[Installment three of my philosophical ideas series Making Sense, picking up where we left off in post number two, "Murder Most Foul."]
What’s wrong with that answer is that it is merely an example. Euthyphro has given an example of what piety is but not an actual definition of piety.
Why does Socrates want a definition? In many of the dialogues of Plato, Socrates and his conversation partners (usually called “interlocutors”) engage in conversations very like this one. They try to give accurate definitions of courage, temperance, justice, etc. One of the best dialogues is Symposium in which Socrates and a number of other prominent Athenians get drunk at a dinner party and discuss love. I highly recommend the book.
Plato believed that knowledge is true belief of which we can give an account. This basic three part characterization of knowledge—that it is a belief, that it is true, and that we can justify it in some way—has been the lasting characterization since Plato’s time. Socrates had a very specific view of what kind of account to give—a definition. A definition should be able to tell you what is and is not included in a concept.
At this point in my classes I pull out my water bottle and ask the class to give a definition of water bottles. Someone usually begins with “Something that carries water you can drink.” I ask if anyone can think of something not a water bottle that fits that definition. Buckets, jugs, etc. get mentioned. Usually coming to a definition is a little work, with a lot of back and forth, emulating the Socratic Method of questions and answers. And this for something as simple as a water bottle.
Lately on the internet there has been discuss of whether a hot dog is a sandwich or not. The point has been made that if a meatball sandwich is a sandwich, then a hot dog should be as well. Yes, a hot dog does seem to fit most definitions of a sandwich—some food held between bread—but I can’t get over the idea that a hot dog simply does not fit the way I usually use the word sandwich.
Why do we care? Well, maybe we don’t care about the proper classification of a hot dog but we do care about our beliefs. Linda Zagzebski, a philosopher at the University of Oklahoma, wrote in her book Epistemology, “If we care about anything, we must care about the right way to believe. Caring about anything commits us to believing and disbelieving as we should.” We care about knowledge because we care about other things—like our family, our pets, living well, driving to work safely, eating stuff that isn’t dangerous, not sounding like an idiot, etc. We care about things, so we desire knowledge.
And, as we saw in the introduction, we also want to make sense of the world. We want to believe what is good and true and what will help us to live a meaningful life.
Socrates believes that someone with knowledge of a concept ought to be able to give an accurate definition of the concept. Is Socrates right? Can we give accurate definitions of abstract ideas like love and justice and courage? Most people think we can’t. Most people who read Plato’s dialogues about Socrates come to decide that being able to give an accurate definition is too stringent a requirement for justifying knowledge. Euthyphro’s difficulties in answering Socrates’ questions are revealing.
So, let’s hang for a while with this conversation Socrates and Euthyphro are having about piety and see where it heads.