The Euthyphro Dilemma

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

In his Slate article, Bad Religion, Ross Douthat argues that even bad religions “have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims.” Douthat’s argument evokes the Euthyphro Dilemma, inspired by one of Plato’s dialogues. The dialogue features Socrates and religious expert Euthyphro, and has been modernized as “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?”

For those who espouse the Divine Command Theory of morality, the Euthyphro Dilemma presents two horns upon which they may choose their impalement.

If the Divine Command Theory is true, then either (1) morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, or (2) morally good acts morally good because they are willed by God. These two options are intended to be mutually exclusive and logically exhaustive. If (1) is true, then morally good acts are morally good independent of God’s will, and God is unnecessary. If (2) is true, then morally good acts are subject to God’s arbitrary whim, and arbitrary morality is not objective.

Douthat tries to avoid the arbitrariness by evoking God’s nature:

Virtue is not something that’s commanded by God, the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, but something that’s inherent to the Christian conception of the divine nature.

Similarly, renown Christian apologist William Lane Craig writes:

God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from His moral nature.

But what does it mean to claim that a being has a nature? A nature is a set of properties that the being possesses. We can now form a new Euthyphro-like dilemma: “Is God good because he has these properties? Or are these properties good because God has them?” And we are right back where we started.

The apologist may then try to argue Divine Simplicity: that God is identical to its properties. But, as Alvin Plantinga notes, properties are abstract entities, causally inert, and hence, via this argument, God is abstract and causally inert.

Douthat is trying to plug the leaks in his metaphysical dike. But, the very act of plugging causes new leaks to appear. A perfect example of a non-coherent metaphysical worldview.

H/T: Wes Morriston (pdf), John Holbo, Julian Sanchez, John Casey, Julian Sanchez.

44 thoughts on “The Euthyphro Dilemma”

  1. “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
    ― Christopher Hitchens

    My own personal thoughts parallel those of Mike Spindell, who stated a terrific position:

    “Experiences in my life have led me to believe that the possibility of some creative force intertwined with the Universe is plausible.”

    But I strongly suspect She – Mother Nature – wouldn’t claim the Earthlings’ religions on a bet.

  2. Gotta go. Catch you later. Would love to hear how you took it. My first chance to share it. So snub me now and I can die disappointed. No chance´of that. lol

  3. Well, that depends on how you took it. For me, if my roots had been looser, then I’d be on that road literally.
    But the routine became threadbare after four books, for me at least.
    And the hands moving the shadow puppets (see Indonesian culture) became visible.


  4. idealist, I probably went down it more that you did, lol.

  5. MikeS,

    You got to miss seeing Gisnberg. I’ve nothing notable (for once) to recall other than purchasing on a chance encounter my first reefer from a black guy outside my
    miserable encampment on S. Flower St. in LA when I had gotten fired. Would have liked to try other things. Another story.

    Will say next time what I got scared off of after my first at 48.

    But this first:
    “All the psychedelics informed me about the malleable nature of reality. That is part of the reason I don’t preclude the possibilty of a creative force in the universe.”

    I don’t preclude anything, so am with you there. That is my main motto. If JC came strolling down the road in five minutes and the walls of the buildings around would reflect his light, then I’d open the window and say: “Hey, man. Glad you’re back. Gonna stay for a while this time? Good!”

    So lets us all look to the heavens…..and see different things there.

    As for malleable, yeah, all we need are the tools.

  6. Woosty,

    I knew somebody would get it!! 🙂

    (Small death as opposed to the big one)

    1. ID707,
      Would that I could have journeyed with Alan G. We frequented some of the same venues but to my misfortune I never ran into him. I did it three times on my own. Once in Manhattan and twice in the Adirondacks, about 40 years ago. I preferred organic mescaline. All the psychedelics informed me about the malleable nature of reality. That is part of the reason I don’t preclude the possibilty of a creative force in the universe. After my first heart attack 30 or so years ago my tripping days were over. Too tumultuous an experience to repeat but I remember them fondly and well.

  7. “Anybody remember Don Juan, the indian holy man?”


    Not only do I remember Don Juan, I remember peyote. You’ve got to watch out for the white furry parts on the button. 🙂

  8. Woosty,

    Good reply.

    But like all things we are just trading words on which we EVENTUALLY have congruent feelings about.

    You could, as I would if I dared, ask her what was the difference. And how are her real ones better. And what spirituall masturbation techniques did she use? Etc.

    Mankinds methods are marvelous. Some even rise spontaneously from within in different forms, as has happened to me twice.

    Anybody remember Don Juan, the indian holy man?

  9. Blouise
    1, June 2, 2012 at 2:05 pm
    Spiritual masturbation always feels good but never ends in full orgasm.
    sure it does, it’s called the rapture….. 😉

  10. David,

    Excellent article.



    Excellent post.



    I remember that one! “He who shall make cannibalism jokes about the sacrament shall be made to sit in the hall.” It was Paul who said that. In very fine print. On his boilerplate page. Right next to the Romero Commandment: “He who makes zombie jokes about Jesus shall be made to wear the pointed hat called dunce.”

  11. Hilarious Blouise!
    Great post David. I do think religious values can be useful in society, but religions are all just rules that some old men made up to control the masses, especially women. i can remember getting in trouble in grade school when I asked the good Benedictine Nun if we are to believe that we are eating the body and blood of Christ when we take Communion, isn’t that cannibalism? I spent the rest of the day in the hall for that sin!

  12. I spent most of the day snoozing.
    Third day of high winds, rain and 32 degrees. God save the tourists. The ones with money are flying south.
    What help is only four hours of darkness when the rest is a gray hell with frozen cojones.

  13. ID707,

    Already did sleep it off. Maybe I need to do it again.

  14. Blouise,

    Got saved once. Was nice. The others in the car going down the mountais were downing the experience all the way home.
    But I didn’t follow it up. The church did not have a program for shearing newly saved lambs, I guess. Guess an extacy tab would do as good. Or Viagra?

    Speaking from experience are you. Snark. Smile. LOL

  15. Matt Johnson,
    If you’d stop drinking Coke and chewing “shrooms” you would find out. From where you are it all looks funny. Sleep it off.

  16. Justice Holmes said:

    “Philosophy is good; it exercises the mind. It can however be used to obscure what we already know but wish we didn’t no matter what the source of our knowledge may be.”

    I agree. I will add religion and all its propaganda and power structure to that.

    Osip Mandelstam once said, and his wife and others could confirm 22 years later the fact that the CCCP was the only nation in the world which valued poetry so high that it could kill a poet for it.

    We see national states doing the same over religious issues.

    JH Is philosophy, hidden or otherwise, accorded such importance today? Seriously interested in an answer.

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