The central issue in Plato’s Euthyphro is determining what type of information is sufficient to justify making unconventional decisions. In this paper, I argue that having an explanatory definition for a concept is necessary to support making an unconventional decision. To do this, I will first I will explain the difference between defining something using an affect or quality, versus an explanatory definition. Then I will lay out what it means to know something, and finally, I will conclude by connecting why it is necessary to know what a concept is, not just an affect or quality of it, to use that knowledge as the basis of making an unconventional decision.
Firstly, when Euthyphro defines piety as being loved by the gods, Socrates says that Euthyphro has only given an “affect or quality” of piety, and has not explained what piety is (11b). Socrates means that Euthyphro has only provided a feature of piety, and that his definition of piety is not a sufficient one. In other words, he has described something about piety, but not described what piety is. In order to describe what a concept is, one must give a sufficient, or explanatory definition of something, where an explanatory definition is a necessary and sufficient condition of that thing.
To illustrate this, consider someone defining dogs by saying: dogs are animals with fur. While this is true about dogs, this is only a feature of dogs. It is a necessary condition – dogs do have fur – but, it is a not sufficient condition. If it were sufficient, then it would follow that animals with fur are dogs. But this is not true: cats are animals with fur, and cats are not dogs. Therefore, while giving an affect or quality may be a necessary condition, it is not sufficient, and therefore not an explanatory definition.
With this difference between providing a feature, and giving an explanatory definition in mind, defining piety as being loved by the gods is perhaps a necessary condition; it is a feature of piety, but it is not a sufficient condition. If being pious is defined as being loved by the gods, then the fact that the gods love something doesn’t necessarily make it pious. For example, Jack Kerouac may love taking road trips. But, just the fact that Kerouac loves road trips doesn’t define what a road trip is. In the same way, just the fact that the gods love piety doesn’t define what piety is. Therefore, Euthyphro’s definition of the pious is not a sufficient one, and further, Euthyphro fails to provide an explanatory definition of what piety is.
Secondly, since Euthyphro cannot define what piety is with a necessary and sufficient condition, he may wrongly be wrongly accusing his father of being impious. As proof, consider the following argument:
- If someone cannot sufficiently define a concept, then they cannot have true knowledge about it.
- If someone doesn’t have true knowledge about something, at most they have a true belief about the concept.
- True beliefs can be wrong.
- Therefore, if someone cannot define a concept, then their belief about the concept may be wrong.
This argument is valid because the conclusion (4) follows from the premises.
A possible counterargument to this may have an issue with premise 1, stating that someone may have true knowledge about a concept without being able to define it. For example, someone may claim to know how to ride a skateboard, but be unable to explain or define how to ride a skateboard. However, this counterexample fails because having empirical knowledge about a craft or skill does not guarantee that the person who practices that skill will never make mistakes. Indeed, very experienced skateboarders make mistakes and fall often. Thus, as premise correctly 2 states, someone who claims to know something without being able to provide an explanatory definition has, at most, a true belief about the craft or skill. Additionally, as stated in premise (3), true beliefs can be wrong; for example, when an experienced skateboarder falls, their true belief on how to correctly skateboard was wrong at the time they fell. So, this argument is sound as well.
If Euthyphro is to be justified in prosecuting his father for being impious, he must have a clear idea of what piety is. Yet, as stated earlier, Euthyphro fails to ever give an explanatory definition for what piety is. He is only able to define piety using a feature of piety, which, as proved earlier, is not a sufficient definition. Therefore, since Euthyphro doesn’t have true knowledge about piety, then at most, he may have a true belief about what piety is. However, since true beliefs can be wrong, Euthyphro may be wrongly accusing his father of being impious.
Finally, following premises 1-4, consider the following:
- If someone may be wrong about the definition of a concept, then they cannot determine if some actions align with the values of that concept or not.
- If someone cannot determine if some actions align with the values of a concept, then they are not justified in accusing someone of acting in a way that doesn’t align with those values.
From (5) and (6), if someone’s accusations against another are dependent on the knowledge of a concept which they cannot define, then the accusations posed against that other person may be wrong. To avoid being wrong about the unconventional decision to prosecute his father for being impious, Euthyphro would have to provide a necessary and sufficient condition for what piety is, and since he never produces this necessary and sufficient condition for piety, then he may not be right in accusing his father for being impious.
If, on the other hand, Euthyphro has a definition of a piety, then he would be able to accurately determine whether someone’s actions are pious or not. However, since Euthyphro doesn’t have a definition of piety, there is no way he can determine whether his father’s actions are pious or impious. Therefore, Euthyphro is not justified in accusing his father of being impious.
In conclusion, after outlining what the difference between having knowledge versus a true belief about a concept, I showed that because Euthyphro fails to ever give a necessary and sufficient condition, or an explanatory definition, of the concept piety, he does not have knowledge about piety. Then I explained why lacking an explanatory definition of a concept can imply that a person’s belief about the concept may be wrong. Finally, I concluded that if someone possesses a wrong belief about a concept, then they are not justified in accusing someone for not aligning with the idea of the concept.