Moral Argument III: The Euthyphro Dilemma

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This is the the twenty-fifth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I looked at why some people think theism serves as the best non-naturalistic foundation for ethics. This post now looks at an objection to seeing God as the basis of morality.

In Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, he has the character of Socrates raise an objection to the idea that morality has something to do with the gods. If something is good just because the gods view it as good, the gods could command anything, and it would automatically be right. You don't have to be a polytheist for that consequence. How could God's mere choice be the basis of morality? Are good things good because God says they're good, or does God just declare them good based on seeing their goodness? If they are already good, then doesn't that mean God's choice didn't make them good?

Many theists are attracted to the thesis that God simply decides what is morally good. But that seems arbitrary. God could have declared murder to be good, and that would have made it good, on this view. Most theists don't want to say that once they consider it. Also, this view also doesn't explain why it's meaningful to praise God. If anything God does, no matter what it is, is automatically good, then why is it saying anything if we praise God for being good? Third, this view doesn't explain why God would say certain things are good and not others. If all that makes it good is the fact that God chose it, then God isn't choosing it for any reasons. Do we want to say that God acts without rationally compelling reasons? Do we want to say that there is no explanation at all for why God chose these things to be good? If we say that, then we really haven't explained morality at all, have we? If any choice at all would be good just because God says so, that leads to these unwelcome consequences. So it must be that what makes them good is not God's mere choice.

So maybe God just declares things to be right and wrong out of seeing that those truths are true in a way independent of God. If so, it seems to be an external limitation on God, who isn't supposed to have such limitations. Morality would give God obligations, and thus would be external to God. Many theists would be uncomfortable with that. Also, this doesn't allow the moral argument to get going to begin with, since the moral truths would have to be independent from God. God's nature doesn't explain them after all. This second option is not the way to go to defend the moral argument against the Euthyphro objection.

Most contemporary philosophers stop there and just conclude that God cannot be the basis of morality. The moral argument suddenly becomes a ridiculous non-starter in the eyes of most philosophers I know, pretty much entirely because of this objection. But anyone presenting the objection and stopping there betrays a severe ignorance of how this question was treated by one of the most well-known and influential of all theistic philosophers. Thomas Aquinas gives a response to Plato's objection that avoids both of the above problems, and unfortunately very few philosophers nowadays even seem to know about his response.

Aquinas' suggestion is to give a third option: God's perfect nature explains morality. If so, then moral truths aren't external to God after all, so there's no external limitation. Also, the moral argument isn't immediately defeated, since God’s nature does the explaining. Third, it's not as if God just chooses out of lots of options what is good or evil, so it's not arbitrary. Its foundation is God's nature, something essential to being a perfect being. Aquinas' view avoids the problems of the two options of the dilemma while still providing a foundation for morality. So it seems the Euthyphro objection does not undermine the conclusion of the moral argument.

Next: The Logical Problem of Evil


So is Aquinas saying that moral truths are dependant on the (forgive the following word choice) internal limitations of God that being his perfection? Just trying to get a handle on that third option.

I'm not sure he'd call them limitations, since we're talking about metaphysical perfection here. They're limitations only in the sense that you can put some options into words that aren't possible, but it's no more a limitation than to say that God can't perform contradictions or make 2+2=3. It's a restriction on what grammatically coherent sentences are possible, but it's not a genuine limitation in the sense that there's something possible that God can't do.


What about this one, that I usually think of as part of a family with the ones you mention: if God is the source of morality, then "God is good" expresses a mere tautology; the claim in question should be more meaningful than that.

I don't see that the Aquinas line gets around that one.

If this were an account of what it means to say that something is good, then I think it does follow that "God is good" expresses a tautology. But I don't think that's what Aquinas (or Alston, who offers this in a more contemporary version) had in mind. God's nature is the truthmaker for moral truths, but moral terms don't just mean "consistent with God's nature" or something like that. It does have the implication that moral statements are necessarily true, but it doesn't make them tautologies.

I've never been able to articulate this very well (perhaps I should read Alston and Aquinas?) but it always struck me that Socrates in Euthyphro seems to only consider God as legislator. If God's "goodness" is merely something apprehended by creatures (that is, we judge God's action and character as good) and not a preexisting part of his nature, then it would seem that Socrates has a point. But that simply is not consistent with Christian and Jewish conceptions of God.

When we did this dialogue in college I was happy enough to simply embrace one of the horns--I didn't see why it was problematic for God to be both the author AND the ultimate judge of morals. The charge of "caprice" could simply be dealt with in other ways.

In any event, Euthyphro has been the dialogue I have actually seen discussed the most often among contemporary folks, particularly atheist/skeptic types, so it is always useful to have some good thoughts about it.

This may be a rather naïve question, but I’ll ask it anyway: What does it mean to say that God is perfect? I can imagine what perfection means when applied to, say, a triple somersault, but not when applied to God. Nor is it clear to me that God’s ‘perfection’ should imply morality.

Admitting that there are good answers to the questions above, I can’t see how they solve the Euthyphro dilemma: can’t we then apply it to perfection itself. Does God define the standards of perfection, in which case they seem arbitrary, or does God comply with some external standards of perfection.

Actually, that's not a naive question at all. It would be circular to define morality in terms of perfection if it's just moral perfection. So it better be something else, and then it's worth asking what that something else is. William Alston's suggestion is that metaphysical perfection is something prior to moral perfection. He doesn't give a full account of what metaphysical perfection is, partly because I think he would acknowledge differences among philosophers about what it would be. He wouldn't himself accept Aquinas' account, but Aquinas' is the most traditional, so I'll explain that.

Aquinas sees God as both the ground of existence (i.e. the explanation why anything else exists) and existing in his own right without any explanation from outside himself. Ultimately he works this out to be because God is identical with his own existence. I'm not sure I understand his position all that well, but basically the idea is that all other things derive their existence from something else, but God is his own existence and this explains why God must exist. He then derives everything else that we consider a perfection from this notion, including God's metaphysical perfection and eventually God's moral perfection. This isn't a part of his work I know as well as I could, but I think the way he does it does allow for metaphysical perfection to depend on something else that doesn't require normativity.

Whether the account works is another matter, and I don't know it well enough to evaluate it (and this is something I really need to ask my Thomist friends about), but I know enough to know that it doesn't suffer from the problem you've identified, and that means it isn't necessarily a problem that you could raise the same worry for metaphysical perfection as people do for moral perfection. It ultimately also might derive from something in God's nature, something that isn't dependent on any concept of perfection per se.

Hi Jeremy, I must admit I've never understood how the standard "God's nature" response escapes the dilemma. Essentialism provides a nice trick to avoid the technical problem of "what if he'd been different". But it doesn't address the core problem, which is the direction of explanation.

Let us grant that God possesses a morally perfect essential nature. We can then ask: in virtue of what is this nature, call it 'X', morally perfect? Is it fundamentally in virtue of the way X is, or simply because X is his nature? Put another way: is there some reason why a perfect being must have essential nature X, rather than some other Y? Without some irreducibly normative grounding, the proposed reduction is simply arbitrary. Euthyphro all over again.

We can bring out the intuitive problem by considering counterpossible scenarios. Suppose, per impossibile, that God's essential nature had turned out to be completely different from what it actually happens to be. Imagine he'd been sadistic or whatever (even if this isn't metaphysically possible, it should at least be conceivable). Would this make sadism a virtue? Plainly not. And why not? Because God's nature is no more capable of grounding morality than is yours or mine. We know subjectivism is false, and making the moral truthmaker a really firmly fixed or modally rigid opinion (via the essentialism move) doesn't do a thing to make it any less arbitrarily grounded in the first place.

Aside: I'm don't see why theists are uncomfortable with some principled limitations on divine will and power. Presumably they have to accept that God can't create a rock so heavy that even he can't lift it. He's bound by the laws of logic. Similarly, he's bound by rational norms: he can't have contradictory beliefs, because that would be theoretically unreasonable, and he can't intend to torture babies, because that would be practically unreasonable. Theists should say: "Of course God has moral obligations. That's what makes him morally perfect -- he always lives up to them! I wouldn't worship any old deity that wasn't independently so wonderfully good!"

(In the above terms: God merits worship because he has nature X, which is good; not merely because the nature he has is his. Even the devil is self-identical, after all. One would hope there's a more principled basis to set God's moral nature apart!)

We can bring out the intuitive problem by considering counterpossible scenarios. Suppose, per impossibile, that God's essential nature had turned out to be completely different from what it actually happens to be. Imagine he'd been sadistic or whatever (even if this isn't metaphysically possible, it should at least be conceivable). Would this make sadism a virtue? Plainly not. And why not? Because God's nature is no more capable of grounding morality than is yours or mine.

I don't think it's quite so clear as this. First, because obviously some elements of morality are grounded by your nature and mine, so it would be odd if a divine nature didn't ground an even greater part of it, given that the possibility of your nature and mine would, one presume, depend on the divine nature. And this is not subjectivism, but quite the opposite; moral truths are not utterly independent of ontological facts. Further, since on this sort of view God grounds right and wrong insofar as He is goodness as such, the impossibility of the supposition seems to cause problems for the intuition here. If, per impossibile, it were part of pure goodness to be sadistic, would this make sadism a virtue? Well, yes, by the impossible supposition. So why wouldn't the impossible supposition have the same result in the divine case? If, per impossibile, sadism were divine, how could it not be a virtue? So intuitions can go the other way; and usually do.

Think of it this way. Why do we need an 'irreducibly normative grounding'? What we actually need is grounding of the normative in something else. While what is normative is good, things can be good without being normative, and given that it makes much more sense to ground the normative on some form of the non-normative good than to ground all good on the normative. This is a good strategy regardless of specifics, and regardless of whether one is a theist or not; and the Thomistic account noted by Jeremy is a particular theistic variant of it. And if good is a broader and more fundamental concept than normative good, the Euthyphro dilemma fails, because motivating the dilemma requires a focus on obligations, when the focus should be on what obligations necessarily presuppose.

Nor is this surprising, because you can run the Euthyphro dilemma without God. Take our moral obligations. Are they morally obligatory because they are good, or are they good because they are morally obligatory? One might puzzle over the question in this way: If the latter, we run into exactly the same problems we appear to run into with divine command theory; if the former, we seem to run into the mystery and obscurity of irreducible norms. But, in fact, the dilemma understood this way can only be motivated at all by ignoring the real relation between moral obligation and goodness -- in particular, by conflating the two on one horn of the dilemma and by separating them on the other.

Thanks for posting this Jeremy. I didn't really think this was much of a problem for Christianity, as the "God's Nature" response has always seemed obvious.

Then I started doing my Masters in philosophy and the whole euthyphro argument kept coming up as if it ended the question of God and morality. They then of course went on to ignore the inherent problems with a naturalistic cosmos having morality at all.

Crazy stuff, but my latest professor was anti-christian enough that I thought it better to let it pass than point out the absurdities.

Greg Koukl, from stand to reason also deals with this argument here

I know some bullet biters I guess, but Id say quite a few theists would say

'if god says so, then murder IS a virtue and the uncomfortable feeling you get is just your intuition which is based on the fact that god DOESN'T say that'

For example if you take a really big picture, if god was rewarding a certain activity and being the subject of that activity was also rewarded, then it would become a good thing.

Even if that is not the case - some people see sacrifice as a good thing anyway (showing it can be done).

GeniusNZ, one difficulty with saying it the way you did is that murder is defined as wrongful killing, and murder is thus going to be whichever kinds of killing are wrong. The question is which kinds of killing are wrong. Perhaps your suggestion could be restated as saying that God could have said that the particular kinds of killing that are in actuality wrong would instead have been ok.

Once you say that, though, I would say that you've stated an impossible supposition. If that supposition were true, everything you say would follow. But I don't think that says very much to us. It would be like trying to talk about what would follow from the supposition that there are some circles with four sides and three angles or some such impossibility.

as to the point about murder - I always find these sorts of questions insufficiently defined..

the question is: are we using words such as 'murder' to describe what you and I understand to be an act in this world or are we saying 'murder' as alternate you and alternate I would understand it in the alternate reality? (ie Is the debate a simulation or a discussion of an other world in this world?)

and yes I agree with your second part - if a situation is not true then the it is a bit "like trying to talk about what would follow from the supposition that there are some circles with four sides".

There's no difficulty if the situation just isn't true. John Kerry isn't president of the U.S., but it makes perfect sense to speak of what might be true if he were. A Kerry presidency isn't impossible, just false. We're talking about impossible suppositions, not just false suppositions.

real, well defined situation? isaac.

I don't think it follows from the Isaac case that murder would have been ok just because God told Abraham to do it. It's clear that God didn't allow Moses to do it. So the case certainly doesn't illustrate that killing Isaac would have been ok in the case that God commands it. If it had illustrated that, then the account would have had the same point even if God had allowed Isaac to be killed (and then resurrected as Hebrews tells us Abraham expected). But God in fact doesn't allow the killing.

He wanted to demonstrate Abraham's trust in him to the point of being able to put aside even what he thought was morally obvious, acknowledging that God is a better judge of moral truth than humans could possibly be. Since Adam and Eve we've wanted to have the knowledge of good and evil on a level of being the judges of good and evil rather than simply trusting a perfect creator to guide us.

I don't see how that shows anything about the ground of morality being God or not. The metaphysical issue is completely separate. The issue the Isaac case raises is not metaphysics but epistemology. It's about human fallibility with regard to morality, and that's consistent with thinking that Abraham would have done something wrong if the impossible had occurred and God had allowed him to go through with it.

The Euthyphro Argument as a challenge to Monotheistic Divine Command theory, is really nothing more than philosophical sleight of hand. In fact when the argument is analyzed carefully, it really turns out to be quite childish. I recently wrote an article entitled,"The Euthyphro Argument: A Philosphical Dinosaur". I hope within the next month it will be posted on the NISHMA website. In the meantime, anyone who would like to read the article, please email me at , and I will email it to you as a WORD attachment.

Hello. I just thought you might be interested in this article: "A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma"

Jeremy, can you post here and/or email me a link to what sections of Aquinas' own writings most directly address the Euthyphro Dilemma. He never mentions it directly, does he? I'm familiar with his Summa Theologica, The Goodness of God section. What else do you refer to? Thank you, Grant

Grant, I've tried to find it myself, and I don't know where it is. I'm getting my information from William Alston's paper, and he doesn't cite anything in Aquinas. It may well be from another work, though. He wrote a lot of things.

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