Thursday, 13 April 2017

Euthyprho's dilemma & the Bhagvad Gita

Socrates was charged with asebia (impiety). Eusebia was the word used in Ashokan India to translate Dharma into Greek. Thus Socrates was charged with violating Dharma.

On his way to the Court, Socrates meets Euthyprho who intends to prosecute his own father for manslaughter. Apparently, a slave belonging to the family had killed another slave on their estate. Once this became known, the slave was bound and gagged and left in a ditch where he died while Euthyprho's dad waited to hear from the legal authorities on how he should proceed.

Euthyprho thinks his decision to prosecute his Dad is highly pious that is Dharmic. Socrates engages him in dialogue, hoping- so he says- to find out what piety is so as to be use this knowledge to defend himself in his own trial. Clearly, this is stupid. The Court hears arguments and then decides what is pious. Socrates should shut the fuck up and follow Euthyprho to the Court, listen to the arguments, and then get a copy of the judgement. There may be something in it which helps his own case.

Interestingly, Euthyprho would have a duty to approach some particular type of Court even in Hindu India or Confucian China or ancient Israel. This is because the charge of manslaughter cancels ritual purity and thus it is a ceremonial requirement that the matter receive judicial treatment. In other words, a son only concerned to obey and cherish his father nevertheless has to take some step similar to Euthyprho for a ritualistic reason. Obviously, the son will be careful to 'jurisdiction shop' till he finds a way of getting a judgement on his father's ritual status which imposes little cost on the family.

Euthyprho's dilemma is stated thus- "Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?'
This sounds like Socrates' 'absurd question' in the Symposium- 'is Love such as to be the love of something/someone or nothing/no-one? I am asking not if it is of a [or a particular] mother or father—for absurd would be the question if Love is love of a mother or father—but as if I were asking about the term father, “Is a father the father of someone or not?” You would have told me, I suppose, if you wanted to answer properly, that it is of a son or a daughter that a father is the father, wouldn’t you?'

Euthyprho could answer, 'that which is pious is something decided by the Court. That the Gods love the pious is an established judgement of the Court. Kindly examine relevant obiter dicta to see if an answer to your question has been provided. If it hasn't, perhaps this is an impious line of inquiry. In any case, it is absurd for you to question me as though I myself had the power to decide what is or is not pious. The Court alone has that power. It welcomes people who believe something is pious or impious to bring the matter before it. However, no argument that can be made before the court has any validity till it is upheld and becomes the basis of a judgement.'

In the same vein, Socrates' absurd question about Love could be answered 'Love is such that it can be of nothing or no one. I may see a picture of a beautiful woman and learn that she lives in the next town and has a great liking for fat balding men. I fall in love with her without having seen her in the flesh. As I walk towards her town, I am counselled that she might not be quite as pretty as she has been painted. Also, she does not like grossly fat and balding men. Further she has a bad temper and frequently hurls her frying pan at stupid people who are as ignorant as they are fat and balding.

'Hearing this, I am more in love than ever. To be truthful, the woman as painted was a little out of my league. Hearing she isn't that pretty in real life kindles a sort of warm compassion in my heart. Furthermore, I share her hatred of fat balding men who are ignorant and stupid. It shows she has good taste. More importantly, it appears she is no stranger to the frying pan- a good omen of our future connubial bliss.
'Anyway, once I reach her town and knock on the door of my beloved, I find she never existed. The picture I saw was of some actress who died long ago. All the circumstantial details my comrades invented were simply by way of a practical joke.
'Though the girl never existed, my Love for her still does. It may that I will meet someone else- not pretty at all- to whom I will transfer this Love. I will feel that this is the real object of my affection which previously had attached itself to a delusive image.'

Piety and Love can exist independently of any action or object . It is illegitimate, by any process of examination of an action or object, to supersede the right of whichever body or person is entitled to pronounce judgement on whether the act is pious or whether the object corresponds to what is loved.
I may advance very good arguments based on the evidence that OJ is guilty. However, I can't legitimately convict him of murder because I lack the authority. Under the Law, as it stands, he is innocent. Similarly, I can produce very good arguments why you should not love a particular person. I can go further and claim that you do not actually love that person.  It is impossible for you to do so. However, only you can validly affirm anything in this connection because only you can own your own beliefs- i.e. doxastic self-ownership is assumed.

It may be argued that I have not defined Piety or Love. Thus my argument fails. However, it is equally impossible for you to define 'definition' in an intensional manner. The best anybody can do in such matters is offer an extensional, that is descriptive, account or else employ 'recursive definitions' which are saved from circularity by 'base cases'. Since everything depends on following a rule from the base case, such sequences are protocol bound just like the decision procedure of a Court. It is a different matter that you can influence my beliefs. What you can't do is own them.

Euthyphro's dilemma can be recast in a manner fatal to 'teleological' Ethics- or indeed the notion that alethic 'normative reasons' exist.
A votary of 'effective altruism' might say 'My proselytising for effective altruism is a good thing because 'effective altruism' is a good thing.'
A sceptic might reply 'Proselytising is not doing good. It is proselytising- nothing more'.
The votary has a ready answer- 'I have statistical evidence that my proselytising has increased 'effective altruism'. Thus I have done good'.
The sceptic is not swayed- 'You have only shown that other people did more good, not that you did any.'
'Of course, I did good!' the votary replies angrily. 'Effective altruism teaches us to do good in a better way. Moreover, it affirms that teaching it is part of that better good.'
'A very convenient circular definition!' scoffs the sceptic, 'You are doing good because you define good as what you are doing'.
The votary does have a comeback, which cashes out as something like this- 'There is a causal link which is teleological in nature. Man was created to a particular end. It is to that same end that I proselytise. Thus, in the final analysis, or by means of 'backward induction', it will be seen that my proselytising for doing good was part and parcel of Doing Good's unfolding in the history of our species as its final end and highest good.'

Here circularity is avoided by invoking a base case- the teleological terminus- which is also the starting point of backward induction. It is certainly possible to found a Scientific Research Project on this intuition. This generates a theory of Human Nature. It is not, however, an ethical theory nor does it produce normative reasons because it is subject to the following dilemma-'If talking shite can produce a normative reason for talking shite then it is a shite normative reason.'

This dilemma could be defeated if it were possible to produce a normative reason without talking shite. However, only worthless shitheads produce normative reasons, so even if the thing could be done, it won't be. This does not mean normative reasons can't exist in a non shite form so long as a problem is open. But they still wouldn't be categorical. What if an open problem is closed in a manner favourable to that normative reason? In that case, the information set has also changed. The normative reason has been swamped by something that is purely economic. It is no longer 'action guiding' because something else- something positive, not normative- has become action schemata determining such that there is a saltation to a wholly new choice menu. It may be that a normative reason still operates so certain choices are ruled out, but, because the menu is different, they aren't actually the same choices at all (because they have different income effects or involve different hedges). Thus, whatever the appearance of continuity, what has happened is that the closing of an open problem in maths destroys a normative reason, though a new one may be created by another problem which opens up.

What has Euthprho's dilemma have to do with the Gita? Surely, it represents a polar opposite because God himself is present to testify. Eusebia consists of simply going through preordained motions in a detached manner. Piety consists in doing what God wants you to do and what will happen any way.

Looked at more closely, we notice that the Gita features only the dharma of Agents, not Principals. Both Arjuna and Krishna have willingly assumed a subordinate position and wish to fulfil the corresponding duty. Yet, Arjuna's loyalty is to his eldest brother who at the end of the Mahabharata denounced Dharma- God's plan for the world- as unjust and impious. Interestingly, Draupadi, their common wife, had previously denounced Dharma as the product of an amoral and unjust Mayin (Controller or Demi-urge). This is not far short of the Gnostic doctrine of the essential evil of this world and the God who controls it.

Since Arjuna has a particular boon which began to operate once he suffered 'Vishada' and since this boon permitted him to see everything he would want to in the manner he would want to, it follows that his vision is not such as would cause him to break with either his wife or eldest brother on the grounds that their condemnation of Dharma is itself impious. Indeed, Krishna's theophany scares Arjuna shitless. Cosmic Justice is a Horror Story. Still he and Krishna are good buddies and you don't give a bro a hard time just coz he's gotta shitty job. Yuddhishtira's Daddy however is Dharma incarnate. It is fine to give Dad a hard time when you find out his job is fucking up the world big time more especially when he is swanning around making out that he himself if the Incarnation of Justice and Piety and so on. Krishna aint doing that. His name means 'Blackie'. If it turns out that the hero's African-American best friend is actually running the Universe- sure, the honky gonna do a double take. It's perfectly natural for him to feel a bit sore about always getting stuck with the bar tab. But there's not a lot of mileage here. What's important is things go back to the way they were- the hero shooting off arrows, while his best friend steers the battle car and the body count goes through the roof.

Yuddhishtira had an 'inward light' which enabled him to tell right from wrong, though he also spent a lot of time listening to a discourse on Ethics, which confirmed him in the view that even if what is Right is univocal and Cosmic in character it might still be wrong not to reject it because the Cosmos itself is but a bagatelle in the larger scheme of things. As T.S Eliot says-

'Not fare well,
'But fare forward, voyagers.'

However, this stricture only applies to people talking about other's Welfare, not those who accomplish it because, truth be told, of the universal car-crash that is the working of morality the only moral thing that can be said is-
'Move along folks!
'Nothing to see here.'

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