Tag: justice

The Justice Of Market Outcomes – An Exploration of Desert

In any given exchange market (whether free or otherwise), goods and services are traded as a matter of course, in the pursuit of both individual and social goals. Those trades will result in substantive outcomes both for the individuals involved in trades, and more broadly for society as a whole. It has been suggested that some of those outcomes may be undeserved. If we assume this to be the case, the question then arises, are undeserved market outcomes are unjust? Any reasonable answer to this question requires a coherent idea of justice within which we could determine what is deserved and undeserved, and judge the justice of those deserts. In the interest of space, this essay will briefly describe two essential notions of justice, and rule one of them out as the less coherent of the two. Once an acceptable sense of justice is established, I will then proceed to render a decision on the question of desert and justice in the market.

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Justice, Culture, and the Inheritance of the Enlightenment

A question is posed to me via my coursework: “Does justice require that anything be distributed equally? If so, what?” This is, of course, the bog-standard prompt for the student to explain the modern dispute between John Rawls1 and Robert Nozick2 . We’ll get there shortly, but first I want to back up and ask the more fundamental (indeed, perennial) question: What is justice? At the risk of plagiarizing Socrates, I might clarify that I am not asking, “what makes a just circumstance just“, or “show me a particular instance of a just set of arrangements“. Rather, I want to know about Justice qua Justice. In more common terms, can we adequately describe the thing at which we point, when we want to say “this thing is like that thing”. Once we can answer that question, then we can begin to consider the question of what prerequisites must be met in any given circumstance, in order to declare, “this is a just arrangement of goods”. Of course, I’m not going to be able to answer that question in this post. But what I can offer, are some thoughts and observations on the concept, that give the coursework question some context, and some real-world purchase.

Some say that justice obtains in an ordering of goods such that certain moral principles are adequately respected. The meting out of rewards and punishments according to a proportional measure, or the distribution of wealth according to a preference for moderation and an avoidance of excess, for example. All of these theories, whether egalitarian, aristocratic, libertarian, or meritocratic, have a tension at their core: the autonomy of the individual as against the prerogative of the society within which he exists. The recognition of that tension goes straight back to Plato3. Its source is a fundamental insight of his: the role of the individual in society, the relationship he has with his society, and the kinds and degrees of liberty, equality, obligation, and right he has, is a direct consequence of the unifying value around which the society is formed, matures, and flourishes. That fundamental value becomes the primary good toward which the society strives, and it operates, at least, as the proxy standard for justice in that society.

In the deep past, the fundamental at the core of any healthy society (as the ancients saw it) was typically something like the material success of an ethnic family as a whole. The triumph of the Spartans over the Athenians was, for the Spartans, a testament to the superiority of their tribe. The conquest of the Barbarians by the Romans, was a testament for the Romans, of the superiority of Roman martial virtues. In both of these examples, the sacred is the tribe and its cultural expressions. The superiority of these concepts is directly related to the successes earned in the real world, against foes.

All that changed, I think, with the rise of Christianity. No longer is some notion of solidarity to an ethno-cultural identity the ground of moral legitimacy, but a set of sacred ideals revolving around a faith-based belief. The Catholic church that rose out of the collapsing Roman empire valorized very Platonic notions of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and coupled them with liturgical concepts of Love, Sin and Redemption through the sacrifice of Christ4. At which point, European and English societies had a transcendent focal-point that superseded their own tribal instincts, and gave them a common cause, whose integrity held until the Enlightenment. However, the Enlightenment did not abandon the valorization of abstract Platonic ideals as organizing principles for society over tribal identity. Rather, it attempted to replace the abstract ideals of “scholastic” medieval society, with new ideals. Ideals that were meant to diminish the authority of the church and state, and strengthen the individual. The goal was, in the spirit of the new scientific approach to the world, to find a single unifying principle of human nature5 that could unite all of humanity under a single umbrella of brotherhood. You can see the ecstatic expression of this goal in the poetry of Schiller6 and Goethe.

The United States would appear to be the final political expression of that transformation. But, if the goal was a single, unifying ideal, then the project is incomplete. American society seems to be grounded in not one, but two sacred values given to it by the Enlightenment: Liberty and Equality. These ideals on their own are not unique to the United States, but they are unique in their combination and expression in the United States. Even in the country that is their intellectual home, they are combined with yet a third ideal that, arguably, stands as the real primary — and it harkens back to the pre-medieval heritage of the nation. I am, of course, speaking of France, and its famous triumvirate of ideals: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Fraternity, however, is not understood by the French as Schiller or Goethe would have meant it (as a universal brotherhood of all men). Rather, it is indeed a statement of ethno-cultural solidarity. It is the Frankish People, who love their pastoral homeland, whose sacred heart is Paris, and out of whose ranks rose such renowned names as Charlemagne, Louis IX, Rousseau, Robespierre, Napoleon, de Gaul, Sartre, and Foucault. This sort of tribal identification is the bit that is missing from the American political ethos. Even the Russians, with their nearly eighty year long dysfunctional love-hate relationship with Marxism, have been unable to shake their ethno-cultural tribal identity as a core political value over and above the Communist egalitarianism that nearly destroyed them.

The “American People”, such as they are, have always been a hodge-podge of ethnic and social confusions. At first, loosely affiliated colonial villages made up of Dutch, English, Spanish, and French settlers and explorers, all arrayed more or less against the indigenous populations. Because the English were the dominant presence in the colonies, it is their legal culture and political philosophy that dominate the institutions of those early settlements. For the English, an early form of individual sovereignty grounded in property rights derived mainly from colonial corporate charters and the heritage of the Magna Carta put Liberty front and center as the core value of that society7. Their most successful political competitors were the French, and the colonial period also happens to be the most productive period for the French segment of the Enlightenment. For thinkers like Rousseau, the highest ideal was Equality (see his Discourse on Inequality, for example). Thus, this too became a motivating force in early colonial life, and later alloyed to Liberty, the composed the dual pillars of the American polity. Yet, apart from their shared experience of extreme hardship on the frontier of a new continent, there was very little on offer in the way of a tribal identity known as “American”. Instead, the label was as sort of circumstantial short-hand. It’s true that de Tocqueville use the term “American” in a quasi-ethnic sense, but his use invoked an imaginative idea of the Puritans as a way to characterize the attitudes of all who populated the newly formed nation. In general the term “American” was just a convenient way of referring to the people who chose to live on the new continent, be they English, French, Dutch, Spanish, or eventually Irish, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, or later still, Turkish, Greek, Polish, and Arab.

The implications of this are staggering. For the first time in human history, you have an entire continent that represents a veritable blank-slate upon which could be inscribed any and all of the human yearning to learn and grow and explore, and it just so happened to coincide with the explosion of Enlightenment idealism in the popular culture — the secular philosophical cousin of the ancient Catholic ideal of the “universal church”. It is this highly religious notion of Enlightenment universalism that envelopes and informs the American understanding of the ideals of Liberty and Equality. The words of Paul in Galatians must have been ringing in Jefferson’s ears, as he penned the first words of the Declaration of Independence: “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free… for you are all one in Christ Jesus…” (Galatians 3:28).

It is this universalism that acts as the “glue” binding Liberty and Equality together, and it is this universalism that some have tried to engineer into a new kind of limitless ethno-cultural identity, which could function as a final form of tribal identity: the tribe of the human race. But this is a mistake. Enlightenment universalism cannot replace tribal allegiance, and it cannot function as a higher-order value to which Liberty and Equality must pay homage. First, because it is limitless and tribes, by definition, are limited to specific very concrete characteristics. Second, because it lacks the particularity of its original religious parent. The “universal church” works, because it offers Christ up as a kind of ideal man, which functions as a model for emulation, and upon which can be focused our moral aspirations. Enlightenment universalism offers only the ecstatic sentiment of Schiller’s “spark of divinity” found in all men alike, but no guide as to what to do about that spark.

* * * *

It is in this historical context that we arrive at our original question: “does justice require that anything be distributed equally? If so, what?“. Let’s bring the discourse back down to earth, and consider it in concrete terms. The modern theorist of “distributive justice” sees his role in much the same way an economist might, except as a moral accountant rather than a material one. All the goods that really matter are material goods (and ‘material’ includes such things as circumstantial goods like ‘opportunities’), and the task of the theorist is to devise a method for deciding how to apportion those goods amongst the living. In short who gets what, and why? These theorists all take a kind of comparative attitude as their starting point. Johnny has three apples. Janey has four apples. Is it a good thing or a bad thing for Janey to have one more apple than Johnny? At which point, they will all line up on one side or the other of the question, offering various rationales for each side: the effort required to obtain the apples, the adequacy of access to the apple trees, the race and gender of Johnny and Janey, their relative health and vigor, the effects of emotions like envy and jealousy, the scarcity of the apples, the fulfillment inherent in the work of apple picking, the circumstantial luck involved in the selection of trees to pick from, and on and on. There is an assumption lurking quietly under the moral question first raised. Namely, the default position against which all deviations require a moral justification is relative equality. Johnny and Janey ought to have the same number of apples unless you can provide a moral justification for it being otherwise.

The debate between the two most prominent theorists of distributive justice in the twentieth century can dramatically illustrate this assumption. John Rawls concocted a thought experiment designed to convince us all that if we were in an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance”, we would all rationally choose to organize the democratic society in which we presently lived, in such a way that it minimized the personal risk of being trapped permanently at the bottom of the economic heap. This was indeed meant in a very economic sense (Rawls ruled out things like slavery and extreme scarcity, because he starts from a presumption of modern abundance). He further argued that the presence of any wealth or income inequalities would only be justified where it could be shown to be “for the benefit of all”. Robert Nozick famously retorted with a thought experiment of his own, involving Wilt Chamberlain and a special collection box into which his fans could divest themselves of any unused quarters, in his name. Nozick wasn’t arguing that he had an example of Rawls’ Difference Principle in action. Rather, Nozick takes Rawls’ claim that Liberty is primary seriously, but Rawls does not. Rawls’ defenders claim that Rawlsian Equality is a necessary precondition for true Liberty, arguing that, after all, it takes access to wealth to be able to make certain choices (e.g., going to school or starting a business). Defenders of Nozick retort that the forced appropriation of property in order to satisfy a requirement for a “patterned distribution” is a direct violation of Rawls own Liberty Principle, which Rawls claimed was lexical in his scheme.

To an extent, both men are correct. Contrary to some who claim that Liberty and Equality are consonant ideals, it does seem fairly clear that taken to their limits, these ideals are direct competitors (and at the present moment of history, it appears Equality may have gained the high ground against Liberty). What’s more, I am not convinced that a reconciliation is possible between them. The reason is because these ideals are moral principles, fundamentally. Any society that is organized around a moral principle (rather than, say, a primitive need, a tribal identity, or a secondary cause) is going to work to expand the scope of the principle as a means of perfecting the society relative to it. Liberty is one of those principles that, when extended to its limit, is incapable of admitting any other principle. It begins with the liberty to do what you must; extends to the liberty to do what you can, in the face of material obstacles; and finally ends with the liberty to do as you please, regardless of material or moral constraints. Likewise with Equality. At first, the concern is for procedural fairness, and impartiality, i.e. “equality before the law”; it extends to notions like “equality of opportunity” and “equality of regard” (which we can see overtaking the culture of the west now); and finally ends in absolute equality, in which the state spends all of its effort on capture and redistribution of all inequalities, regardless of material contingency or moral justification. It is at these extremes where we can see Rawls and Nozick intuitively anticipating the failure of each others’ doctrines.

The implications for the United States (and to some extent, the UK and Europe) are dire. As mentioned above, our political society is grounded on both of these ideals, and as I’ve shown here with at least these two ideals, no society can sustain itself, where competing ideals form its foundation. Eventually, factions will form around these ideals, and the inevitably irreconcilable conflict will fracture it. Already, we could see this conflict bubbling up in the 19th century. But I think it was averted by the Civil War. Just at the moment that Liberty and Equality were sure to drive the union itself into dissolution, Lincoln appeared and elevated a third principle above them. He made this explicit in his famous Gettysburg Address. He says of the federal union, that it was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal“. He understands the dual moral loyalties of the Founders. And, he realizes what is needed to reconcile the conflict. He shifts the language. He calls the United States a nation, and insists that we have a duty before God, and a sacred debt to the dead, to insure that it “never perishes from the earth”. Union, then, becomes the overarching principle, to which Liberty and Equality are subordinated. His “new birth of freedom” is a demotion for both equality and freedom. But subordination might be exactly what is needed.

Other than a concrete goal such as the self-preservation of an existing state (the preservation of the American union, for example), or an arbitrary notion like ethno-cultural identity (particular heritages such as the Frankish, Slavic, English, etc), or a religious commitment (i.e. a theocracy), it is not clear what could fill the role of ultimate purpose, to which all other ideals could be subordinated. I am well aware of the spectre I am raising in all this talk of ethno-cultural solidarity and theocracy. The tribal instinct in man is a powerful one, and a deadly one. I am clear-eyed about the very real threat it presents. At the same time, I am also aware that the sort of quirky experiment that the Enlightenment was, is an aberration in human history, that it is frightfully young and vulnerable, and that it makes extreme counter-evolutionary demands upon us that I suspect are unsustainable. Recent naive utopian attempts at achieving those counter-evolutionary dreams have largely been a horror show of their own.

Perhaps what is needed, is a fresh look back at the ancients, again. It could be, that a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of the Greeks, Romans, and early church fathers of the Catholic tradition, could yield insights we haven’t noticed before, in the light of modern scholarship, linguistic prowess, and technological advancements. Another possibility, is the fusion of Humean naturalism and the psychological sciences that sprang from it, with the intellectual and mystical traditions of early Christianity (Plato, Aristotle, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, et. al.). Perhaps justice, in the end, is exactly as the Greeks imagined it: everything in its proper place, and aiming toward its proper end. Aristotle began the work of systematizing this in the Nicomachean Ethics, with his notion of justice as a balancing of terms in a ratio, rather than the modern idea of a leveled plane. Some claim that Aristotle’s concept was a purely legal one (which is why a blind woman holds aloft a balanced scale, in front of every American court room). But I think this is far too narrow an interpretation of his idea. For Aristotle, what is owed and what is deserved, are a numerator and the denominator that must reduce to 1, if justice is to be served. Likewise, across a society, all numerators and denominators must resolve ultimately to 1. In such a scheme, Liberty and Equality would resume their proper role as instrumental goods enjoyed in measures that balanced the scale. The very first thing Aristotle argues for in the Nicomachean Ethics, is an ideal of the greatest good for man. He calls this “Eudaemonia”, which as near as I can tell, means something like the pride of conscience experienced when surveying an entire life lived in excellence (according to the virtues). What we like to call “happiness”, today (also the term used by Jefferson). Justice, then, would be the balance of contributions made and rewards given, to a life lived in excellence in the polis. As long as the ratio of those two things reduces to 1, justice is sufficiently met.

There is not enough room to explore this possibility any further here. Suffice to say, it is a live option. But, I would add this much: it seems to me that this is the only way to escape the predicament we find ourselves in. Clearly, composites of Enlightenment ideals are not sufficient. and a return to primitive tribal principles are a non-starter. Liberty and Equality must be dethroned as ultimate ends. But what are they to serve as their new master? A return to primitive tribal concepts like ethno-cultural solidarity are a non-starter. So, a new philosophical understanding is needed. One that locates justice in some higher ideal than we’ve yet imagined. But what is that? I don’t know if there is an answer to this question.

The Euthyphro Expansion Pack


I’ve decided to take on the challenge of re-writing the Euthyphro dialogue, from this Coursera class, to explore alternative dialectical paths around the dilemma. When I first made this decision, I knew intuitively that if I took it seriously it would actually be a more challenging assignment than simply explicating Plato’s theory of the just soul from The Republic.

Plato’s dialogues are not just sets of step-by-step logical walk-throughs, within which you can simply change premises to arrive at new conclusions. They are Plato’s attempt to reimagine greek dramas – with all the subtext, allegory, and metaphor that comes with any good drama. Plato repeatedly breaks his own “fourth-wall” (at least implicitly) to remind us that he was aware of his project. So, the challenge with this exercise, is to somehow preserve the integrity of the drama, as Plato envisioned it, while exploring the possibility of alternative arguments and conclusions. In my preparation for this assignment, I have discovered that this is not only a more challenging assignment, it is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

To show you what I mean, I’ve decided to include my stream of consciousness here, in some sort of organized form, in order to give the reader some context into the approach I took in the dialogue itself.

What the Euthyphro Dilemma Is Not

In modern parlance, The dilemma presented by Socrates to Euthyphro is some sort of challenge to an idea in later Medieval Christian moral philosophy, known as “Divine Command Theory”. To state the problem as simply as possible: It is a monotheistic dilemma in which one horn says that God’s arbitrary will as expressed is the good, and the other horn points to a good that is metaphysically independent of God (to which he refers, when commanding us). The implicit contradiction that arises from this, is that God could not be all-powerful if he was referencing some “higher” objective metaphysical thing that he did not control; but on the other hand, he himself could not be “good”, in any objective sense, if he simply arbitrarily determined what was right and wrong, strictly according to his will. This apparent contradiction is often used as an argument in defense of atheism.

But this is not at all what Socrates and Euthyphro are debating, in the segment in which they engage the dilemma directly. Theirs is not even a debate about what the greek gods command. It’s not about commands at all. It’s a debate about what is, and is not, worthy of love – in particular, worthy of the love of a god (6e – 7a).

Of course, modern monotheists are free to reframe this dilemma all they want, in the formulation of their own theology. But if I am to answer this assignment honestly, I don’t think I can employ any of the common objections to this “modern” version of the dilemma. That would be to answer a different question than that which is posed in this assignment.

Staying in Character

As I stated initially, I want to maintain the integrity of the narrative, in addition to the logical arguments. It’s important that Euthyphro remains the Euthyphro of this dialogue, and that Socrates remains the Socrates of Euthyphro (and doesn’t suddenly become the Socrates of The Phaedrus, or the Timaeus, for example).

Plato knew what he was doing when he wrote these dialogues. He knew that the narrative structure and the journey of the characters was just as important to his argument, as the arguments themselves. A great example of this, is in The Republic, Book IV and V, where Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Socrates are engaged in a three-way dialogue in search of the meaning of justice. If you read it carefully enough, you’ll find that the three men have been presented to us carefully, so that by the time this exchange takes place (at the home of Cephalus, I believe), they are the dramatic embodiment of the ideal soul, seeking knowledge of “justice”:

  • Glaucon is the embodiment of the Timocratic man, the spirited aspect of the soul, and the virtue of Courage
  • Adeimantus is the embodiment of the Oligarchic man, the appetitive aspect of the soul, and the virtue of Temperance
  • Socrates is the embodiment of the Aristocratic man, the reasoning aspect of the soul, and the virtue of Wisdom

As the three move through their exchange, you can see in their responses to one another, and in the actions of those around them, that the dialectic process is actually elevating each of them. Glaucon is humbled, and assumes albeit briefly, the mantle of the Aristocratic Man. Adeimantus is emboldened, and after a prompt from Polemarchus (449b), challenges Socrates the way Glaucon might have a few pages earlier, becoming the Timocratic man. And even Thrasymachus and Polemarchus are elevated. Polemarchus, the strong-arming Democrat at the beginning of the dialogue, becomes an Oligarch. And, did you notice how in that break when Adeimantus is emboldened to demand that Socrates explain the fate of property and women, Thrasymachus volunteers to include his “vote” in favor of the motion (450a)? He was elevated by the dialectic from a tyrant, to a Democrat, for a time.

The point here, is that to rewrite the Euthyphro, I must necessarily break the dramatic structure that Plato has constructed for a purpose. But why should this destruction be absolute? Couldn’t we limit the damage to something minimal, at least? To my way of thinking, this would require understanding the characters as Plato understood them, and to try to work with them as he would have (at least to the extent that I am competent to do so). To that end, here is the rough sketch of identities, I’ll work with:


He is one of a class of men known as the “manteis” (“mantis” in singular). This translates roughly as “seers”. These men served as counselors and advisors to the prominent members of Athenian society. They claimed to have access to divine knowledge, by way of divination powers they inherited at birth. Wikipedia identifies him as an “…Athenian citizen of the Prospalta deme old enough to have appeared multiple times before the Athenian assembly in 399, placing his birth somewhere in the mid-5th century. Euthyphro [according to the eponymous dialogue] had evidently farmed on Naxos, probably as part of the cleruchy established by Pericles in 447 to which his father may have belonged…”

This suggests a man with a great deal of social and political power. It also suggests a man whose own livelihood and power rested on his credibility as a mantis. In other words, a mantis that openly doubted his own powers of divination (access to divine knowledge), would essentially be destroying his own capacity to earn a living, gain any social status, and maintain any power.


The question here is not so much what his biography is, but rather, which Socrates is Plato giving us in The Euthyphro? The Socrates of The Republic or the Timaeus, or the Socrates of the Phaedrus or the Symposium, might have given a very different performance than the one that showed up here in the Euthyphro. One could speculate at length about the differences between them. For example, why is Socrates so skeptical of Euthyphro’s divination powers, and yet so enthusiastically credulous of Timaeus’ knowledge of the realm of the heavens? Why is he so tentative about asserting what the gods love and desire here in Euthyphro, and yet so certain of what they love and desire in Republic? These speculations are a topic for another day. But it is enough to show that a fair recasting of the Euthyphro dialogue will avoid the credulous Socrates, and lean toward the skeptical one.

Moving The GoalPosts

As skeptical as he is, Socrates still volunteers to forego the epistemological question of how it is that Euthyphro knows what the gods love, and don’t love (6a – 6c). One possible reason for this, might be his fear of an even more serious charge of atheism being laid against him, after Meletus’ attack. In any case, he chooses to focus explicitly on the metaphysical question: what is holy (6d)? And, he never returns to the epistemological question in this dialogue.

If this were to become a question in the dialogue, it would have to be Euthyphro that returned them to it. But Euthyphro himself, as I point out above, is absolutely epistemologically committed to his knowledge of the gods, at least, insofar as their existence and the stories about their activities is concerned (6b/6c/6e). And, actually, it’s likely that both men are self-motivated to signal their own fervent belief to each other, for fear of being labelled an atheist. After all, Euthyphro’s own family is threatening to charge him with impiety, too (4d/4e).

So it seems to me, that diverting the dialogue into an epistemological debate about the existence of the gods, or more precisely, our knowing about their existence, would be to radically depart from the basic character motivations in the dialogue. This means, any response that Euthyphro gives to Socrates must presuppose both the existence of, and knowledge of the existence of, the gods and their preferences. Which is probably why Socrates explicitly stipulates to this, himself.

Third-Party Solutions

I suppose another approach, might be to bring other actors into the dialogue. For example, I could give Protagoras, or Gorgias, or Parmenides a cameo. But then we’d end up with those dialogues, instead of the Euthyphro. And, since I am far less familiar with these characters, than say, Adeimantus or Euthyphro, I’d run a much greater risk of mischaracterizing them, along with getting the arguments wrong.

Searching For An Entry Point

Dr. Meyer asks us to take up the challenge right at the point that Socrates asks the famous dilemma question, at 10a: “Just consider this question:—Is that which is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

But directly preceding this, we miss an opportunity to give Euthyphro a second chance to not to take Socrates’ bait at 9c/9d, where he settles firmly on a definition: “Well, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and, on the other hand, what they all hate is impious.” What if, instead, Euthyphro had simply said, “I’ve already told you Socrates, the only god that matters in this particular case is Zeus, and as such, he is the only god that matters in any case”? But perhaps this is somewhat irrelevant (given point 4).

During the clarifying exchanges, Euthyphro repeatedly affirms his understanding of Socrates’ question, but then, at 10d, he inexplicably seems to switch opinion, and agree with Socrates:

Soc:   It is loved by all the gods, is it not, according to what you said?
Euth:  Yes.
Soc:   For this reason: because it is holy, or for some other reason?
Euth:  No, for this reason.
Soc:   It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?
Euth:  I think so.

So, Euthyphro is already vacillating on his assertion in 9d by the time we get to 10d. Shortly after, may be a place where we can believably interject an alternative Euthyphro – at the point where he complains about being confused by Socrates (the Daedalus jest at 11c). Alternatively diverting at 11e would derail Socrates’ exploration of piety as one of the constituent parts of justice, but might also give Euthyphro an opportunity to clarify much of what was confusing Socrates earlier.

Still, without this exploration of piety as a component part of justice, Euthyphro would not have an opportunity to make his assertion at 12e. An assertion that Socrates assents to. So, at this point, we have a basic agreement between them. What’s more, Socrates then goes off on what looks like a hair-splitting adventure around the word “care” (or “attention”, or “service”) at 13a. Here, Socrates equates the gods with pack animals and beasts of burden. Euthyphro could take Socrates to task for that, but here he already begins to diverge with Socrates on the nature of the “caring”.

Perhaps, then, the answer at 13d is a better place to give Euthyphro his redemption. He could respond by explaining that service to the gods is actually very different than that between a servant and a master. But he and Socrates would just end up back at the dead end of labeling what is pious as what is dear to the gods.


So where does that leave us? Near as I can tell, attempting to “improve” on what Plato has already written seems to me to be a fool’s errand. From my reading, these dialogues were never really meant to provide indisputable “answers” to the questions they posed. They were meant to act as demonstrations of the dialectic in action, to show how it can improve the soul — and to give Plato the space he needed to explore his own philosophical commitments. If you read The Laws, or The Parmenides, you’ll find that he actually starts to question all of the bedrock positions he established in dialogues like The Republic.

And it is The Laws that actually gave me the idea for how I could approach the rewrite. The Laws never mentions Socrates. It is an exchange between “an Athenian stranger”, and two other ordinary characters. The stranger is said to resemble Socrates, but many speculate that this stranger is actually Plato himself, attempting to work out a new “compromise” position on politics, that was somewhat less ambitious than what he laid out in The Republic.

This is how one could approach the Euthyphro safely: Instead of attempting to bend Euthyphro or Socrates to my will, I could simply inject myself into the dialogue, as a “traveling Abderan stranger”, who overhears Euthyphro and Socrates debating the idea of piety. But if I joined too soon, I would break the dramatic unity (tripartite dialectic, instead of binary). In fact, I don’t think I’d take this approach if the assignment were to do the same, with The Republic. The reason for this, is the point of view. Euthyphro is in the third-person. So, I could insert myself without having to provide any internal references from Socrates himself. But the Republic is in the first person. This would require Socrates to notice me, to make mention of it, and to actively invite me into the dialog. I don’t think he’d have done that in the context of that dialog.

Euthyphro Expansion Pack

But what if the stranger appears near the end of the dialogue? At the point where Socrates is at the height of his desperation, and Euthyphro decides to bail out? This would allow us to maintain the dialogue as it is, and in its full context, we could continue the conversation with Socrates almost as if it were a new dialogue. Of course, it’s not going to match the dramatic subtlety or symmetry of Plato, but at least we’re not smashing up an ancient greek masterpiece just to piece it back together with Elmer’s glue. At the very worst, this would be gluing on a pair of easily removable handles.

As such, I think what I’ll do is provide two alternative dialogues. The first, is specific to the assignment, and it will feature a Euthyphro insisting that it is the arbitrary affection of the gods that imbues a thing with piety. The second, will see the dialogue to its conclusion, but interrupt Socrates at the point he is lamenting Euthyphro’s departure, and will re-engage Socrates as if it’s a new dialogue.

And, without further ado, I present to you: the Euthyphro Expansion Pack:

Dialogue 1: Euthyphro Says No

-------- Starting at (9c), for the sake of context: ------------

Soc. But they will be sure to listen if they find that you are a good speaker. [9c] There was a notion that came into my mind while you were speaking; I said to myself: “Well, and what if Euthyphro does prove to me that all the gods regarded the death of the serf as unjust, how do I know anything more of the nature of piety and impiety? for granting that this action may be hateful to the gods, still piety and impiety are not adequately defined by these distinctions, for that which is hateful to the gods has been shown to be also pleasing and dear to them.” And therefore, Euthyphro, I do not ask you to prove this; I will suppose, if you like, [9d] that all the gods condemn and abominate such an action. But I will amend the definition so far as to say that what all the gods hate is impious, and what they love pious or holy; and what some of them love and others hate is both or neither. Shall this be our definition of piety and impiety?

Euth. Why not, Socrates?

Soc. Why not! certainly, as far as I am concerned, Euthyphro, there is no reason why not. But whether this admission will greatly assist you in the task of instructing me as you promised, is a matter for you to consider.

Euth. [9e] Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious.

Soc. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?

Euth. We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will stand the test of enquiry.

Soc. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. [10a] The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious is beloved by the gods because it is pious, or pious because it is beloved of the gods.

Euth. I do not understand your meaning, Socrates.

Soc. I will endeavour to explain: we speak of carrying and we speak of being carried, of leading and being led, seeing and being seen. You know that in all such cases there is a difference, and you know also in what the difference lies?

Euth. I think that I understand.

Soc. And is not that which is beloved distinct from that which loves?

Euth. Certainly.

Soc. [10b] Well; and now tell me, is that which is carried in this state of carrying because it is carried, or for some other reason?

Euth. No; that is the reason.

Soc. And the same is true of what is led and of what is seen?

Euth. True.

Soc. And a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely, visible because it is seen; nor is a thing led because it is in the state of being led, or carried because it is in the state of being carried, but the converse of this. And now I think, Euthyphro, [10c] that my meaning will be intelligible; and my meaning is, that any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it undergo because it is in a state of undergoing, but it is in a state of undergoing because it undergoes. Do you agree?

Euth. Yes.

Soc. Is not that which is loved in some state either of becoming or undergoing?

Euth. Yes.

Soc. And the same holds as in the previous instances; the state of being loved follows the act of being loved, and not the act the state.

Euth. Certainly.

Soc. And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: [10d] is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euth. Yes.

Soc. Because it is pious, or for some other reason?

------- DIVERGENCE BEGINS HERE ------------

Euth: As I have stated repeatedly now, what the gods love is what is pious. Their love is what makes a thing a pious thing. Why is this so hard for you to understand?

Soc: But isn’t this simply giving affection another name?

Euth: What are you talking about?

Soc: You’re talking in circles again. You’re saying, that which is loved by the gods is that which is loved by the gods. But you’re calling it piety. Is it love or is it piety? Or, is there any difference?

Euth: Socrates, my unfortunate friend, we’ve been over this. The gods are mightier than we are. They have powers far beyond that of which we mere mortals are capable. I have offered to tell you of these things, but you refused in favor of this single-minded pursuit of yours. Now, you must listen to me:

When the gods love a thing, their love covers and surrounds that object, like a vapor or a scent. That emmanation penetrates the object, and through this, it shares in their divine essence with them. It strengthens the object, making it appear admirable in a special way to humankind. This, we call “the pious”.

Soc: This is remarkable, Euthyphro! I recall that I earlier doubted the stories of war amongst the gods, and still granted the case to you. But this is a tale of unimaginable oddness. How did you come to this knowledge?

Euth: Come now, Socrates. You know that I am a Mantis. Are you mocking me?

Soc: By Zeus, no! You are my teacher, and I am desperate for you to help me understand. Otherwise I’ll be left with nothing to defend myself from the wrath of Meletus. I am sorry for this Euthyphro, but I just don’t understand you. If the pious and the beloved are not two different things, then why do we give them two names? Surely, there is something that the gods recognize in a thing. Something that is inspiring their love for it?

Euth: Now, you are asking for something I am not equipped to offer you. My access to the divine can only tell us what they do and do not love. It cannot tell us why they love what they love, or why hate what they hate. Perhaps you should make a pilgrimage to Delphi.

Soc: Who is mocking whom, now? In any case, if the gods cannot tell us why they love what they love, and we cannot divine or discern the reasons for their love, what use is it to us?

------------------ rejoin briefly, at the end of 13e ------------------

Euth: What use indeed! // Many and fair, Socrates, are the works which they do.

Soc. Why, my friend, and so are those of a general. But the chief of them is easily told. Would you not say that victory in war is the chief of them?

Euth. Certainly.

Soc. Many and fair, too, are the works of the husbandman, if I am not mistaken; but his chief work is the production of food from the earth?

Euth. Exactly.

Soc. And of the many and fair things done by the gods, which is the chief or principal one?

Euth. I have told you already, Socrates, that to learn all these things accurately will be very tiresome. Let me simply say that piety or holiness is learning, how to please the gods in word and deed, by prayers and sacrifices. Such piety, is the salvation of families and states, just as the impious, which is unpleasing to the gods, is their ruin and destruction.

Soc. I think that you could have answered in much fewer words the chief question which I asked, Euthyphro, if you had chosen. But I see plainly that you are not disposed to instruct me— clearly not: else why, when we reached the point, did you turn, aside? Had you only answered me I should have truly learned of you by this time the— nature of piety. Now, as the asker of a question is necessarily dependent on the answerer, whither he leads— I must follow; and can only ask again, what is the pious, and what is piety? Do you mean that they are a, sort of science of praying and sacrificing?

------------ Divergence again, at [14c] ------------

Euth: No, Socrates. You are fatiguing me. I already explained what piety is. What you are describing now, is religious ritual. That is the simple practice of asking and giving to and from the gods. It is not a science, as I explained. It cannot be a science. The things we do in the practice of our religion are pious, because the gods love it. The gods will therefore show us when we are acting with piety, if only we would act.

Soc: I’m not sure what you mean, Euthyphro. If I cannot discover the meaning of their love, how can I be sure that changing my own behaviors will attract the love of the gods, and thereby insure my piety, before the court? Will you not help me to discover why the gods love what they love?

-------- Rejoin, at [15e] --------

Euth: Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now.

Soc. Alas! my companion, and will you leave me in despair? I was hoping that you would instruct me in the nature of piety and impiety; and then I might have cleared myself of Meletus and his indictment. I would have told him that I had been enlightened by Euthyphro, and had given up rash innovations and speculations, in which I indulged only through ignorance, and that now I am about to lead a better life.

…And, poor Socrates ends in the same place he began. But what if this dialogue continued, just with another interlocutor?

Dialogue 2: The Consolation Of A Stranger

-------- This dialogue continues the last passage of the original [15e-16a]: -------

Socrates. Alas! my companion, and will you leave me in despair? I was hoping that you would instruct me in the nature of piety and impiety; and then I might have cleared myself of Meletus and his indictment. I would have told him that I had been enlightened by Euthyphro, and had given up rash innovations and speculations, in which I indulged only through ignorance, and that now I am about to lead a better life.

Abderan Stranger: Socrates, do not despair. I have been listening to your conversation with Euthyphro, and I would be glad to help you on your quest to discover what is piety.

Socrates: But you are no Euthyphro. He is the one who has this information. Do you know what piety is? Did you already learn it from Euthyphro? Can you tell me?

Abd: Alas, Socrates, no. I am no Mantis, and I have received no instruction from great Euthyphro. I admit that I do not know what piety is, but as you helped the proud Meno to see, perhaps if we can begin with the ideas you raised with Euthyphro, then we can continue the work together, to discover it.

Soc: How do you know of my conversation with Meno?

Abd: Word gets around, in Athens, Socrates. Everyone knows who you are. Your conversations are legendary. Can I give you another example?

Soc: By all means. Tell me of how my words are reaching the ears of my fellow Athenians!

Abd: Socrates, you were proposing to Euthyphro earlier that piety may be a part of justice. But this is confusing to me. Did you not already explain to Glaucon and Adeimantus, at the festival of the new Thracian goddess, what is justice?

Soc: I did, indeed. It was a most beautiful explanation, if I do say so myself. I explained how the soul of man is comprised of three parts: the spirited, the appetitive, and the reasoning, and a balance of these three aspects is derived by educating them by means of the virtues of courage, temperance, and wisdom. And, if we did this consistently, the harmony of the three virtues at play within the soul would produce justice.

Abd: Right, and now I ask: where does piety now fit into that perfect triangle of virtues? How is piety also produced as a “part” of the justice that is produced?

Soc: You raise an interesting question, friend. Let’s examine the question together. Is it a part of what is produced, or a part of what produces?

Abd: What do you mean?

Soc: Would you say that piety is a virtue that helps to condition some part of the soul, or would you say that piety, in addition to justice, is a result of the three virtues working in harmony?

Abd: Socrates, I’m not at all sure. If we accept the former, that would break the unity of the three virtues. If we accept the latter, then justice does not appear to be a complete whole, but rather an assemblage of parts.

Soc: Let us grant the former for the moment, what would be the consequence?

Abd: The soul would no longer be constituted as a triangle. It would be a square. But the simplest form is the triangle. Shouldn’t the soul follow suit?

Soc: Yes, this is a problem. But perhaps I have been attacking this from the wrong frame of reference. Tell me, how many perfect solids are there?

Abd: Well, according to you Socrates, there are five, yes?

Soc: Yes, that’s quite right, and they are, the Tetrahedron, the Hexahedron, the Octahedron, the Dodecahedron, and the Icosahedron. Let’s start with the first. The Tetrahedron, what shape does it have?

Abd: It’s a triangle, yes?

Soc: Not quite. How many sides are needed for this shape?

Abd: There are four sides to a Tetrahedron.

Soc: Quite correct. And I see now, the mistake I’ve made with Glaucon and Adeimantus. I should wish to find them and explain it as quickly as possible! My daimon never warned me, but this is so clearly a mistake. I am beside myself.

Abd: But what is the mistake, Socrates? I don’t understand. What have you discovered?

Soc: I will draw a triangle in the sand, just here. Do you agree, this is a triangle?

Abd: Yes, of course, and I can also see how each point can be understood as a point in the just soul, as you’ve so wondrously described it in the past.

Soc: But this triangle lies flat on the ground. It is like the shadow of this stool, or that tree. It is not the thing itself, but an imperfect image of it. How can I perfect this shape?

Abd: We should add a side to it. We should raise it out of the sand, so that it stands before us, as a house or tree would. That would give it all the sides of a Tetrahedron, yes?

Soc: Yes! Exactly. A triangle has three sides. But the perfected form of the triangle has four. By the gods! How could I have missed this? But I see it so clearly now!

Abd: Socrates, you’re scaring me. Are you alright? What have you discovered? What do you see?

Soc: Did the storyteller who recounted my trip to Pireaus to you, also tell you of the story of the cave I told to Adeimantus and Glaucon?

Abd: He did, Socrates, and it was amazing. If you were a poet, we should all be entranced by your tales.

Soc: Nonsense, I am no poet. It served it’s purpose then, and it will serve it’s purpose again, now. In the allegory, I described men who carried carvings along a walkway, in front of a light. And I explained how the prisoners in the cave could only see the shadows of those objects, dancing on the cave wall in front of them. Do you recall?

Abd: Yes. Yes, of course.

Soc: And I described the one who escaped, as traveling to the surface, and finding himself blinded by the light of the bright sun, which he had never seen before, but gradually seeing the true forms of things on the surface, as his eyes adjusted.

Abd: I remember, Socrates, yes. A very magnificent vision.

Soc: And do you not see now, how the form of the triangle is like the shadow dancing on the cave wall, and the form of the Tetrahedron is the glimpse we have shared, of the true reality?

Abd: Absolutely. But what does this have to do with Justice?

Soc: My anonymous friend, because you have helped me so greatly, I will gladly share what I know with you: In the same way as the triangle is the shadow of the Tetrahedron, the soul I have constructed, and the the image of justice within it, is a mere shadow! The true soul, and the image of true justice within it, has four aspects, not three!

In addition to Spirit, Appetite, and Reasoning, there is a fourth aspect. The aspect that is shared with the gods. The aspect that looks upward, not in the way that the Reasoning does, but toward the gods. The virtue that tempers it is Reverence or Piety. In the same way that Wisdom tempers the Reasoning aspect. The vice that corrupts this aspect is Vaingloriousness or Impiety, in the same way that Pride corrupts the Reasoning aspect. It is the third horse harnessed to the chariot of the soul. We shall call this aspect “Faith”.

Abd: Socrates, I haven’t the breath to respond. This vision you have produced is overwhelming.

Soc: Well, stranger, we’ve no time to lose. It is late, and I must make my way to Glaucon’s at once. Will you accompany me?

Abd: Why, I would follow you anywhere! Lead on, teacher.

Soc: By the way, what did you say your name was?


Perseus Digital Library


The Seer In Ancient Greece, Michael Flower

The Augustine Collective

The Play Of Characters In Plato’s Dialogues, Ruby Blondell


Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

University of Washington

Plato, Socrates, And The Dialogues, Professor Michael Sugrue