Friday, July 30, 2010

The Moral Argument (Part 3) - Euthyphro's Dilemma

One issue commonly raised in discussions of the moral argument is what is known in philosophy as Euthyphro's Dilemma (see comments on Part 1).

The name (and the argument) originated, as so many do, with Plato. In his Euthyphro dialogue, the characters Socrates and Euthyphro have the following exchange:

Euthyphro: Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious. 

Socrates: 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?

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

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

This problem has been leveled against proponents of theistic moral theories ever since.

"Are actions moral because God commands them," they ask, "or does God command them because they are moral?"

This is a dilemma because if the theist takes the first option (known roughly as 'Divine Command Theory'), then it seems like what we consider 'moral' is rather arbitrary. God could have, on this view, just as easily chosen to make lying good and truth-telling bad. And then that would be the moral standard. But surely that can't be right.

But if we take the second option, then it seems like what is 'good' and 'moral' is somehow external to God, so that to say that God is good is simply to say that He conforms to some higher standard of goodness, not much different from the way humanity does.

The problem here is obvious. Neither option accords well with traditional Christian belief. If we go with the first horn, morality is arbitrary; if the second, it's supreme and God is subject.*

Either way, God is no longer the standard of moral perfection as Christians have taught. And yet, this is a dilemma, which means these are the only two options. Aren't they?

In short, no.

There is a third, and it is in fact the one that best fits what Christianity has traditionally believed. Morality is neither arbitrary nor external to God, but rather it is grounded in God's nature. That is, moral perfection is not something He chooses (arbitrarily or not); it is essential to His very being.

When God issues commands, they are necessarily in agreement with His nature and therefore good. And when we say that something is either morally praiseworthy or objectionable, what we mean (whether we realize it or not) is just that it either corresponds with God's nature or it doesn't, respectively.

So it turns out that for the Christian, Socrates' dilemma is a false one. It doesn't affect the traditional view of God or morality, and so the Christian need not be bothered by it.

Next time, teleology!

* Options in dilemmas are often called 'horns.'


  1. My turn to challenge you. Couldn't it be argued that this isn't a logical stance because the conclusion (God's commands are good because he is good) is self-affirming? I'm not much in the way of logical discourse, but it definitely looks circular. When I talked to Mormons, they told me they knew the Book of Mormon was true and the only evidence they gave was because it said it was. How does the Christian get of of the problem that third option gets them into?

  2. Chris: Thanks for commenting!

    I don't see the problem. The third option I'm offering here to split the horns of the dilemma is definitely not circular (although if it were that might not necessarily be a fatal flaw...but that's a post for another time). For example, the analogy you give regarding the Book of Mormon illustrates circularity well. "The Book of Mormon is true because the Book of Mormon says that the Book of Mormon is true." Or maybe "The Bible is inspired because 2 Timothy 3:16 says it is." Those are viciously circular arguments (again, I'll post on that later) because they assume their conclusion in their premise.

    However, the solution I've provided for the Euthyphro dilemma is pretty clearly different. In order to be analogous, I would have to say something like, "God's commands are good because those commands say that they are good." But of course that isn't what I'm saying. I'm saying the very standard by which we adjudicate goodness and badness, moral perfection and evil, is one of the essential attributes of God. It's part of who He is. And if it weren't, then He would cease to be God. If you ask why God is the standard of moral perfection, the answer can be given by quoting St. Anselm: because God is "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." He is "whatever it is better to be than not." Being the standard of moral perfection is greater than instantiating that standard. Therefore, by His very nature, God is the ground of objective morality.

    Hope that helps.

  3. Excellent points here. One problem I've always had with trying to relay this information to the objector is explaining the nature of God. They often bring up the same objection: that's circular! I think a good way to get this argument some extra justification is to use it in conjunction with the Ontological Argument--thus you can jointly assert that God is necessarily perfect, and that this then defeats the Euthyphro Dilemma.

  4. So it seems what is moral and what immoral is still somewhat arbitrary to me(not that that's necessarily a bad thing). I understand that morality is external to the Bible and special revelation, and that those are just evidence of the character of God, but isn't the standard of what is objectively right and wrong still arbitrary in some respect? I mean, there can only be one standard, but aren't the very things that are considered to be good and bad considered as such because of the character of God?

    I'm asking based on conversations I have had about morality with non-christians who would be considered "good people". And questions have come up during them about things that I consider right and wrong (mostly wrong)and why I think that way. It inevitably comes down to the existence of objective morality depending upon the existence of a moral law giver. Maybe I'm confusing the issues, but moral law, even though its existence is rooted in the character of God, seems to be the law just because "it is".

  5. Gopher: I'm so glad you asked this question. I was hoping someone would (since it is a fairly common response-to-the-response-to-the-dilemma). I appreciate you thinking seriously about the argument. Also, welcome to the blog. :)

    Your most relevant sentence: "Maybe I'm confusing the issues, but moral law, even though its existence is rooted in the character of God, seems to be the law just because "it is"."

    In a way, yes, this is true. But this is not a problem for the following reasons. God is, by definition, a necessary being. This just means that he exists in every possible world. As such, He is also what philosophers of religion like to call 'maximally great.' Anselm (see my post on the ontological argument) said roughly the same thing more confusingly: "God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived." This maximal greatness is also necessary to His being (i.e. there is no possible world in which God exists and is not maximally great), and it includes such attributes as moral perfection. So when we say that objective moral values are grounded in God's character, this is not at all arbitrary. On the contrary, it is the surest place they could be grounded: the essential nature of an ontologically necessary being. It literally could not have been otherwise.

    I hope that's clear. Philosopher William Lane Craig responds to essentially the same objection here: