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. Mark: I corrected this just for you.
    I still think religion has a function as an intellectual suppository…

  2. I am an atheist, but I see no problem out of this dilemma arguing by the logical rules of religion: By those rules, god is infallible and omniscient.

    The second choice, If (2) is true, then morally good acts are subject to god’s arbitrary whim, and arbitrary morality is not objective, is destroyed, because god’s judgment’s are not arbitrary or whimsical or subjective: he knows, in their full glory and without error, the outcome of any choice made by anybody, all of the side-effects, all of the domino-effects.

    Making a decision based on complete and certain knowledge (he is infallible) is not a subjective, emotional judgment.

    The real question is to determine what god’s definition of “morally good” might mean. Human happiness? A reduction in human misery? Are either of those measurable quantities? Of course they are for god, he is infallible and omniscient!

    If god is infallible and omniscient, and his desire is to increase some measurable quantity (for him) of “moral goodness”, then by definition morality is not arbitrary, it is an objectively measurable condition.

    As for the written rules; presumably god knew when he wrote them that, even with our free will, they would ultimately increase the net moral good more than they would decrease it, so he wrote them as he did.

    Thus, his dictates for moral behavior, although still your choice by free will, are god’s promise that if you obey them you will increase net moral goodness in his eyes (although perhaps not your own happiness, which is akin to the argument for any soldier: You may suffer or die so that others can live more happily in freedom).

  3. Blouise,

    Right on. That’s what kept us in hell on earth.
    That and heavenly paradise waiting as xompensation for good deeds and obedience to rulers and priests.

    Wasn’t that why Constatntine chose the Pauline fraction, I thought GeneH said esterday?

    I know I would not recognize a joke if it announced its function. But I didactually, and gave the response guaranteed to tee you off. Ha ha.

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