The Euthyphro Dilemma


The Statue of Plato at the Academy of Athens in Greece

The Euthyphro Dilemma is something that is often brought up to undermine the Christian conception of God as the ultimate measure of goodness.  In particular, when theists discuss the Moral Argument for God, atheists like to ask whether a thing is good because God says it is good (therefore, what is good is arbitrary), or whether God says it’s good because it is good (so there’s a principle of goodness that is higher than God to which he is beholden). This a form of the question that Plato asked in a famous Socratic dialogue on the nature of goodness.

When Christians respond by saying that it is not a dilemma and that there is another option, that God is simply “the good” (ie. that God and goodness are one and the same), then the atheist will respond that that is a meaningless tautology.

Now, it seems to me that if we believe that a metaphysically ultimate measure for the good exists, we will always end in a tautology.  The key here is that it is not then automatically a meaningless tautology. We either end with “good is the good” or “God is the good.”  In other words,  there has to be an ultimate measure that just is.  Otherwise, we’d be left with an infinite regress of supreme goods.  This endpoint is the moral ultimate, measure, or paradigm.  The philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig uses the following examples.  With respect to the famous meter bar in Paris, he says:

“The meter, as a length, was or can be taken to be defined in terms of the length of this bar. It is not that the bar approximated some abstract measure called a meter. The meter was just defined as being the length of that bar in the Office of Weights and Measures in Paris. That would be a very good example or illustration. God is like the meter bar with respect to the good.

Another example that I find interesting is the sound of a live orchestra serves as the paradigm for what counts as high-fidelity in recording. A high-fidelity recording means it approximates to the sound of the live music. But the live music itself doesn’t approximate to anything else. It just is the paradigm for what counts as high-fidelity.”

Now, some philosophers might believe that there is an ultimate good apart from God to which He is beholden.  An abstract concept – the good – is the ultimate measure, not a personal being – God.

The problem with this is that like any other abstract concept, it doesn’t stand in causal relations, and we are not morally obligated to it.  Think about it: Are we morally obligated to numbers? But we do feel or intuit moral obligations, don’t we? And they are usually relationally oriented.  I think moral obligations are inherently relational.  Therefore, it makes more sense that a personal being – God – is the metaphysically ultimate good.  This explains the obligation we feel.  Under classical theism, God is the greatest conceivable being and He is the paradigm of moral perfection.  His moral commands flow from this.

Also, because we say that God is the ultimate measure of moral goodness, it does not mean that we cannot describe what this moral goodness is.  We can!  God is loving, kind, benevolent, just, forgiving, and merciful.  These are descriptions of His goodness and this is why the tautology is not a meaningless combination of words.  There is content to His goodness and we can describe it!

Now, the atheist might respond that there is no ultimate good.  Our moral intuitions seem relational simply because we are social creatures that need to get along with each other.  In other words, our moral intuitions are simply useful fictions.  That might be a way out, but it’s also a way into a whole host of other difficulties.  If our moral intuition against say the mass shooting in Orlando at a LGBTQ nightclub is the product of evolution, it is conceivable that this intuition could have evolved in the opposite direction – namely, that such a shooting is good.  In other words, there are no grounds to say that the shooting is truly evil.  Following this line of thinking, we must accept moral nihilism.

In the end, any origin account of such a moral standard that is non-transcendent, but is strictly materialistic, will be ultimately absurd and nonbinding.  We still end up with arbitrariness and the idea that “might makes right”.  Yet, our moral intuitions recoil at this!  We simply cannot live as if moral nihilism is true.

Moral nihilsim seems to be more of a useful fiction then, doesn’t it?

Now, the moral relativist might respond that there was a time that such a killing might have been approved.  And I’d agree, but I would say that it was morally evil then, too.  Just because societies have disagreed on the details, or that they favored some moral intuitions over others, or to the exclusion of others, doesn’t mean that the intuitions themselves are not pointing to some objective truth.  In his book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis contends that the failures are on mankind’s side, through his misunderstanding and misapplication of this complex moral reality.  Lewis writes that these discrepancies can be accounted for by advancement or variations on a theme, but the spirit and heart of this reality remain unchanged and consistent across cultures and time.  In fact, it is our perceptions of this reality that guide the adaptation process.

Again, Christian theology has an answer for our failure to live up to our all of our moral intuitions.  It’s called sin.

Philosopher Steve Lovell asks this question for the moral relativist:  “Do you say things are good because they are good, or are they good because you say they are? If the latter, then your moral standard seems to be subjective and arbitrary (and you can’t object if God’s turns out likewise). However, if you choose the former, then you have to explain where the moral standard comes from … ”  Any origin account of such a moral standard that is non-transcendent, but is strictly materialistic, will be ultimately absurd and nonbinding.  We still end up with arbitrariness and the idea that “might makes right”.  Again, my moral intuition recoils at this!  (I’ve linked Lovell’s article on C.S. Lewis and the Euthyphro below.)

This is all just a quick overview (and an exercise for me in articulating this more clearly for its detractors).   Please, do not take my word for it, but take a minute and listen to the following podcast from Dr. Craig (or read the transcript).  He is interacting with another philosopher who seems to be tripping up on semantics (and misunderstanding that there are several variations of Divine Command Theory).

The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again from Dr. Craig

You might also check out some of my blog posts that discuss some of C.S. Lewis’s ideas on this:  “The Poison of Subjectivism” by C.S. Lewis and College Campuses and “The Abolition of Man” by C.S. Lewis.

And, finally here:  C.S. Lewis and the Euthyphro Dilemma

Here is what Lewis had to say in his piece “The Poison of Subjectivism”:

“When we attempt to think of a person and a law, we are compelled to think of this person either as obeying the law or as making it. And when we think of Him as making it we are compelled to think of Him either as making it in conformity to some yet more ultimate pattern of goodness (in which case that pattern, and not He, would be supreme) or else as making it arbitrarily … But it is probably just here that our categories betray us. It would be idle, with our merely mortal resources, to attempt a positive correction of our categories. … But it might be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it could never have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. [But since only God admits of no contingency, we must say that] God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

These may seem like fine-spun speculations: yet I believe that nothing short of this can save us. A Christianity which does not see moral and religious experience converging to meet at infinity … has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.