The Euthyphro Dilemma

Believers often claim that unlike atheists, they have an objective basis for morality. They’re not working with what’s socially useful, or what’s preferable to humans; but instead, they’re operating from the unassailable, objective standard of God. The idea that our morality is grounded in God’s will is what’s known as divine command theory. But DCT has numerous problems, and one of the oldest problems comes to us from Plato nearly 2,500 years ago.

The Dilemma

Are right actions commanded by God because they are right? Or are right actions right because God commands them?

These may not seem radically different upon first glance, but each option, or each horn, as they’re called, has drastic implications for the nature of morality and God’s relationship to it.

So when we say that God is good, do we mean that (1) God wills something because it is good, or (2) good is defined as that which God wills?

If we take the first horn (God commands good actions because they are good), then God is matching some independent standard of good. He’s using some kind of metric and that’s why something like murder is wrong. Good is something wholly independent of God and is not created by God. If this is the case, and good actions are intrinsically good, then a god is actually not necessary for morality. If God is going by some standard, say, minimizing suffering or something like that, then why couldn’t we just cut out the middleman and go straight to the standard God himself is referring to? If God commands right actions because they are right, then God is entirely superfluous to morality.

The second option, or second horn (it’s good because God commands it), effectively makes morality arbitrary. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about suffering, for example. If God told you to murder someone, it would be morally correct by definition. God’s command is what makes something right or wrong and nothing else, which renders actions like murder to be neutral without God making them wrong. On this view, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with, for example, torturing someone for fun; it’s only bad because it goes against God’s preferences.

Take an example like adultery. I think we can generally agree that adultery is wrong. If you’re in a relationship where there’s an expectation of monogamy, you shouldn’t violate that person’s wishes. Now, in my mind, violating this obligation is wrong because it causes suffering. In that case, God’s prohibition on adultery is superfluous because the suffering is what’s making it immoral. Or is it wrong just because God says so, and the suffering is superfluous?

Neither of the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma are very desirable to theists. So apologists have largely responded by claiming that this dilemma is a false dichotomy, and they try to craft a third option that gets them out of the undesirable implications of the two horns. Some apologists simply bite the bullet and opt for the divine command theory option, but many find it to be unsatisfactory and come up with the third option, which we’ll come to in a minute.

The second horn, where something is only good because God says so, is the second most popular option. This is what’s known as DCT. If something is good only because a god has said so, then the same act can be good or bad depending on what god says at that particular time. Killing your child is wrong only because God says not to. And in the Bible, when God commands Abraham to kill his son, killing his child became morally right; and then when he was told not to, it became morally wrong. Or when God instructs parents to kill their disobedient children in the OT law (Leviticus 20), a rule which Jesus reaffirms twice in the NT (Matthew 15 and Mark 7), it becomes morally good to kill your children, given that they disobey you. On DCT, nothing is immoral unless God, at that moment, says it is wrong. God’s command alone is what makes something right. But this reduces morality to the whims of an authority where might makes right. Under this option, God is not moral or immoral; he’s an amoral being and all actions are amoral until God issues his opinion on them. It’s not that “God commands what is good,” but rather, “God commands what he commands,” and we call whatever he commands good after the fact. God establishes his moral authority by force. Under DCT, moral authority comes from overpowering everyone else.

The Third Horn

A third option is proposed by apologists who want to say that this is a false dilemma: goodness is inherent in God’s nature in such a way that whatever God wills or commands will be good. So God is not following a standard external to himself. Nor is his will arbitrary, because it’s based on his inherently good nature. He is the good; his will and commands are not arbitrary because they are based on his essentially good nature.

William Lane Craig on Euthyphro

This would mean that god is not following some standard outside of himself, which is the first horn. But they’re trying to avoid the second horn by saying that his commands are not arbitrary; they’re based on his essentially good nature.

The next question is, where does his nature come from? Why does he have this nature and not some other nature? Is his nature self-created or did it have to be this way? Let’s look at both of these options. On one hand, if he had no choice to have any nature other than the one he has now, then he’s not ultimately the author of morality. And it also implies some mysterious governing rules that are above god decided his nature had to be the way that it is. On the other hand, if he did choose his nature or has some control over what his nature is, why did he choose the nature he has over something else? Neither of these are good options for believers.

As for the first option, I don’t see how God could’ve chosen his own nature. How could God choose anything without already having a preference? In other words, how could he prefer one nature over another without already having a nature that governed his preferences? It’s unclear to me how it would be possible to choose one thing over another without already having some preferences that are guiding your choice. So if his nature was self-created, then it really would have to be chosen at random, and the basis for morality would be arbitrary in a fundamental sense.

As for the second option, God couldn’t possibly have any other nature, what is this mysterious governing force that God has to obey? If it couldn’t have been any other way, then there must be something external that God is subject to.

Regardless of how God’s nature initially came to be, is it possible for God to change his nature? If not, he is not omnipotent or he doesn’t have libertarian free will or he’s subject to something above himself. If God can change his nature, it’s unclear why he prefers the one he has over some other nature, and we’re left to think that it must be arbitrary on some level.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because this is essentially the original Euthyphro Dilemma. Is God’s nature good because God has it? Or does God have his nature because it’s good? This third horn hasn’t solved the original dilemma; it’s simply moved it back one step. Craig said, “God’s will isn’t arbitrary, but rather operates according to a definite moral standard: God’s necessarily good nature.” So rather than asking about God’s will, we’re asking about God’s nature. It doesn’t solve the Euthyphro Dilemma, it just pushes it from God’s will or God’s commands to God’s nature. When we say God’s nature is good, do we mean that it’s good by some external standard? Or do we mean that good is defined as ‘consonant with God’s nature’?

Take a specific example: Christians often say that “lovingkindness” is an essential part of God’s nature. So is God loving and kind because lovingkindness is good? Or is it the case that whatever God does going to be called lovingkindness, no matter what the action is? Neither of these options are very satisfying to believers.

I have one more problem with the third horn defense before moving on. It’s worth pointing out that absolutely none of this is anywhere in the Bible. Why is William Lane Craig better able to articulate this issue than God? How does this look anything but post hoc? Plus, I’m not sure how we square the idea of God’s unchanging moral nature with the Old Covenant / New Covenant view in Christian theology. God had one set of moral rules for us to obey and then he just changed them. One week, it’s objectively moral to stone your non-virgin bride on her father’s doorstep, and then the next week that’s objectively morally wrong. At least on it’s face, it seems like rules based on a perfect moral nature wouldn’t change very often.

The Problem of Holiness

Euthyphro’s dilemma is further complicated by the Problem of Holiness, which was covered back in episode six, and that was one of my favorite episodes. So if some of this sounds familiar to you, that’s why.

If the apologist takes the third horn, they have to define God’s goodness or holiness. Let’s assume the apologist can dodge all the criticisms we leveled against the third horn a minute ago. So if we accept their explanation, goodness is an intrinsic part of God’s nature; God’s nature is somehow not arbitrary and his good nature is also not matching an external standard of goodness. That doesn’t make any sense to me, but let’s just swallow that pill. Even if we grant the third horn, we still have an intelligibility problem: what do we mean by “God’s goodness”? I ask this because God’s actions and commands are inconsistent.

God doesn’t hold himself to the same standard that we are expected to follow. What does it even mean to say that “God’s nature is good,” if there is no coherent definition of goodness that can be derived from God’s actions and commands? Secondly, how are there objective moral rules if we aren’t allowed to break them but the most moral being in the universe is allowed to break them?

Let me defend my claim that God often breaks the rules that we’re expected to follow. In God’s perfect word, he commits multiple genocides that include children, including one that killed almost the entire human race; In II Samuel, God massacres 70,000 Israelites because David didn’t follow his instructions while taking a census. In II Chronicles 18:22, God puts lies into the mouths of prophets. In II Thessalonians 2:11, he sends a spirit of delusion so that people will believe in what is false and not be saved. In I Samuel 16:2, he instructs prophets to lie. He tells us that jealousy is a sin in 1 Corinthians 3:3 but tells us he is a jealous God in Exodus 20 verse 5. This means that God’s goodness is not different in degree from the standards of human goodness that he has given to us, but must be different in kind. It’s not that he’s better than us because he follows some rules of morality to a perfect degree; he is following another standard all together.

God appears to be held to a different set of standards than the ones to which humans are held. I want to know what those standards are, and an answer to this challenge will help make God’s goodness intelligible: name one action that God can’t perform because it would corrupt his holiness. If God did X, he would no longer be holy. Just one action would technically be enough. We wouldn’t exactly have a robust understanding of what ‘holy’ means, but at least it would have some meaning. You can say goodness is essential to God’s nature, but if you can’t explain what ‘goodness’ means, the dilemma is even more devastating than when we started.

This problem is further compounded by God’s willingness to lie. You may want to go to the Bible to look for something god can’t do. But because god is apparently very comfortable with deception, as he demonstrates in II Chronicles 18:22, II Thessalonians 2:11, and I Samuel 16:2, we can’t really trust anything that God says about himself.

If God’s goodness cannot be defined meaningfully, we must simply define god’s goodness in a completely circular fashion: whatever god does, by definition, is good. This leaves us with ‘might makes right’, the DCT horn of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, which makes god amoral, and nothing more. Goodness is also not based on God’s immutable nature because what he commands changes from Bible story to Bible story, and also from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. It’s also not really objective because we are expected to follow a standard that he himself doesn’t follow. This inevitably leaves us with the conclusion that God’s authority on morality only comes from power and force. If this is the case, there’s nothing good about God; he’s just more powerful than we are. His moral authority comes from force and nothing else.

Moral Epistemology

We should be clear that moral epistemology is a separate issue from what we’ve been discussing so far. The question of how we come to know God’s moral commands or his moral nature is related and can’t be easily answered. Even if God sets the standard for goodness, how are we supposed to know what God wants, anyway? How are we supposed to come by this information and know what the standard is?

Maybe God could communicate his standard to us directly through divine revelation. But how do we know if it’s a real revelation or if the person just believes that it’s a genuine revelation and is mistaken? This is possible under naturalism and theism. It’s possible that someone could be lying, like Joseph Smith almost certainly was, and managed to fool people. It’s also possible that someone could have a genuine experience and interpret the source as divine. Maybe Paul and Mohammad actually did have some kind of experience as they describe, and simply attributed a spiritual experience to a specific God, or maybe the stories of their experiences were gradually altered over time. And how are we supposed to distinguish between revelations? Paul, Joseph Smith, Mohammad; all these people claimed to have revelations from God and used that as evidence. Even if one of them was right, how am I supposed to know which one? They’re all presenting the same argument and basically the same evidence.

There is also massive moral disagreement on basic questions, which poses a bit of a problem for people who want to claim that God is trying to clearly communicate morality to us. This is true across the human population, but it’s also true within the Christian community. Even you accept that God is the source of morality, Jesus is God, and the Bible is God’s word, there is still profound disagreement within and between groups of Christians. Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, Messianics, Episcopalians, Baptists, and thousands of others all accept the basic Christian doctrine. And yet they disagree profoundly on everything from gay marriage and abortion to how to get to heaven and whether there is even a hell. How exactly am I supposed to distinguish who’s right and who’s wrong when you’re all claiming that the Bible is on your side? Some apologists have claimed that we have a God-granted ability to work out right and wrong, but I don’t see how that’s compatible with the massive moral disagreement we observe. And again, how am I supposed to believe that an omnipotent God is actually trying to communicate his rules to us when even his devoted followers can’t agree on basic questions?

Innate Morality

Even if apologists say they get their morality from DCT, this is almost certainly not true. It is true that if you think flipping a light switch on the Sabbath is immoral, or other mundane issues like that, then you do get that from DCT. There is no way to get to the conclusion that flipping a light switch on Saturday is immoral without DCT. But you don’t get your aversion to murder from DCT. These two things do not come from the same place. Your sense that murder is wrong is innate; it comes from you. The point that I’m trying to make is that there’s a distinction between meta-ethically grounding your morality and what actually morally motivates you. Evolutionary biologists and moral psychologists have a pretty good handle on why people behave morally. And even if atheists or believers fail to justify their idea of morality, your innate sense of right and wrong will still be there. And there’s plenty of research to suggest that your innate morality may have been the only thing that was motivating you all along.


CA19 The Euthyphro Dilemma

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