The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato's Euthyphro dialogue, in which Socrates asks the question, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" In layman's terms this would be, "Is that which is good commanded by God because it's good, or is it good because God commands it?"
It is common amongst Christians to claim that God's omnibenevolence necessitates the goodness of his actions and commands, a view called "Divine Command Theory". The Euthyphro dilemma is one demonstration of an incompatibility between the perfection of God and his commands. For one, Divine Command theory claims that morality is meaningless unless it is derived from God yet fails to answer who made God moral and whether his moral commands could be considered objective rather than arbitrary.
Put in the context of Divine Command Theory, the Euthyphro Dilemma results in two unpalatable conclusions:
1) God is not the greatest, as he must call upon a standard of good greater than himself. 2) God's commands are arbitrary, grounded on his whims, and thus could be commands that we ourselves find morally abhorrent.
The first conclusion results in the view that God cannot change what is right and wrong. Killing and stealing are inherently bad, so God, being inherently good, cannot command them. Yet if right and wrong are inherent to the action, regardless of God's decree, then God has nothing to do with the process. God doesn't set moral standards; he follows them, and is therefore only indirectly related to moral commands.
The second conclusion shows that God is free to decide what is good, and it is good by virtue of his decree. If this is the case, then God has no higher standard to answer to, and therefore his will may be seen as genuinely arbitrary. Although God once decreed that murder and theft are morally wrong, he might have declared the opposite just as easily, so then murder and theft would be right.
Another way to state the argument is in the form of a constructive dilemma:
I. Is something good because God commands it so or does God command it so because it is good?
II. If something is good because the God commands that it is so, then what is morally reprehensible to us can be good.
III. If God commands that it is good because it is good, then the good is greater than God.
IV. So, either the good is arbitrary or good is greater than God.
Much atheist literature has borrowed from the Euthyphro dilemma, even when not referring to it by name. For instance, Bertrand Russell wrote:
"The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are then in this situation: is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good."
There are several responses possible against the Euthyphro dilemma, but the sharpest criticism it falls under is that it is a false dilemma (i.e., commits the Bifurcation fallacy by presenting only two alternatives when there are actually more than two). The two cases presented are that (i) God commands something because it is good, and that (ii) something is good because God commands it. In the first instance, moral order is grounded outside God; in the second instance, moral order is grounded in God's arbitrary fiat.
The Bifurcation fallacy is proved by the existence of a third alternative, which it fails to present or account for; namely, (iii) that moral order is grounded in the very nature of God and expressed prescriptively in his commands. In this case God's commands are not arbitrary; they are, rather, an expression consistent with his essential nature. Under this view, "God is good" is not a moral valuation (God has goodness) but an ontological statement (God is goodness); as a logical consequence, good is that which conforms to the nature and will of God, while evil is a privative term or that which does not conform to the nature and will of God.
This supplies the reason behind why "an all-loving God would never command evil." Under the Euthyphro bifurcation, the Christian theist has no reason to believe that God would never command evil on the one hand, or that God will not change his mind about what is evil on the other. However, under the third alternative the Christian theist does have good reason for his belief, that God commanding evil would amount to a logical contradiction: God wills what he does not will, an empty nonsense statement.
However, this counterargument really falls into the first category. The question becomes: is something good because it is part of god's nature or is it part of god's nature because it is good. The false dichotomy can be better stated as the following true dichotomy: when we define 'good,' do we start from god (or his nature, etc.), or do we start from something else. If we choose the former, good is arbitrary, as good then stems from whatever god happens to be (there is no guarantee that justice, honor etc. being good). If we choose the latter, then goodness is independent of god. The choice, as always, is between arbitrary or external good.
God would never command immoral acts
Firstly, God does command rape and murder several times in the Old Testament. For example, in Numbers 31:1-54 God commands Moses and his army to "Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." The army comes back with 32,000 virgins after doing God's will.
The Qur'an, chapter 4 (An-Nisa), verse 34: “ Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great."
Secondly, saying that God would never command evil in itself shows that God gets his morals from an outside source. If God would never command rape and murder because they're evil then where did he get the determination that they were evil?
This counter-apologetic contains certain risks, however, which a canny apologist may exploit. The theist may contend, sincerely or otherwise, that yes, because God commanded all of the ostensibly immoral acts contained within both Old and New Testament, they are therefore good. The theist can then shift the burden of proof to the counterapologist and demand that he or she justify why such acts are objectively immoral, opening the door to endless picayune objections, diversions, and moving of the goalposts. The non-believer can simply reply, "I don't want to follow a religion that worships a god who sometimes condones rape and murder." That does not answer the philosophical points but is a sound reason for rejecting a religion which one can then point out to be just as valid and improbable as many others, aside from how devoid of facts and solid evidence this religion would seem. Another possible answer is to ask the theist how would they feel if they or their loved ones got raped and tortured by people whose worship of a deity that condones those acts gives them a sense of absolute self-righteous, then demand to know why they think negatively of this fate if they cannot prove those acts are "objectively" immoral. In addition, morality isn't perceived by all to be an objective and unchanging component of the universe, but a subjective thought system made by sapient beings, based mostly (but not uniquely) on empathy. A simple answer would be "because causing unneeded suffering for an innocent and taking their rights away motivated by highly selfish tendencies, sadistic pleasure or self-righteous bigotry doesn't seem fair."
In addition, apologists can also claim that this is an incorrect reading of the text. The specific command ordering the Israelite army to kill every woman comes not from God, but from Moses. Although Moses is "speaking" on the behalf of God here, it is not a divine command. However this layer of separation simply leads to the question of why God would condone such an act and endorse such a leader in Moses. It can be argued that God is still responsible for the murders of women and children and that God is guilty by association.
The claim that God would not command evil because it goes against God's nature does not actually change the problem, but only reorganizes it. The question might then be reasonably asked, "Where does God's nature come from?" Did God create it himself? If so then God's whims are still behind what he considers right and wrong, and the dilemma still applies. If, on the other hand, God did not create his own nature, then either someone else created it (in which case the dilemma applies to the creator of God's nature) or the morality contained in God's nature is inherent in some way (in which case God is not truly the author of right and wrong).
Michael Martin has argued that theistic objections to the dilemma solve nothing, because it can easily be reformulated in terms of God's character: "Is God's character the way it is because it is good or is God's character good simply because it is God's character?" The structure of this modified dilemma is exactly the same as before, and it appears to be if anything harder to escape.
If we identify the ultimate standard for goodness with God's nature, then it seems we are identifying it with certain of God's properties (e.g., being loving, being just). If so, then the dilemma resurfaces: is God good because he has those properties, or are those properties good because God has them?
Another idea the theist might formulate is that their god would have no reason to change its nature or go against it, already embodying "Absolute Perfection". Though the point is still dubious: by what standards or methods does this god judge, deduce or know that its state truly is perfect? It could be that this deity misleads people into believing this, or that this god may actually be mistaking a huge Ego with perfection. Another flaw in claiming that a god cannot (or would not) perform anything immoral, is that anything it condones according to scriptures is by definition good, moral, and to be emulated. In the bible's case, it should be admirable to follow the commandments of the Abrahamic god through killing disobedient kids, homosexuals, women who had premarital sex, people accused of witchcraft, etc... There would be nothing wrong with slavery (coupled with restrictions mentioned in religious texts) either. After all, bible verses were used by pro-slavery folk in the USA. It is illogical to cherry pick parts of scriptures based only on personal preferences to declare them alone absolutely moral. This shows that someone using this flawed method has some personal moral compass residing outside their religion's scriptures.
God provides a standard to emulate
Rabbi Moshe Averick argues that the entire Euthyphro dilemma is the philosophical equivalent of an optical illusion. Because the dilemma was first applied to the pagan gods of the ancient Greeks, it ignores the unique perspective of monotheism. In Jewish theology "good" means attaching oneself to the only reality that has actual existence; namely God himself. In other words, God commands humans to "love their neighbor" not because it is "good" but because it will bring the created human into a relationship with the actual and eternal being of God. According to Averick:
In the context of Jewish theology (and I would imagine, most monotheistic theologies), the Euth. Argument breaks down completely:
- Is “loving your neighbor” good because God commands it? – Obviously not, that would make it arbitrary.
- Does God command “love your neighbor” because it is good? - No, it is neither of these. God commands us to love our neighbors so that we can choose to have a relationship with him, so that we can attach ourselves to his infinite and actual being; God himself is THE good.
If this infinite being we call God actually exists, we have a real standard to determine a meaningful concept to moral truths. The standard is closeness to God, and the actual absolute existence which is his being. This is what the Psalmist means when he proclaims, "To me closeness to God is good" (Psalms 73:28).
Despite claiming that he's not, Averick agrees to the first possible explanation: good is defined by God's nature. God's nature is good, and by doing good, we grow closer to God. If God's nature or commandments required doing something most people would consider immoral (rape, murder, genocide, etc.), it is still moral because it is in God's nature. As mentioned above, some apologists have no problem with this view of morality and will defend it. Averick continues (somewhat tangentially):
The Euthyphro Argument as a challenge to Monotheism is nothing more than philosophical smoke and mirrors. The only reason it has some superficial appeal at all is because the word “gods” is used, giving the impression of some authority above human beings. Plato’s original argument, of course, involved the pagan gods of Greece. In fact, pagan gods have no more moral authority, nor moral credibility, than mortal humans. A pagan god is simply a human being projected to a large scale. He’s just bigger, stronger, lives longer, and can even throw a few lightning bolts when needed. Pagan gods are no different than The Incredible Hulk, The Flash, or Superman (who as the old TV show told us had “powers far beyond those of mortal men!”).
Formulating the Euthyphro Argument using pagan gods is exactly the same thing as saying: Does The Incredible Hulk command it because it is good, or is it good because The Incredible Hulk commands it? The moral proclamations of The Incredible Hulk, have no more or less significance, than the moral proclamations of Zeus, Mick Jagger, Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah Winfrey, or for that matter, any of the approximately 6,000,000,000 individuals living on this planet.
When stated this way, it becomes obvious how misguided and mistaken the whole argument was to begin with. What did you expect? Of course, pagan gods, superheroes, rock superstars, Jewish comedians, and even wildly successful talk show hosts – just like everyone else - can only tell us their totally subjective views on morality, or manufacture it arbitrarily.
Not so, the God of Abraham, the One God. The God of Monotheism is not a human being projected on a large scale. He is above time and space. He is above the physical. He is even above the spiritual. He created the spiritual. He is, as Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg has put it, “so totally and completely other than we are.” With the existence of the One God, greatness, goodness, meaning, and morality lie in front of us. They are within our grasp if we choose them. Without God, in the utterly empty void of the atheistic world, we are left with nothing but bleak despair, as expressed by the American novelist T.C. Boyle:
- "I am an atheist and a nihilist…I believe in nothing. And it causes me tremendous despair and heartbreak…there is nothing between us and the naked howling face of the universe. Nothing."
Averick claims the nature of the pagan gods makes this a meaningless question when Plato posed it because the Greek gods, like celebrities and superheroes, obviously fall short of ownership or authorship of universal moral laws (Although many celebrities try to be role-models for kids, comic books try at times to deliver a message to readers through their characters, and some people show fanatical obedience towards politicians similar to blind devotion towards a god). He's basing this on a simplistic understanding of paganism (That, and the pagan gods were not considered "mere human projections" by pagans themselves, who viewed said gods as deities that should be worshiped and pleased, similar to how Averick sees the biblical god - a god he emptily asserts as more valid than other deities), but it's irrelevant anyway because the dilemma applies to any being that is claimed to reflect or generate morality itself. This is a form of special pleading; even if it didn't apply to Plato's gods, it applies to Averick's. After this (dishonest) diversion, Averick evades/claims God is essentially unknowable, but quickly turns to warn of the emotional danger of atheism (quoting an atheist for good measure). This final claim has nothing to do with this article's topic: whether the truth leads a person to despair and heartbreak or joy has nothing to do with it's validity (That, and atheists do not have to be nihilists by default). Check out Common objections to atheism and counter-apologetics for more details.
Can you be good without God?
The issue of secular morality is a complex topic and is further explored in the related article. (Some theists, especially those believing in Objective morality, phrase their view on the idea like this: "Morality is objective and absolute, but humans can only know about its true premises by believing in and obeying my god, who knows everything about it through Omniscience")
Atheist expositions of it
Christian apologetic attempts at resolving it
- The Euthyphro Argument: A Philosophical Dinosaur by Rabbi Moshe Averick
- A New Euthyphro by Glenn Peoples