Resolving Euthyphro’s Dilemma

Unknown-2The dialogue known as Euthyphro is recorded by Plato and took place between Euthyphro and Socrates, as Socrates was nearing the time of his trial and execution in 399 B.C.. The famous Euthyphro Dilemma at 10a is only part of this dialogue. We need to distinguish between the dialogue (Euthyphro), which starts out asking for the definition of the Good (a matter of epistemology), and the dilemma posed by Socrates inside the dialogue. The Euthyphro Dilemma is ultimately about the being, reality, correspondence, or truth, of the Good (a matter of ontology). The original question about the definition of the Good was merely a foot-in-the-door question meant to lead into a dialogue that is Socrates’ final attempt at asserting essentialism (only as mid-wife), as opposed to voluntarism.

Essentialism is the view that the Good exists to be discovered, whereas voluntarism is the view that the Good is willed or commanded into being. The latter view, critiqued in this dialogue, is susceptible to the objection that it makes the Good an arbitrary fiction, whereas the former view, implied by Socrates, is the one held by those who view the Good as objective, unchanging, universal truth. The Euthyphro dialogue and dilemma ultimately give birth to essentialism, grounded neither in the will, nor in the nature of the in-fighting gods Euthyphro believed in—the very sort of implication leading to Socrates’ indictment for blasphemy and being a “maker of gods” (3b) in the first place. Some suggest the truth of the Good is grounded in the particular instances of the good (or, that there is no objective Good). I submit that Socrates would apply Euthyphro’s dilemma to that “particulars” assumption, as well, and was the first to hint at a moral argument for God’s existence (Socrates refers to him as “the god” throughout the Apology)—if we take the Good as granted and follow wherever his beloved inquiry, or divine sign, leads (3b, 14c).

[Note: My translation of Euthyphro appears in the softcover book, Plato: Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. It was translated by G.M.A. Grube and published by Hackett in 1981. Richard Hogan and Donald J. Zeyl correct and improve the translations in this edition.]

Epistemology is the initial concern of the dialogue, Euthyphro.

Initially, Euthyphro gets going as Socrates requests that Euthyphro provide him with the universal definition of the Good. In my discussion with Justin Schrieber, I acknowledge that attempts to define the Good, to explain how we know the Good is good, concern the epistemology, or justification, of our understanding of what “Good” objectively means (if it has objective meaning). This is the issue of “WHY is the Good good—how do we KNOW it is good?”

Euthyphro never provides a definition that is to Socrates’ satisfaction. Socrates finds fault with every example—some of the examples provided for Euthyphro by Socrates to “help” him along, while actually playing with the poor lad. All the examples can be boiled down to three:

• To prosecute the wrong-doer; justice (too particular, only part of piety)

• (To give) Whatever is dear to the gods (gods disagree on what is dear)

• Whatever is dear to ‘all’ the gods (Euthyphro dilemma; applies to all 3)

In my “Dear Euthyphro meme”, I suggest the correct definition of the Good is Love (not the sort that is from a lack, as discussed between Diotima and Socrates in the Symposium), correctly understood as the Golden Rule, corresponding to God’s nature (1 John 1:5, 4:8; Galatians 5:22-23; Matthew 7:12; John 1:45, 5:39; Matthew 5:17; 2:37, 39, 40), and I talk somewhat about its justification in the thread to which Tristan Vick replies, but moreso in my neglected work in progress. This is what Tristan really wants to go into a bit more, but we’ll get there soon enough.

More than a mere definition, Socrates is interested in getting at the “form” of the Good. Socrates starts out asking a popular, benign question (What do we mean by “good”? 5c-d) as a means of being able to get into a more controversial conversation—the sort for which he was executed. But by “form” (5d, 6d) G.M.A. Grube takes Socrates to mean universal “characteristics immanent in the particulars and without separate existence”—but this seems like a leap of eisogesis…adding meaning into what Socrates was saying, rather than going with the bare minimum of what can be taken as the plain, intended meaning (exegesis). Grube’s translation has Socrates asking Euthyphro:

“What kind of thing do you say that godliness and ungodliness are, both as regards to murder and other things; or is the pious not the same and alike in every action, and the impious the opposite of all that is pious and like itself, and everything that is to be impious presents us with one form or appearance in so far as it is impious?” (5c-d) and, later, “Bear in mind then that I did not bid you tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious, for you agreed that all impious actions are impious and all pious actions pious through one form, or don’t you remember?” (6d) (emphasis added)

[Tangent: Granted the quote is an example of rhetoric, but Socrates is mistaken if he believes that good and evil are opposites, for evil is the privation of good. Although he states that good and evil are made so through one form, it is more likely he means there is one form for the Good, and one form for the Evil—but I would be delighted to learn that he actually means that evil’s privation is impossible without the more/most ultimate form of the Good. Anyway.]

Socrates hasn’t stated anywhere in the Euthyphro that the good is merely or only existent in the particulars. He does not explicitly state or imply, “The pious is the same and alike in every action, and it stops there, in particular actions—there is definitely no always-pious being which is reflected in all pious particulars.” And why would he think that the form of the Good is best reflected in pious actions, when later such emphasis is placed on virtue, on ‘being’ pious? With that in mind, wouldn’t he believe the form of the Good is best reflected in a being that is always pious—the Virtuoso? The problem is, he acknowledged, that there was no always good god to be found among the Greek hierarchy (so he was receiving the “divine sign” from Whom?). Perhaps this is why he was indicted with blasphemy and as a “maker of gods”?

So, as hinted at earlier, while Socrates’ questions start out with epistemology, asking for a definition of the Good…they lead into ontology, or questions regarding what gives the Good its being. This is where he amps things up, from the general dialogue, to the particular dilemma found within it.

Ontology is the concern of the Euthyphro Dilemma—and arguably the ultimate concern of the entire dialogue.

As the dialogue progresses, Socrates’ rhetoric runs into the topic of the Good’s “ontology”. Getting at the Good’s ontology involves asking questions like, “What being does the Good describe? To what does the Good correspond? What makes the Good something that is real? How does the Good get its being?” That is the sort of question asked in the dilemma posed by Socrates to Euthyphro:

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a)

The dilemma is more recently stated this way, with the horns of the dilemma swapping places: “Is something good because God wills (or commands) it, or does He will (or command) it because it is good?” So, the dialogue starts out about epistemology, whereas the dilemma in particular addresses the faulty ontology of a failed attempt at definition. Euthyphro and strict Divine Command Theory proponents espouse divine voluntarism. Socrates challenges them both, without ever making an assertion, as when Jesus asked, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” (Matthew 21, Mark 11) and the implied question, “Which of you is without sin?” (John 8), and many other questions.

Socrates is challenging Euthyphro’s definition of the Good (that it is whatever is loved by the gods), by challenging its ontology—and pointing out that even if the ontology worked (which it doesn’t), a definition of the Good is still lacking. As Hume’s is-ought distinction and Plato’s justified-true requirement point out: ontology and epistemology cannot pass for each other.

Socrates is stating that telling me what makes the Good real does not tell me what makes it good—and even your explanation for what makes it real is lacking. 1) The gods disagree on what is dear to them, so that, if it is true that they will the good, then something is both good and not good at the same time, and contradictions cannot be true. 2) Even if the gods agreed, the god-beloved is of a nature to be loved ‘because’ it is loved, whereas the good is loved ‘because’ it is of a nature to be loved, so the god-beloved does not define the good–they are not the same. Just as no satisfactory definition for Good is found in the dialogue, there is no resolution to this dilemma found in it, either, though Grube suggests (a grand non sequitor) that one horn is favored: that the gods love what is good because it is right, and so there is something more ultimate than the gods. That conclusion neither defines the Good (the initial issue of the dialogue) nor gets at what makes the Good real (the issue of the dilemma). The most we can conclude from this dilemma is that Socrates found fault in the position of those who think the Good is good “because” God loves, wills, or commands it. He explicitly states no actual resolution—the divine sign (spurring on his thoughts about the form of the Good) held him back from it. Through Socrates, the always-good being speaks only what the listener should have been able to hear, but didn’t: “My dear Euthyphro, I did not make this up.”

In reality, the dilemma Socrates sets up is a false one meant to stir up cognitive dissonance—a stone in your shoe. There is a third option for which Socrates’ dilemma (or, dialectic…) was the midwife: There is an always pious god who wills in accordance with his pious nature, and there are no in-fighting gods. Socrates says, “I find it hard to accept things like that being said about the gods, and it is likely to be the reason why I shall be told I do wrong” (6a-b) and he says this referring to Euthyphro’s rationalizing his father-condemning behavior with, “Zeus is the best and most just of the gods…he bound his father because he unjustly swallowed his sons, and…in turn castrated his father for similar reasons.” (ibid) Socrates doubts the myths, but he does not doubt the divine sign.

Socrates’ always-pious god, the source of the divine sign, loves, wills and commands in accordance with his goodness, as the true Virtuoso. He does not invent (arbitrarily or otherwise) the Good (as opposed to strict Divine Command Theory, or divine voluntarism, or Euthyphro), nor is the Good something more absolute than “the gods” (what Grube suggests is the view from which Plato never departed—but all this dialogue suggests is essentialism, or anti-voluntarism, as opposed to ruling out ‘divine’ essentialism…except with reference to the in-fighting Greek hierarchy of gods). Rather, the Virtuoso’s nature is the being described by the definition of the Good; it is that being to which the definition of the Good corresponds (is true), and to which all particular instances of good are true. Some have tried to apply Euthyphro’s dilemma to this and say, “Is God’s nature good because of the way God happens to be, or is it good because it matches up to some external standard of goodness?” (at  See above, my comments on the Golden Rule describing and corresponding to God’s nature (iow, being made objectively, unchangingly true by God’s nature).

Abstractions do not exist in order for particulars to be true to them. But if there is no existent “form…that makes all pious actions pious” and we are left with only the particulars, then: the fleeting particulars make themselves pious. Grube is reasoning in a circle when he assumes Socrates thinks forms are “characteristics immanent in the particulars without separate existence”. Socrates would put it to Grube this way: “Are pious particulars pious because the form of the pious is immanent in them, or is the form of the pious, pious, because it is immanent in the pious particulars?” It can’t be both. It’s like the watch passing between John and Richard in the TV series, Lost—a closed causal loop. And in case I just need to be more clear—The pious particulars are truly pious because their goodness corresponds to God’s, which is described by the justified Golden Rule. The pious particulars get their goodness from God, like we get our being from God. The pious particulars, like ourselves, are contingent on God’s necessary being—they and we “have” being from him who “is” being. God is no mere abstraction indistinguishable from a temporary pattern among fleeting particulars—how can anyone think that’s what Socrates was after?!

This is where I believe Socrates’ rhetoric, spurred on by the divine sign, was nudging his dialogue partners, though ultimately it nudged them to execute him. I submit it is Socrates’ own Virtuoso who would later take on flesh and engage his disciples in the “Socratic” method and be martyred, so as to demonstrate true piety in switching perspectives with us (Golden Rule) on the cross. Socrates, like Jesus, was a gadfly, putting stones under the feet of all who would entertain his dialogue. Like Jesus, he was an apologist, though constrained to serve as midwife—and few have been birthed “again” into his ideas. Socrates, like Jesus, “drank the cup” for threatening the idols of the powers that be, and for challenging them to think about what REALLY matters, which is no mere abstraction. “Gentlemen of the jury, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: ‘Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?’ Then, if one of you disputes this and says he does not care, I shall not let him go at once or leave him, but I shall question him, examine him and test him, and if I do not think he has attained the goodness that he says he has, I shall reproach him because he attaches little importance to the most important things and greater importance to inferior things. I shall treat in this way anyone I happen to meet, young and old, citizen and stranger, and more so the citizens because you are more kindred to me. Be sure that this is what the god orders me to do, and I think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god.” (Apology, 29c-30a) Euthyphro was deaf to the dilemma, but do you have ears to hear?

“As it is, the lover of inquiry must follow his beloved wherever it may lead him.” –Socrates, Euthyphro, 14c.

This post is part of my most recent contribution to the Dialogue on Euthyphro’s Dilemma (and the Golden Rule) with Tristan Vick and MikeD.


DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Maryann Spikes

Maryann Spikes is the President of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. She blogs at Ichthus77, loves apologetics and philosophy. In particular she loves to study all things Euthyphro Dilemma and Golden Rule. A para-educator (autism) for five years, she holds a Certificate in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, an AA in Humanities via Modesto Junior College, and moonlights as a freelancer. You can follow her on Twitter @Ichthus77, connect with the Ichthus77 community on Facebook, or look her up on Google+.

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  • The Thinker

    The Moral Argument is just another failed attempt to make god into a required being. How can we have objective morality, it is asked, if there is no god? Thus it is argued that if god does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist, but they do, so god exists. Enter the Euthyphro Dilemma: Is something good because god commands it, or does god command it because it’s good? The first part makes morality arbitrary, and the latter makes god irrelevant to what’s good.

    The standard response is that god is the good – god is the ontological foundation of goodness because he is intrinsically loving, compassionate and fair, etc. But then we can ask, is god good because he has these properties or are these properties good because god has them? In order to avoid compromising god’s sovereignty and admitting that these properties are good independently of god, the theist who wants to hold to the moral argument must say that these traits are good because god has them. But how is love, compassion, fairness or any other positive attribute good only because god has them? They would be good irrespective of god’s existence, as would be evident by their effects. The theist would bear the burden of proof to demonstrate that they wouldn’t be good without god, which I haven’t yet seen anyone successfully achieve. Thus I say objective moral values exist independently of god.

    Duties on the other hand are more tricky. I simply don’t believe in objective duties in the sense that they’re issued from some kind of cosmic police officer. Duties arise primarily from social obligations, or obligations to principle. Under secular ethical systems, we need to appeal to reason to understand our obligations to one another, not commandments. Besides, the other major hurdle that divine command theory suffers from is the epistemic problem. That is, even if people believe in god, no one is going to fully agree on what god or what version of god is the correct one, or what commands are authentic and how to properly interpret them. You’re going to be faced ultimately with moral relativism in practice, as is evident from the wide range of beliefs and practices of all religions. Thus the moral argument fails in theory and in practice.