What follows is another excerpt from my recent response paper to Good Without God by Greg Epstein.
Here I consider one of the oldest and, in the judgement of many, most formidable objections to the notion that God is necessary for objective morality – The Euthyphro Dilemma.
The Euthyphro Dilemma
One of the most famous and long-standing challenges to grounding morality in God comes from Plato’s dialog Euthyphro. In one scene concerning the essence of piety and holiness, Socrates issues the famous challenge, ‘is piety loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?’.
This is supposed to present an insuperable challenge to the theist. The challenge of the “Euthyphro dilemma” has been updated and reissued for modern readers by Bertrand Russell and many others after him. Greg Epstein even refers to it as a “knockout punch” against his theistic detractors. The argument suggests that, on the theistic view, morality is either independent of God, or else it is based on his arbitrary commands. Either case would present a powerful defeater of the moral argument for God’s existence and much of classical theism.
According to proponents of the argument, moral acts are either willed by God because the acts themselves are good, or they are good acts because they are willed by God. But if God wills a moral act because it is good, then there must be a standard beyond God by which he determines what is good. Even worse, if an act is moral because God wills it, then morality becomes the arbitrary whim of God.
While I understand the intuitive appeal of the argument, there is a subtle misunderstanding here of what is meant by “God”. A misunderstanding that I think Plato (or Socrates) himself may have realized had they been considering Christianity’s monotheistic God and not the Roman pantheon of gods. That is, the Euthyphro dilemma in both its ancient Greek form (approximately 380 BCE) and its modern iteration, do not address the definition of God that Anselm describes; the greatest conceivable being. According to this classical understanding of God, goodness is rooted in his perfect and unchanging nature.
Properly understood, God cannot not declare something to be good arbitrarily because to do so would require him to violate his own nature! He cannot call what is good bad against his own changeless, morally perfect nature. Nor can he call what is bad good. Neither does he recognize a standard beyond himself or declare that something is good by the thing’s own nature.
In short then, the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dichotomy because there is a third possible option. God, if he exists, is good. His very nature is the timeless and unchanging standard of good; neither arbitrary nor a standard beyond himself.
What do you think? Is The Euthyphro Dilemma resolved? Does it matter that Plato was considering the Roman pantheon when he wrote this dialogue? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Was the moon landing fake? What’s the deal with pineapple pizza? Let met know in the comments and click subscribe if you want to see new posts as soon as they’re published!
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