrates flatters Euthyphro, suggesting that Euthyphro must be a great expert in religious matters if he is willing to prosecute his own father on so questionable a charge. Euthyphro concurs that he does indeed know all there is to be known about what is holy.”
One way to understand the Euthyphro is to say it raises the question: What is piety? That is, is piety imitating the gods or obeying the gods?
But there is another way as well, as raising the question whether virtue leads human beings into doing impious things? Euthyphro obviously considers himself a virtuous man and, hence, he has decided that he needs to prosecute his father for having killed a homicidal slave, at least inadvertently. Euthyphro’s conviction that he is a virtuous man is what makes it possible for him to prosecute his father for the killing of the slave. Socrates challenges Euthyphro’s actions, calling into question Euthyphro’s justifications for his actions, and at the end of the dialogue Euthyphro is less than happy with Socrates, given Socrates’s questioning and criticisms.
By challenging Euthyphro’s actions, Socrates is also challenging his virtue. Is Euthyphro behaving virtuously, as he believes he is doing? But by challenging Euthyphro’s virtue, Socrates may also be said to be challenging virtue generally. That is, Socrates confrontation with Euthyphro gives rise to the question: Does virtue as conventionally understood lead human beings into committing impious deeds?
It is not uncommon for those who are thought of as virtuous and who think of themselves as virtuous to be led into committing impious or inhuman deeds. History provides many illustrations of this phenomenon, where otherwise decent people commit indecent, even inhuman deeds. This was true in Kenya, for example, where otherwise decent British people committed some of the most beastly deeds imaginable. It was true in the Belgian Congo as well, and it was true in Vietnam where Americans, decent Americans like William Colby, committed and justified acts that can only be described as inhuman.
Insofar as this is the case, then it needs to be asked: What is virtue? That is, what is the status of virtue as it is conventionally understood? Is it anything more than a façade, a false front as it were, behind which lies a much darker reality? And insofar as this so, how is it possible to prevent human beings, decent and morally virtuous human beings, from committing obscene and inhuman acts? Because obviously, if this is so, then moral virtue alone is not enough to prevent such obscenities, such inhumanity. Or are we stuck with telling our children, as Kurt Vonnegut put it in Slaughterhouse Five, don’t participate in massacres or mass murder?