Morality Posts – Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is a question that can be traced back to one of Plato’s writings where Socrates and Euthyphro are talking about morality and the gods.  The dilemma can be summarized in simple terms as such:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because God declares it to be good.

2. It is good independent of God and God loves it and commands it because it is good.

The above 2 options (sometimes called “horns” of the dilemma) are called a dilemma because each option offers problems for the theist.  Let me start by saying that I believe that horn #2 poses less of a problem for theists.  The main consequence stated for option #2 is that there is no longer a need for God if moral truths exist independently of God.  Actually, to be fair, I believe it could be argued that there would still be other needs for the existence of a God (and those could be debated as well), but it is correct that the full force of the moral argument would be gone.  Remember that the whole point of the moral argument is that objective morals could not exist without God, and because it seems that there are objective morals therefore God must exist.  If a theist were to accept option #2 above then they would clearly have to dispense with that strong form of the moral argument (because option #2 admits objective morals do exist apart from God).  As I noted in my previous post, there are theists who believe that there are standards of goodness apart from God.  Some of these theists believe that all moral standards exist as truths apart from God and others believe that only some moral truths exist apart from God, but either way, they are running into the consequence of the second horn, and some readily admit to that.

Ok, so now option #1, usually called divine command theory.  The problem with this option is sometimes described as morality becoming “arbitrary” because it is solely based on the whims of whatever God chooses to declare as good, even if they do not line up with what the vast majority of humans believes is good.  Examples might be the best way to show how this could cause major difficulties.  1 Samuel 15:3 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are both passages which express commands which do not jive with what the vast majority of humans would agree is good (unless they are interpretively manipulated of course).  1 Samuel 15:3 is particularly bad because what is described is clearly genocide (slaughter of infants is even included in the command).

I personally believe that theists do have an underlying feeling that option #2 is really what is going on, but they don’t realize it.  This came out in a debate I had with one of my Christian friends when I told him I had decided I could no longer believe in the Christian message. My friend told me that the truth of Christianity was obvious, and that all one needed to do was examine the major faiths to see this. What do you think was the first religion he chose to prove was obviously false? Why it was Islam of course. Why? He said it was obvious because just look at Jihad and suicide bombers!  Now this friend of mine actually believed in option #1 of the dilemma above, but this is very inconsistent with the fact that he felt that he was able to judge the truth of religions by moral standards.  Because if divine command theory is true then we would have no way to judge any religion by the morals that it espouses.  Suicide bombing could actually be morally good if we believe that God can declare it to be good.

Louise Antony in her debate with William Lane Craig also hit on another very important observation – many theists try to re-interpret bible passages like the ones given above.  If theists truly believed in divine command theory then there would be no need for interpretive gymnastics, they would simply leave the passages the way they are and accept that what they describe are good because God has commanded them.  The simple fact that theists try to re-interpret them shows that there is some moral standard that they are using to judge what is written.

Now another popular apologist response to the dilemma is that there is no dilemma at all because there is a third option: God’s nature or character is what is good, and he can only command whatever lines up with his good nature.  This is hard to think through, but it really is just a bit of sleight of hand trickery in moving the problem somewhere else.  The dilemma and it’s consequences still stand and it simply has to be re-worded:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because it is consistent with God’s nature.

2. It is good independent of God and it is part of his nature because it is good.

Personally, if I were to be a theist, then I would believe in horn #2 simply because the consequences of the arbitrary nature of divine command theory are so very ugly. Goodness would lose it’s meaning for me if absolutely anything commanded by a god or gods can be defined as good.


12 thoughts on “Morality Posts – Euthyphro Dilemma

  1. The moral standard that people use to judge what is written in their holy texts is a subjective morality which they themselves arrive at. A Pentecostal and a Lutheran will argue about what is right yet both claim to believe the same god and holy text. Morality is subjective in all cases, and if there is a god, the one of the Christian bible, I absolutely want to kill the bastard because I’ve seen his morality and it is indefensibly abhorrent.

  2. When the Euthyphro Dilemma was first explained to me a year ago it became an important step in consolidating my atheism. I totally agree that theists know deep down that #2 is true, but they put any innate sense of morality down to the Holy Spirit in them, or the image of God they have supposedly been created in. The difficult thing now is figuring out (and explaining to Christians) where objective morality comes from, if not from God. Of course, that is if objective morality exists. The idea of something being good because it is consistent with God’s nature is interesting. But it does seem to run into similar problems as #1, just without God directly holding the responsibility.

  3. Criticofchristianity: You’re right about it being difficult to pinpoint where objective morality comes from, and it could very well be that it isn’t objective and that it is simply a bi-product of our existence, evolution, and our own thinking about how to create a better environment for ourselves. A lot of atheists hold to this position, but I’ve found it interesting to find that there are also a lot of other atheists who are actually vocal about their belief in moral realism, and I’ve briefly written about that in my previous 3 posts. I’m agnostic about it myself. As far as explaining it to Christians, if they are open minded enough to listen it’s worth the time, but a lot probably don’t want to think outside the box of “objective morality cannot exist without God”. It’s probably not worth the effort of trying to explain in that case. But at least they can see that there are a whole lot of atheists (whether they believe in objective or subjective morality) that want to work toward creating a better environment for all to live in, and derive their “morals” from this.

  4. The thing that always gets me in these arguments is how the simplest answer is often overlooked by both sides. In this example, why can’t the answer be option #1 (of which I prefer the reworded one at the end of the post), and the examples listed here (1 Tim and 1 Sam) be examples of an author confusing God’s character and will with their own bias and/or prejudice?

  5. Hi Don. Thanks for the comment. I think all you have done is confirmed what I said in my paragraph starting with “Louise Antony in her debate with William Lane Craig”.

  6. In the sense of leaving the bible passages as they are, then yes. However (and maybe I’m misinterpreting the cited argument here), I don’t believe that simply accepting those passages as the final authority, just because it is written in a book many revere as holy, is entirely healthy either. In other words, it’s “good” because the book says so is not acceptable to me (and this is what I read in the above paragraph). I believe that the quest for truth means challenging even that which is considered off-limits to scrutiny. However, should I find a passage lacking in morality, instead of believing that to be proof against the morality of a Christian God, I instead see it as a simple example of human fallacy on the author’s part.

    Of course, this doesn’t begin to address the argument against God based on suffering, but that’s a whole other discussion. 🙂

  7. Don: By the way, it’s no surprise that you and many other believers (be they Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, etc) are able to read these kind of abhorrent “moral declarations” and see them as problematic, even though they might be in scriptures of their own respective religions. I’m very thankful for you guys by the way! 🙂

    The dilemma and the mention of those bible verses are not meant as proof against the morality of a Christian God. The bible verses are an example of how people who believe in divine command theory can come up with some abhorrent commands and then use option #1 as support for them being moral. If one believes in option #1 it’s hard to argue against this. If divine command theory is correct then there is no moral law or truth independent of a god and whatever that god would command would be moral. So there should be no need to have angst then when reading these kind of passages – you can simply accept them as good because they are commanded by god. But luckily you and many others have a different sense – indicating that there is a moral standard that can be used to judge these passages.

    Now it sounds like you are trying to still hold on to divine command theory, but just state that his divine commands are communicated to you (and others like you of course) and through that communication you are able to see that those bible passages are bad. Surely an option, but what makes your moral sense any closer connected to the direction of a god than other people? Obviously there are many people who believe they are directed by a god and come to very different conclusions than you. The people who wrote the bible passages above are examples of this; suicide bombers of Islam are another example, and there are many other examples across many different religions. This doesn’t prove them wrong or you wrong, but the question arises: what makes your conclusions about what is moral more in line with the truth from a god than the other people. Don’t get me wrong however – it seems to me that atheists who believe in moral truths that exist without god also face this problem. But the theist and the atheist are on equal ground here.

  8. I chanced upon this post, and I am finding this particular discussion interesting. Mr. Hartness, I’m curious to know why #1 is the simplest answer. To accept that goodness is an intrinsic value of a creator such that goodness stems from and is reflective of a creator presupposes the existence of a creator. Without an a priori understanding of a creator, #2 is just as simple of an explanation, that goodness can exist independent of a creator and without a creator.

  9. The first thing I should say, in answer to both of you, is that I slightly misinterpreted the point of the post here. I was addressing what I perceived to be an argument against the theist for the existence of God based on an argument from morality. Hence, when I presented my observation as “the simplest answer”, I was unknowingly committing a straw-man, and I apologize. As I now understand his presentation, Howie is demonstrating how the existence of morality is not dependent on the belief in a god. I think I’m on the same page with you now.

    My short answer is that you are correct: the theist is no closer than the atheist.

    And why not? One does not need to believe in a source of life to be alive. Nor does one need to believe in an objective morality in order to be moral. Arguments that atheism results in immorality are non-sequitur, and easily disprovable. Theists who make such an argument are also ignorant of their theological history.

    Sorry, but recent events over the last few days don’t allow me the luxury of commenting and debating further, and for that I apologize. If I can, I’ll come back to this conversation at a later date.

  10. No need for apologies Don.

    I’m an implicit atheist so you won’t see any arguments on my blog trying to disprove the existence of supernatural beings. I might describe (if I ever get the time) why I don’t claim belief in any gods but that wouldn’t be any proof for claiming they don’t exist.

    To be honest I don’t know the exact original purpose Plato had in mind in writing about this dilemma in his dialogue Euthyphro, but what I had in mind (and what I believe most people have in mind) goes a bit beyond what you have even agreed to. It questions not only whether the existence of morality is dependent on the “belief” in a god, but whether the existence of morality is dependent on the “existence” of a god.

    I believe it is a common misconception that if someone doesn’t believe in a god then they cannot believe that moral truths exist. I discussed this even further in my previous post.

  11. Pingback: The Atheist Letters: A fire-side chat | Don Hartness

  12. Pingback: Morality Posts – Theism solves all the problems | Truth Is Elusive

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