Euthyphro Revisited

From the Wikipedia page for Euthyphro’s dilemma:

The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

My usual response is that this is a false dilemma. There is a third possibility, perhaps put best by Rogers:

Anselm, like Augustine before him and Aquinas later, rejects both horns of the Euthyphro dilemma. God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.

This Christian response is apparently agreed to in Jewish thought, which even predates the dilemma itself. The Wikipedia article continues:

The basis of the false dilemma response — God’s nature is the standard for value — predates the dilemma itself, appearing first in the thought of the eighth-century BC Hebrew prophets, Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah. (Amos lived some three centuries before Socrates and two before Thales, traditionally regarded as the first Greek philosopher.) “Their message,” writes British scholar Norman H. Snaith, “is recognized by all as marking a considerable advance on all previous ideas,” not least in its “special consideration for the poor and down-trodden.” As Snaith observes, tsedeq, the Hebrew word for righteousness, “actually stands for the establishment of God’s will in the land.” This includes justice, but goes beyond it, “because God’s will is wider than justice. He has a particular regard for the helpless ones on earth.” Tsedeq “is the norm by which all must be judged” and it “depends entirely upon the Nature of God.”

I want to offer another response to the Euthyphro’s dilemma. This response does not maintain the idea that the dilemma is a false one, but agrees that the pious is pious because God loves it. In this response I want to accept that goodness is the will of God and argue that no real problems arise from that view.

God is the source of morality. As such, he must precede morality. Therefore, he cannot necessarily be subject such a morality. He can be subject to it, but not necessarily or on any obligation. That is, he can be subject to it if he so chooses, and it is not in the least binding.

If he precedes morality then how does morality arise? One well known theory is called Divine Command Theory and it holds that whatever God commands is good. I would modify this slightly and go with the theory’s lesser known cousin, Divine Will Theory, which holds that God’s will is good. This distinction is important because God does not issue commands for himself, but under Divine Will Theory his actions are still defined as good, although I do think following Divine Commands is necessary for people, but that is only a subset of DWT. Moreover, the will precedes the command. So we do not ask, “Why did he command this?” DWT answers, “Because he felt like it.”

We might then ask, “Why did he feel like it?” I think there are 3 possible answers:

  1. For no particular reason. It was arbitrary.
  2. Based on some sort of reasoning or justification.
  3. For some other reason we don’t or can’t understand.

This response is generally thought to bring on 3 problems:

  1. The arbitrariness problem – If divine command theory is true, it seems, then God’s commands can neither be informed nor sanctioned by morality. How, though, can such morally arbitrary commands be the foundation of morality?
  2. The emptiness problem – Statements like “God is good” are rendered empty tautologies. God is good (or more precisely “God acts well”) would merely mean “God acts according to God’s will.”
  3. The problem of abhorrent commands – If God were to command abhorrent acts of malicious deception, wanton cruelty, and so on, those acts would become morally good.

Answering these problems, respectively:

  1. Here is a response from Thomas Carlson at Loyola. My response is that for any source of morality, morality cannot also precede the source. Such a requirement is absurd. God is the source of morality so he cannot necessarily be subject to it. He can be subject to it, but such an arrangement would be voluntary, not necessary. I think morality, rather than a precedent of God’s action, is a label given to God’s action after the fact. It is not good and therefore God does it, God does it and therefore we call it good. It is not an arbitrariness problem, but an arbitrariness power of an omnipotent God. If God was not able to do whatever he wanted he would not be God! Finally, there are no ground to object to an arbitrary morality for God. Any such objection would be grounded in human morality, which is a category error. Human morality is the set of things God wants for people to do, which is a subset of the things God wants to do. The set of things God wants God, himself, to do are not necessarily subject to the moral code of the things God wants people to do.
  2. Again, this is not a problem. Tautology is in fact a desirable quality. In math and logic, “X = X” is a true and correct statement. If “X = ‘X” then we would have a problem with our logic or math. The fact that God is good by definition under DWT/DCT means we are working with solid logic, because it confirms what we know to be true. Furthermore, this is not an empty or useless tautology. It is an important, meaningful, confirming tautology. It is a constant reminder that anything good is according to the will of God, and that the will of God is good. This agrees with scripture and it also answers the question, “Why is X good?” It is good because it is according to the will of God. “Why is X bad?” It is bad because it is not according to the will of God. Clearly, though it is a tautology, if it is powerful enough to answer a variety of deep moral questions, even powerful enough to form a foundation to answer all moral questions, it is not “empty” or “useless.”
  3. The objection is not an objection but it is a true statement. For it to be an “objection” would mean that if it were true then the idea objected to would somehow be rendered flawed. I think that if God commanded an “abhorrent act” then that abhorrent act would be moral and should be followed. The fact that an act is labeled “abhorrent” says nothing about God or the act and everything about the opinion of the person considering the act. If I think that my neighbor not sharing his wife for my sexual pleasure is an abhorrent act of selfishness on his part then it would already be the case that the Christian God issues commands for abhorrent acts, because he commands that each man only have sex with their own wife. Such an example seems silly because we already, nearly instinctively, have a sense of a proper moral code in which not sharing your wife is good and sharing your wife would be the bad thing. We should be thankful that God gave us this kind of moral instinct, one which is more or less aligned with his will by default. We should be thankful that God doesn’t command us to do things we think are wrong more often. We should stop viewing our own morality as primary with God’s will occasionally out of step and view God’s will as the primary morality, with our own will occasionally out of step. We shouldn’t get so self-righteous and spoiled as to say, “If God commanded X, which I thought was bad, I would reject it as moral.” That kind of attitude justifiably gains us a spot in hell. If you created a chair and it thought being sat on was immoral so that it constantly ran out from under you, what would you do with it? Throw it out. That’s not you being immoral, that’s the chair not doing what it should be doing and gaining the justifiable result. Yes, I realize that chairs do not generally think or walk on their own.

In conclusion, while I think the classic Judeo-Christian response to Euthyphro’s dilemma as a false dilemma succeeds, I think the dilemma can also be answered as a relatively straightforward and simple question. I think it is perfectly fine, and perhaps even better or more scriptural, to say that good is good because it is God’s will.


4 thoughts on “Euthyphro Revisited”

Leave a Comment