The Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro Dilemma is designed to explore the relationship between God and morality. The dilemma is found in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. It consists of an exchange between Socrates and a young man called Euthyphro, from whom the dilemma gets its name. When applied to an Abrahamic conception of God it asks “Is something good because God commands it? Or does God command something because it is good?”  I will explore the different positions that one can take on this question and will attempt to explore a few of their strengths and weaknesses.

If we take the first option where something is good because God orders it, then we find ourselves adopting a position called ‘voluntarism’. This view has been adopted by some theologians and philosophers in the past and there is nothing logically contradictory about it. However, it does have some problems with it. First of all it seems to be very arbitrary. It seems that God could have picked commandment ‘A’ or commandment ‘B’ and he just so happened to have chosen commandment ‘A’. This does not match our intuitions about the nature of morality. Further, it also would mean that if God had commanded something that we consider morally reprehensible then we would have to consider it a moral duty. Again this does not match our intuitions about morality.

The second option suggests that there is a moral standard that exists independently of God. Again, there is nothing logically difficult about this position and some thinker have adopted in the past. However, it does have some philosophical and theological problems. First, this position still does not explain what morality is. We are still left asking what is the nature of the moral law? Where is it situated? What is its nature? Is it eternal or was it created? And so on. As such, it fails to answer any meta-ethical questions about morality. A second problem is that if God is perfectly good then surely he can do no evil. As such, he would seem to be bound by a moral law external to himself and this seems to be a limit upon his freewill and omnipotence. Further, it suggests that there is something in the universe over which God is not sovereign and this poses some difficult theological questions.

There is, however, a third option available to us. We could take the position that God’s moral commandments flow from his nature. For example, God is loving (Psalm 86.15) and as such he orders us to love others (Luke 10.27), lying is wrong because God does not lie (Titus 1:2) and so on. This means that God’s perfect nature is the standard for value. This position has been adopted by various thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas. This position avoids the philosophical and theological complications of believing in a moral standard that exists independently of God and it avoids the arbitrariness of the first position where something is good just because God orders it. This makes it an appealing and powerful solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

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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 Richard Playford

Richard has a BA (hons) from the University of Exeter in philosophy with ancient history and is current studying for an MA at the University of Birmingham in philosophy. He is particularly interested in the philosophical aspects of Christian apologetics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/connor.mcginnis.184 Connor McGinnis

    Perhaps you are or are not familiar with this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWNW-NXEudk

    Not being a philosopher at myself, I am pretty much at a loss for how to respond to it. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.

  • Leslie Keeney

    That’s my take on the Euthyphro dilemma as well. I think it makes perfect philosophical sense and answers the dilemma well.

  • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com/ Hausdorff

    I feel like the third option doesn’t solve the arbitrariness at all. If God’s nature had been that lying was good, then wouldn’t it follow that lying wouldn’t be wrong? It appears that you have backed things up one step, but it is still arbitrary what is right and wrong.

    • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

      I think the if-then would not work if by God we mean a being that none greater can be conceived. The idea that God nature could be that lying is good would be like an idea that a triangle could be have two angles, since a being that has no morality to the perfection is not worthy of being called God nor worshipped as a figure that has no three angles worthy to be called a triangle.

      I think this solution is what Plato had in mind with what he called The Good. If God is thought off as Plato’s The Good, then I think the problem is solved.

      Let me know your thoughts.

      • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com/ Hausdorff

        But isn’t the question the source of morality? Your argument (if I understood it correctly) was that morality is derived from God’s nature. Lying is immoral because lying is not in God’s nature. helping each other is moral because that is in God’s nature, etc.

        So I was just saying, what if God’s nature had been to lie, then by that logic wouldn’t lying be moral? It still feels arbitrary, it’s just based on what happened to be God’s nature rather than what God happens to choose.

        Your response (I think) was that such a god wouldn’t have perfect morality, and therefore wouldn’t be worthy of worship. The problem is that we are talking about how morality was defined. God’s nature is the basis of morality, so we think that lying is bad because God’s nature tells us this. In a different universe where God’s nature was to lie, then lying would be considered moral under this logic, and that God would still be perfectly moral.

        Let me try a little bit more extreme example that might illustrate what I mean a little bit better. Suppose the devil snuck off and created his own universe completely independent of our own. He would be the god of that universe. If morality flows from god’s nature, then in that universe wouldn’t doing all of the bad stuff that the devil likes to do be considered the height of morality for any creatures he created?

        Let me know what you think

        • Richard

          Hi Hausdorff,

          I think that you raise a really good point and it did occur to me when I was writing it. It seem to me that this solution does explain the relationship between God and morality, in that morality stems from God’s nature and thus morality itself is not arbitrary, but I agree that it does nothing to explain God’s nature itself (why he is like he is and not another way). I have heard Christians say that not only is God necessary but also his nature is necessary and thus it could not have been different, but I am not so convinced by this. It at least seems logically possible that there might be a god who valued stealing for example. Obviously Christians don’t believe in this sort of God but it does seem possible! Prayson you seem pretty clued up on this, so if you know the solution then let us know!
          Thanks for reading!

          • Richard

            I was just talking to a friend and he suggested that because we intuitively know, and if you are a Christian because the Bible tells us, that stealing is wrong, we can know that God has commanded us to not steal. And because God commands what is in accordance with his nature, we can know that God dislikes stealing himself. This seems to offer something of an explanation about how we can know what God is like and what he has ordered. We then got into a discussion about whether God logically had to be like that, but I think that is a conversation for another time!

            • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com/ Hausdorff

              Appealing to intuition might be a dangerous road to go down, as everyone doesn’t have the same intuition, what do you do when people’s intuition disagrees.

              As to whether God logically has to be that way, I would argue that the discussion would fit here quite nicely :)

        • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

          I follow what you are trying to set forth but I think if we understand what “God” properly means then the idea that God’s nature could be in a way that what is evil becomes good is absurd as that a triangle could be in a way two angles.

          True that other beings could be called gods but not in a proper sense. That is why I said if by God we mean a being that none greater can be conceived then it solves the problem because a being that none greater can be conceived possesses greatness-making-properties, viz., excel in knowledge, power, moral, et cetera.a

          So the notion that God nature could be that evil deed became good deed, seams at odd with what is properly called God.

          Looking forward to your thoughts

          • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com/ Hausdorff

            I think I see what you are saying, that God being evil doesn’t really make sense because it would be cause a contradiction, since God is the best possible being. Take the idea of something being good, take that to it’s maximum possible setting and you arrive at God. This is roughly what you are saying right?

            The problem as I see it with that explanation is that this exercise is all about defining good. If good is defined as God’s nature, then if God’s nature had been to do things that we currently consider evil, then those things would be considered good. Wait, is that sentence clear or confusing? I can’t tell, let me try symbols.

            When you said that things are good because they are part of God’s nature, I can express that in the following way:

            X is good because X is part of God’s nature.

            I responded that with this definition of “good”, anything could have been deemed good by us if it had simply been part of God’s nature. For example, if stealing had been in God’s nature (X=stealing) then we would see it as a good thing to steal. Of course stealing is just an example, we can put any other evil thing in for X and the same argument goes forward.

            You responded that evil things can’t be part of God’s nature because he is maximally good, but I think now we have come full circle. Essentially, stealing is wrong because it is not in God’s nature, and stealing is not in God’s nature because stealing is wrong.

            I think we have to choose one or the other as the source and we arrive back at the original dilemma. Is stealing wrong because it is in God’s nature, or is stealing not in God’s nature because it is wrong?

            • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

              You understood me correctly but missed the point of what God means in proper sense and how it affect the relationship between this being and morality. If God is a being that none greater can be conceived then saying evil could be God nature would be like saying a square could be a circle.

              Thus if God nature or essence defines morality, then a perspn who say stealing is wrong because its against God’s nature has answer the dilemma.

              Asking is stealing wrong because it is in God’s nature is simply absurd because it is metaphysically impossible for evil to be in a being that none greater can be conceived

              • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com/ Hausdorff

                A bachelor can’t be married because the definition of bachelor is a guy who isn’t married. Bachelor just means “not married”, obviously you can’t be X and not X at the same time. You are saying that this is analogous to stealing and God’s nature, but I don’t think it is quite that simple.

                You are making the following 2 claims:

                1. Stealing is wrong because it is not part of God’s nature.
                2. God’s nature couldn’t have included stealing because stealing is wrong.

                I don’t think both of these statements can be true, because they are talking about one thing causing another. It has to be one way or the other, it can’t be both. Organized slightly differently, we have 2 statements:

                A: Stealing is wrong
                B: Stealing is not part of God’s nature.

                Statement 1 says that A is true because B is true, or put another way, B implies A

                Statement 2 says that B is true because A is true, or A implies B.

                So we have A=>B=>A. That’s no good, that circular. You have to choose one to be the cause of the other. And again, we arrive back at the original dilemma.

                • http://withalliamgod.wordpress.com Prayson Daniel

                  You are close to understand the point I am making when you noted that “A bachelor can’t be married because the definition of bachelor is a guy who isn’t married. ” By the same reason evil can’t be thought to be in God’s nature because the definition of evil is that of imperfection thus against God’s nature.

                  The idea that God’s nature could be in a way that evil becomes good, would be a meaningless notion.

                  Evil,as stealing, is not wrong because it is not part of God’s nature but because it is against it.

                • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

                  I thought I responded to your last comment a month ago :)

                  Stealing is not wrong because it not part of God’s nature but because it is contrary to God’s own essence. God commandments reflects His essence. Stealing is wrong because it does not reflect His essence which is necessary maximal morally perfect.

                  I will propose C:

                  1. X is right if and only if it reflects God’s maximal moral perfection(paradigm of goodness)
                  2. Y is wrong if and only if it does not reflects God’s maxim moral perfection.

                  3. W1 is a possible world(state of affairs) which people P take things that do not belong to them without permission

                  4. W2 is a possible world which people P2 do not take things that do not belong to them without permission.

                  5. P2 reflects moral perfection in respect of not taking things that do not belong to them without permission.

                  6. P1 do not reflects moral perfection in respect of not taking things that do not belong to them without permission.

                  7. The action of P1 is wrong because it does not reflect the paradigm of goodness.

                  It was for that reason I think Plato indirectly solved the Euthyphro false Dilemma with his understanding of The Good.

                  • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com/ Hausdorff

                    I don’t see how this solves the problem at all. Let’s look at your point 1, something is right (good) if it reflects God’s maximal moral goodness.

                    So you are telling me something is good if it is in god’s nature, and you are telling me that God’s nature is maximum moral goodness. It’s the same circular logic we have seen above.

                    • http://withalliamgod.wordpress.com Prayson Daniel

                      My claim is I not claim x is good because it is in God’s nature but x is good because it exemplifies God’s maximal moral perfection.

                    • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

                      What I am saying is that God is the paradigm, as Plato’s The Good, of goodness.

                      Example, according to Geneva Conference on Weights and Measures, M = dl*t, (M = a meter, dl = a distance light travel in vacuum, t = time measured by cesium-133 atomic clock = 1/299,792,458 seconds)

                      Assume Geneva Conference is metaphysically correct. M is a paradigm of all length measurement. If I have a ruler R with Rm(a value of my rule meter) Then Rm is right if it reflects the value of the prototype M, and wrong if it does not.

                      M, if metaphysically correct, is then like a logical truth e.g. 2 + 2 = 4, meaning that it cannot be other ether wise. Saying M could have another value then , or God could have another nature, would be like saying that 2 + 2 could equal something rather than 4.

                      So if the value of Rm reflects M that is Rm = M then Rm is right, if not then it is wrong.

      • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

        I follow what you are trying to set forth but I think if we understand what “God” properly means then the idea that God’s nature could be in a way that what is evil becomes good is absurd as that a triangle could be in a way two angles.

        True that other beings could be called gods but not in a proper sense. That is why I said if by God we mean a being that none greater can be conceived then it solves the problem because a being that none greater can be conceived possesses greatness-making-properties, viz., excel in knowledge, power, moral, et cetera.

        So the notion that God nature could be that evil deed became good deed, seams at odd with what is properly called God.

        Looking forward to your thoughts