Good Without God? The Euthyphro Dilemma

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!

Have a topic that you would like to see addressed? Email me at neillology@gmail.com

4 Comments

  1. “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. ”

    as soon as I see a “properly” I know that the writer is trying to declare that only his version is the right one. Of course you can’t show that to be true.

    Now, with most Christians, which you seem to be, they want to claim that their god is morally perfect, but Christians don’t agree on what morals this god wants and cannot show that one set is the “right” one over another. So we have problem #1, what is good per this god?

    Second, we have the story of the apple, where this god intentionally did not want humans to know the difference between good and evil. I’ve had Christians tell me that this is because this god wanted to be their good, which is strangely gnostic for your average evangelical.

    If we did find out what good and evil were despite this god, then Eve found that sharing the apple was good. And if we know what good and evil is and can judge, we find that most, if not all humans find that killing people for no fault of their own is not just or fair.

    So, when this god does things like this (see David’s son), and we are sure that it is wrong, why is this? And if a Christian says it is right because it is god that did it but would be horrified if a human did it, then we have a morality based on might equals right, entirely subjective since morality now depends on what something is, not if it is objectively good or evil.

    So, no the Euthyphro dilemma is not solved. You’ve ended up in a circular argument “God is good because he is god because he is good because…..”

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    1. Hi again, clubschadenfreude!

      I’ll try to respond to a few of your objections:

      “as soon as I see a “properly” I know that the writer is trying to declare that only his version is the right one. Of course you can’t show that to be true.”

      – Of course I think my perspective is the right one… So do you… Or else you wouldn’t believe it. You would believe something else… And then you would think that perspective is the right one. So why critique me for doing the very thing you’re doing now?

      However, I think I can show that my perspective makes the most sense of the data. That is one of the purposes of this blog!

      I explained in my previous entry why a meaningful definition of God entails that he is the greatest conceivable being, as you know, but you have not engaged with that argument. So rather than repeat myself, let me ask you – If God exists, is there any possible being greater than him? i.e. Would it be logically coherent to say that a being contingent on God could be inherently greater than God?

      “Christians don’t agree on what morals this god wants and cannot show that one set is the “right” one over another. So we have problem #1”

      – On the contrary! This is simply not relevant to the argument that I have offered. I.e. I have not claimed to know what is morally correct in every circumstance. I am not aware of any moral philosopher who does. I do claim, however, that if morality exists beyond human opinion, there is a standard beyond human opinion. I claim further that the Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dichotomy for the reasons above… And I don’t actually see any counter-argument in your response.

      “… most, if not all humans find that killing people for no fault of their own is not just or fair.”

      – Why, on your view, is killing innocent people unjust or unfair?

      “If a Christian says it is right because it is god that did it but would be horrified if a human did it…”

      – I encourage you to revisit the article above… This is precisely what I have argued is not the case. It may be true that everything that God does is just, but not BECAUSE it was God that did it. Rather, God cannot do something that is unjust because that would violate his very nature. God cannot be just and unjust for the same reason that a circle cannot be a square. But, if God exists, he is necessarily just. Therefore, he cannot act unjustly.

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      1. Why critique you? Because I didn’t make a claim and declare it is the only right one. You want to pretend I did, but I only pointed out what you did and that you can’t show it to be true. I’m not taking sides… yet.

        You didn’t show that your perspective makes the most sense in your post where it would have done the most good.

        You want your god to be the “meaningful definition of God”, like any theist. The ontological argument is popular with Christians, and other Christians, and it’s always funny when they try to use it. The Christian god is certainly not the greatest being anyone can imagine and is rather pathetic. If you want to invent a complete different god, and ignore every single one that human invent, which all fail to be “greatest”, then that is a thing but it shoots every religion in the face.

        There is no evidence that anything is contingent on any god, however you’d try to claim it to be. And every time someone says greatest, someone else can claim they thought of a better “greatest”. The idea of “greatest” Is meaningless so the ontological argument is meaningless.

        You try to claim that this god is the “greatest” but we have no way to determine that, other than seeing what it supposedly wants. In that Christians can’t show what morality this god wants, then we have no way to determine the “greatest”. The greatest in comparison to what? And “moral philosophers” and theists always are claiming that they know what is morally correct in every circumstance, they just have different circumstances and different morals they claim are divinely objective. No evidence, however.

        No evidence of a standard beyond human opinion, only your opinion. So, your whole argument fails on premises that don’t exist. No reason to think that a god exist or that objective morality exists. How long have humans been looking for such a thing and every religion claims that theirs is the TrueTruth. I am sure you want to claim you see no counter-argument. It’s easy to do that when you want your claims to be seen as the one truth.

        Wow, if you have to ask why it is unfair or unjust to kill innocents, I do feel for anyone near you. No god needed, I just have to have empathy and self-interest. Do you think it is unfair and/or unjust if an innocent person is killed? I do require an answer to your own question.

        Ah, now I see that you are indeed a Christian and you do have the morality of might equals right. If your god exists and it kills innocents as per the bible, then either it can’t do that, or you will offer the excuse that it is moral and just to kill innocents because is doing it. Again, for someone who claims he is a philosopher, you end up in the same circular argument.

        There is nothing that shows that this god or any other version has to be “necessarily just”. The “necessary” arguments always fail since the theist can’t show this necessity. They must assume it.

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  2. Whew… This is a thoroughly confused response, clubschadenfreude. Respectfully, much of what you seem to be taking issue with are specific claims that I have not made (or that you have misrepresented). Whatever the case, it is clear that you are not familiar with the philisophy that you’re debating… And that’s ok. But if you want to continue, let’s focus on one thing at a time.

    “Wow, if you have to ask why it is unfair or unjust to kill innocents, I do feel for anyone near you. No god needed, I just have to have empathy and self-interest.”

    – Why is it good to have empathy? As an aid to survival? Then what if it aids my survival not to have empathy? In that case, would not having empathy be good?

    “Do you think it is unfair and/or unjust if an innocent person is killed? I do require an answer to your own question.”

    – Yes.

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