Every claim and action we take commits us to other things. If I make the claim “my father murdered a servant” (Plato’s Euthyphro), I am committing myself to a concept of murder. Euthyphro’s father bound a servant who had killed another servant, and threw him in a ditch while waiting for the authorities to arrive. During this time the servant died from exposure to the elements and hunger. Is this murder? For example, is it manslaughter? Or is it something else. Has Euthyphro properly categorized this occurrence? For Euthyphro, it seems that a dead body resulting from the action of some human being is sufficient to categorize an event as murder. But is this true? The question is not idle speculation. Categorizations of happenings as murder or manslaughter come with very different sets of duties and entail very different punishments. The question is not one of whether Euthyphro has accurately or veridically categorized his father’s action as murder, but more profoundly is a question of how we should respond to the action of Euthyphro’s father. Euthyphro’s categorization presupposes a concept of murder, and part of the work of philosophy would consist in 1) getting clear on just what his judgment of his father presupposes (prior even to raising questions of whether it’s correct or not), and then, 2) determining whether these are good presuppositions. The stakes are high. If Euthyphro’s presuppositions are mistaken, yet he manages to persuade the court that his father did indeed commit murder, his father’s reputation might be ruined, or his father might wrongly be put to death, or Euthyphro might even bring the wrath of the gods down upon the city (recall how Oedipus brings the wrath of the god for failing in his duties to his mother and father). This is why questions of knowledge are never just questions of knowledge. They are also questions of of just action, because the concepts we deploy in acting in the world. Mistaken commitments will lead to bad action.
Despite the crudeness of Euthyphro’s concept of murder and his confusion surrounding what piety is, he nonetheless has one trait that is commendable. Euthyphro understands commitment. Socrates is astonished when Euthyphro tells him that he’s indicting his own father. “How could you do this to your own father!” Socrates’s utterance– and I don’t think he really believes it –presupposes that we have one set of rules for family and perhaps friends and another for those outside those circles. Euthyphro will have none of it. The moral and legal law, if it exists, applies in exactly the same way for all people regardless of whether they are kin or strangers. Euthyphro is a universalist. He understands that his advocacy of a law– regardless of how misguided it is –holds in all cases regardless of whether the case is a member of tribe. He has a concept of justice in germinal form. He understands that his position on the law commits him to treating members of tribe, kin, in exactly the same way as strangers.
Our claims and actions also commit us to “future” judgments. I claim that God, by definition, is a perfect being. From this a number of other commitments follow. I ask myself, “what would a being have to be in order to be perfect?” Well such a being would have to be omniscient because certainly a perfect being wouldn’t be perfect if such a being didn’t simultaneously know all things past, present, and future. I further reason that such a being would have to be omnipotent, because a being limited in its power could not be perfect. Likewise, such a being would have to be eternal because the capacity to die would be an imperfection. Such a being would also have to be rational because it is more perfect to be rational than irrational (look at how people evaluate those in the grips of a drug addiction). Finally, such a being would have to be morally perfect, because it’s impossible to see how a perfect being couldn’t also be good and just. Here my commitment to the thesis that God is a perfect being entailed my commitment to all sorts of other things about God (omniscience, eternity, omnipotence, eternity, goodness). These things followed from that first posit.
Now I read a sacred text like the Bible. Perhaps I am committed to the truth of the Bible. Yet I quickly find that my commitments revolving around the essence of God conflict with my commitments to the truth of this holy book. I open the first few pages of this book. It tells me that God created Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden called Eden. In that garden he placed a fruiting tree that he forbade them to eat from. A creature tempts Eve, she eats and then Adam eats. God, full of wrath at this defiance, exiles them from the garden and condemns them to suffer from disease, hunger, cold, menstration, death, etc. I recall my commitments. Can my commitment to the perfection of God be squared with my commitment to the truth of the Bible? The two are in conflict. Since God is omniscient, God already knew they would eat the fruit. “But”, one objects, “it wasn’t God that did this, they had free will and the serpent tempted them.” But God created that creature and knew they’d eat the fruit, regardless of their free will. God created the circumstances in which this could occur, knowing full well how things would turn out. This sounds like the action of a sadist, like the antagonist in the Saw films, not the actions of a morally good being.
At this point we have to choose. Our commitments require it. Will we abandon our commitment to God’s perfection so as to maintain our commitment to the truth of this holy text? If we do that we’ve abandoned the best reason for remaining committed to God: he’s perfect and therefore good. Will we abandon the truth of this story? Will we say it’s just a creation of misguided poets as Plato often said of the Greek poets? Wouldn’t this entail abandoning the entire book? Will we try to reinterpret the story to make it logically consistent with our commitment to the perfection of God? Perhaps God did it for the good of Adam and Eve. However, it’s hard to see how this action was good for Adam and Eve. That’s like saying it was good to lose one’s loved one because it allowed you to grow as a person. Will you say the story is only allegorical, attempting to teach a moral lesson through metaphor? That’s probably the best option– we’ll call it the “Joseph Campbell/Jung thesis” –but now you’ve also called into question the truth of all these other stories and the entire ontology presupposed by that book. Regardless of what strategy you adopt, the point is that your commitments commit you to other things and that in these circumstances you have to choose. You can’t have it all. You can, of course, revise your commitments– that’s what critique is all about –but those revisions will now commit you to yet other things. A great part of the work of philosophy consists in determining just what we have committed ourselves to, what follows consistently from these commitments, where these commitments conflict with one another, and how we ought to revise our commitments to resolve these conflicts.