Comment on “Euthyphro’s Lament”

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Roger Morris has kindly referred me to a blog where the relation between God and morality is discussed in two unsigned posts: “Euthyphro’s Lament” and the briefer “One Other Thing” (in which the author promises that this is “the Absolute Bloody Final word from me” on the issue he raises).

The “Euthyphro problem” lies at the heart of a dialogue recorded by Plato, between Socrates and one called Euthyphro. This dialogue has a fitting title: Euthyphro; it is sometimes called The Euthyphro. Euthyphro is a great introduction to the Socratic method on a topic of broad interest because it concerns the nature of ‘piety.’ Socrates presses the question, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” This is called a ‘dilemma’ because it seems to present Euthyphro with stark choices, both of which are troubling in their own way.

Let it be noted that the problem of the nature of piety is not resolved in this dialogue of Plato’s. Nor is it definitively settled that both lemmas set forth in Socrates’ question are impossibilities.

It’s worthwhile keeping this in mind when considering a modified version of the problem in contemporary discussions of the relation between God and morality. The question in this context differs from the original in two main respects: (1) the dilemma now assumes some version of monotheism, and (2) the dilemma may be expressed in terms of the will or commands of God, rather than in terms of what is loved or hated by God. Another possible difference is that (3) the dilemma is now less concerned with piety as a character trait than with moral actions (in obedience to divine commands).

Here’s a characteristic statement of the new form of the dilemma, expressed as a question:

Is a morally right action right because it is willed or commanded by God, or is it willed or commanded by God because it is morally right?

If an action is morally right because it is willed or commanded by God, then whatever God wills or commands is right, and would be right just in virtue of his willing or commanding it. It’s supposed to follow that God could will or command anything whatsoever—including actions we rightly abhor, such as rape and murder—and what is willed or commanded would be (for that reason alone) morally right.

On the other hand, if a morally right action is willed or commanded by God because it is right, then it’s supposed to follow that God, who is otherwise thought to be utterly sovereign over all things, is subservient to an ontologically independent (objectively existing) standard of right and wrong.

So we have it that either (a) the goodness of any right act is arbitrary, subject to divine whim, or (b) God is less than sovereign because subject to an independent moral authority.

From these stark choices it is sometimes argued that God does not exist, or that the concept of God is incoherent.

Consider the first horn of the dilemma. Why is the morality of a right act thought to be arbitrary? Because its rightness is linked to the will or commands of God. But that, it seems, is tantamount to saying that God’s will and commands are themselves arbitrary. But why think that? I see no reason to seize the other horn of the dilemma in order to avoid this supposed implication.

What about the second horn? Most of its formulations use terminology without clear delineation of their significance. We must know, for example, in what sense God is presumed to be sovereign, in what sense ultimate moral authority is thought to be independent or external to God (or God’s character), and in what sense God is to be considered subservient to this external standard. The burden of making these notions precise is weighty. It is also frequently ignored.

In “Euthyphro’s Lament,” the author attempts the required clarification by saying that “there is an objective standard – logically prior to God’s character – that constrains God’s character.” But I must say that the notion of an objective (moral) standard as “logically prior” to anything (be it God or something else) is less than clear, and the suggestion does little to illuminate the supposed problem. Further, we must understand this vague notion of “logical priority” before we can make any sense of the claim that some logically prior standard “constrains God’s character.” How does it “constrain”?

I think it also needs to be said that the formulation of divine command theory in the essay is awkward. The author says,

Briefly, Divine Command theory states that it is good to obey God’s commands.

A more adequate formulation is needed. Here’s a better approximation, I think:

What makes a morally right action right is that it is commanded by God, and what makes a morally wrong action wrong is that it is prohibited by God.

From this it does follow, I suppose, that it’s (morally) good to heed God’s commands. But that is a different matter.

On the divine command theory, God’s will determines the rightness or wrongness of morally significant human actions. The theory, as a theory of morality, is concerned with the moral character of human actions. It is a separate question why God wills what God wills.

I conclude with three brief points.

First, this post is not a defense of divine command theory, but an attempt to impose clarity in relation to a less than clear statement of the associated problems in a particular blog post.

Second, it is odd if the envisioned dilemma concerning God’s relation to morality implies that God does not exist. It is so odd, in fact, that it’s far more likely that the proposed dilemma is a clever contrivance with less bite than is often imagined.

One may say that the dilemma is not the mainstay of an argument against theism, that it is merely rhetorical, a challenge to the theist to explain precisely what is God’s relation to morality. Ah, and if the theist falters? What then? Surely this is supposed to mean something.

Or one may say that the dilemma showcases a problem for theism that—whether or not it entails that theism is false—delivers the naturalist from the threat of any moral argument for God’s existence. The proper answer to that is that there are varieties of arguments from morality for theism, some better than others (and some no good at all). The best arguments are invulnerable to the dilemma we have been considering. And they have the further advantage of highlighting severe limitations of utterly naturalistic conceptions of ethics.

Third, adapting the dilemma posed in Plato’s Euthyphro to current discussions of God and morality may preempt proper consideration of what is “logically prior” (if that means anything), namely, the question, “Why does God will what God wills?” The answer to that must depend on what sort of being God is. Suppose God is such that he is neither subject, in any meaningful sense, to some external standard of morality, nor good in some merely arbitrary sense. Is there really anything deeply disturbing about such a conception? Mysterious perhaps. But disturbing?

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

3 Responses to Comment on “Euthyphro’s Lament”

  1. smijer says:

    Hi Doug… I had to recently do some work on my web-site – thanks for bringing to my attention that I need to update the theme to include an indication of authorship! Yes, smijer is the moniker I have used for all purposes on the internet for the last roughly 9 years.

    I cannot embrace your premise (1) because Euthyphro doesn’t show a paradox of God’s attributes, but a dilemma about a theory that grounds objective morality in the commands of God.

    I don’t embrace your premise (2) because I do not see Euthyphro as a logical paradox, but as presenting a difficulty. For instance, it is possible, as per the Abraham and Isaac story, to accept the proposition that God’s commands are moral in all cases – even for rape or murder. This would not be incoherent – it is rejected by both theist and atheist because our moral intuition doesn’t allow for rape and murder to be made moral no matter who commands them.

    It would also be coherent to take the other horn of the dilemma and accept that there is some objective standard of good, for instance, as Plato understood it, in an abstract realm of ideals. In fact it was this horn of the dilemma that motivated Plato – he wished to convince those of his own day who believed that morality stemmed from the commands of the gods to accept an objective standard in its place. This is not incoherent, it is simply undesirable for the Divine Command theorist. It is also inconvenient for those who seek to show an advantage for the theist in an objective grounding for morality.

    Likewise, we can follow the program of finding an objective morality in the “goodness” of God’s own character, substituting the internal attributes of God for Plato’s realm of ideas. However, for this to serve as a grounding for objective morality, there persists a bootstrap problem – a gap from the “is” of what is within the ideal realm or in God’s character – to the “ought” of how we should behave in this realm and being owners of our own character. Furthermore, it does disservice to the notion of praise or worship. We could not praise God for being good according to any absolute standard of goodness (without returning to horn 2). We could only define good as being “whatever God’s attributes happen to be” (which returns us to horn 1). We could no more praise God for being good than we could praise a rainbow for having a blue stripe.

    From my perspective, Plato erred… what he failed to see in his attempt to boostrap an objective morality rooted in a realm of ideals is that Euthyphro could then ask on what absolute was this idealistic realm contingent that prevented it from gloryfing rape and murder.

    One ultimate problem with any moral system is that at some point, one will reach a dissatisfying position in the effort to ground it – no matter what approach one takes. This is no more true for the relativist than for the objectivist and no more true for the atheist than the theist.


  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Hello, Smijer,

    Thanks for drawing attention to this portion of your thesis. I recognize that you do not, in that post, allege that God does not exits, because there ensues an insurmountable “moral dilemma” for God if he does, or even that theists are irrational for believing there’s a God because this belief entails such a dilemma. But my post raises the point that if the dilemma is pressed in the way you present it, it may be thought to imply that God does not exist, or that the concept of God is incoherent. Here’s a sketch, with numbered premises, of the point I’m raising:

    1. If the Euthyphro dilemma is terminally paradoxical, then either God does not exist, or the concept of God is incoherent.
    2. The Euthyphro dilemma is terminally paradoxical.
    3. Therefore, either God does not exist, or the concept of God is incoherent.

    You seem willing to deny premise 1. But on what grounds?

    BTW—forgive me if I erred in saying that your blog post is unsigned. Maybe if I return to your blog, I’ll find Smijer listed with a bio. But “smijer” sounds like a blogger’s nom de plume. And, in any case, there appear to be others who blog at the site, and your post doesn’t, as far as I can tell, indicate Smijer as the author. No big deal, maybe. But also, no offense intended.




  3. smijer says:

    Thanks very much for your comments, Dr. Geivetts. I do want to reiterate a matter that seems to come up often in this discussion. I do not wield Euthyphro’s dilemma as an argument against God. As an atheist, there are a number of arguments that I think are valid against various conceptions of God, but that is not the reason that I invoke Euthpyhro.

    In my original post, I complained that Greg Koukl, in a text quoted by Roger Morris, misused moral philosophy as a polemic against atheism and focused unduly on the difficulties found in moral relativism, while ignoring difficulties with various efforts at objective morality. So the point I make in those two posts is directed at showing that relativism is not the only victim of the bootstrap problem (or many problems that stick deeply in moral philosphy), and that the apologist is wrong to use superficial complaints about moral relativism as a polemic against atheism without at least acknowledging the difficulties with the alternatives.


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