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Euthyphro dilemma

One common argument for the existence of God is the moral argument, which says that the best explanation for humanity's shared sense of right and wrong is a god who sets an objective standard. I've discussed with the Morality Argument before, but I'd like to bring up one particular question that comes up for people who subscribe to this argument: The Euthyphro dilemma:

ἆρα τὸ ὅσιον ὅτι ὅσιόν ἐστιν φιλεῖται ὑπὸ τῶν θεῶν, ἢ ὅτι φιλεῖται ὅσιόν ἐστιν

Plato first posed the dilemma in the dialogue called EuthyphroWhich translates to "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" When dealing with Christianity, the dilemma can be phrased like this: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?"

If God commands things because they're moral, then that means there is some standard of morality above and outside of God and he's only passing it on to us.

If something is moral only because he commands it, then morality is arbitrary. If God wanted to declare that genocide is allowed, then it would no longer be evil. If God is the very definition of good, then saying "God is good" is meaningless. You might as well say that that the book 1984 is Orwellian.

The standard Christian response to the dilemma is to say that goodness flows from God and is one with his very nature. I don't think that really avoids the problems of the dilemma, but I'm not bringing this up in order to settle the issue. I only want to point out that there is a dilemma. It doesn't disprove the existence of God, but it does show that the Moral Argument is not without its problems. I think that there are better explanations for our shared morality than god that are simpler, fit better with the facts and raise fewer questions.

Note: I encountered the Euthyphro Dilemma while reading a review of Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. The review was written by Chris Hallquist and I recommend it. And yes, this is all a thinly veiled excuse to add Greek to a post.

6 comments

Cool new web design!

Your post is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. If God is Love, and we can become one with Christ and participate in the divine nature, it seems like God, as the New Testament writers understood him, is as much a phenomenon as a personality. This is not to say He isn’t a personality, but somehow he is also something like a Platonic ideal. The fact that we can recognize something called goodness and that base of goodness seems more or less shared across cultures is interesting to me. It can’t prove the existence of God (though the evolutionary alternatives tend to lean on theories like hive minds or flock behavior which seem suspect to me), but it is suggestive of _something_ transcendent. What does the very form of poetry, music, and art (apart from any narrative), activate when it “moves” us? C.S. Lewis calls it Joy, which I’m ok with…but I wonder if it’s not being near, or perhaps even becoming a part of something transcendent. I don’t know how to explain it, exactly, but beauty and love and goodness all seem sort of personified to me. These concepts seem…I don’t know…alive in a way that a concept like the particles per liter of fish urine in the drinking water does not. Goodness seems more alive than roundness to me. If God is Love, then, I’m not sure it makes Him less sentient so much as it makes a concept like love more Personal. I feel like these things are sort of on the edge of my ability to grasp or define (the same feeling I get when I try to imagine what a 3 dimensional “flattening” of a 4 dimensional object might look like), so I could be spouting nonsense.


Doug [Visitor]• 02/27/08 @ 16:15
dan [Member] • http://www.brendoman.com/02/28/08 @ 03:49

It’s interesting to read these discussions of the proof of god as someone who’s religious background is more Hindu. The big thing is that all these proofs of god go from “something must have done it” to “the fully fledged Christian god of the bible did it” without any justification. You can take any of these proofs and substitute in Brahma (creator) or Vishnu (for the morals) or I suspect any other god you wish.

FWIW, the answer to this particular dilemma that most comes to mind from a Hindu point of view is that God is bound by Dharma (righteousness) - though I may be showing some Buddhist / Advaita tendencies in my thinking. The word “God” means quite a different thing in that situation to what a Christian would call “God", though I see Christians arguing towards those ideas at times including the idea of “god as phenomenon” above.

Doug - your long posts about your religious history were very interesting. I wish you good fortune wherever your life and explorations take you.


Richard [Visitor]• 01/01/09 @ 07:19

“Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?” the first poster asks.

First, anything that is, just is. A light is a light; a bird is a bird; an idea is an idea. Moral is moral and immoral is immoral. Or if you prefer, get out your thesaurus and choose another word with the same definition.
Secondly, I believe that what is moral is suggested by God. We have free will to choose. Have you ever chosen the moral route and had it turn out badly? Not me, nor anyone I know. God provides the outline for success, it is up to us to choose it or not. Morality is suggested by God because it is right, successful and yes, moral.

“The standard Christian response to the dilemma is to say that goodness flows from God and is one with his very nature. I don’t think that really avoids the problems of the dilemma, but I’m not bringing this up in order to settle the issue. I only want to point out that there is a dilemma. It doesn’t disprove the existence of God, but it does show that the Moral Argument is not without its problems. I think that there are better explanations for our shared morality than god that are simpler, fit better with the facts and raise fewer questions” the first poster states.

Avoids what problems? You are making it a problem and dilemma. Is it a dilemma that the ocean exists? Morality exists. Things exist. It is how we choose to use them that makes the difference. We choose to use them as a positive or negative tool. I do not care whether you are scientist or Christian…. it is simply fact that for every action there is and opposite but equal reaction…..There is up/down; in/out; left/right…. good/evil. I think that the fact that morality exists is a problem when we try to dissect it’s existence and origin, then we further add to that by using it as a tool for argument. The fact that God also IS (good) bothers people because it means that there is in fact an opposite…Satan.

A prior poster wrote: “If God is Love, and we can become one with Christ and participate in the divine nature, it seems like God, as the New Testament writers understood him, is as much a phenomenon as a personality.”

There is no if for those with faith. God is so simple, yet so complex. God is not just love, but God is. Every good and perfect thing. As the scriptures tell us, God is the Alpha and Omega…He is neither phenom or personality….he is not God in a box, and can not be contained by our trivial definitions. God is.

To those that believe, no proof of the existence of God is needed. We know there is a God. Our faith in God, our love of God, and our praise and thanks to God we freely choose to give. Just as God chose freely to sacrifice His own Son for us, His Son then freely chose to follow the plan and sacrifice himself.

I do not need proof that there is air, as I breathe it. I do not need proof of bones, I just need to stand. I don’t need to know how these things are done, I just have faith that I can. For example, sports figures have not needed files of technical data on why and how they can do what they do; they just need to make the choice to work at it, and make the choice to have faith in their ability to achieve it. I do not need proof of other galaxies or life in the same. Eventually throughout history, things are proven. Some already have been. Some are yet to be proven.

Those that truly believe don’t need nor seek to convince anyone. We will answer questions to help you understand, but we do not seek you. You must choose to be interested, and ask the questions, and seek God out. That is what free will is all about. That is what God’s total love is all about. The ability to love you, let you do as you want, to help you if you ask, to forgive you if you fall and to welcome you if you return.


barb g [Visitor]• 01/08/09 @ 09:37

There is a problem with the dilemma as it is posited. It requires that the answer be limited to only the two positions of the dilemma. Either God is subject something outside Himself or He is capricious. Both positions are in opposition to the very nature of an omnipotent, omnicient, omnipresent eternal God. If this God has to adhere to anything outside Himself then he would not be omnipotent. If He adjusts His will and behaviour according to a whim then He is not omniscient. What you are left with is how do we answer the dilemma in light of God’s very nature. We must arrive at what is True and that is found in the nature of God. What is true according to the nature of God then is good. That is why one can say God is Good.


Don [Visitor]• 01/11/09 @ 20:37

I feel as if Socrates made a crucial mistake in his argument. He only limited himself to two options…Either it is morally good because it is commanded by god…or God commands it because it is morally good (i.e. it is co-eternal with God)…either option leaves no room for religious morality. However I not only agree with the above post that the very nature of God is good and not a commandment but in forming this argument Socrates contradicts himself. Socrates did not believe in many of the greek mythology or I suppose at that time Theology because he did not believe that the Gods would have such human fallacies as lust and greed. So if we were to suggest that god could arbitrarily change his mind about the moral goodness of lets say, genocide. Would we not be displaying him as having human fallacies?? Also our way of knowing what God willed would be from our faculties of intuition. There is no scientific way of proving morality or even manifesting it…therefore morality must be extrinsic to the physical world…hence coming from some non-physical thing.


Molly [Visitor]• 09/07/10 @ 21:24

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