Saturday, May 12, 2012

Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro Dilemma is basically asking the question "Is an action Good because God said so, or does God say so because it is good?" Or from the other direction, if an action is immoral, is that because God said it is immoral, or is it inherently immoral?

As an example, let's think of something that we can all agree is horribly immoral, say child rape. Assuming we all agree this is immoral, there are 2 options here
1. It is immoral because God said so
2. It is inherently immoral independent of God

If it is option 1, that it is immoral because God said so, then what would happen if God changed his mind? Could this suddenly become moral? Could God command you to go rape a child? Would this make it a moral action? If the only reason that it is immoral is because God said so, then if he changes his mind then it must be moral.

The common response to this in my experience is to say that God wouldn't do that. This simply avoids the question and in my mind, puts you squarely in answer 2. Why would God never do that? It sounds to me like the claim is that he is moral and that is an immoral action. Therefore God would not have you do it. But if morality is defined by what God tells us to do this makes no sense.

What about option 2? What if morality is just what it is. Child rape is wrong. Period. If God told you to rape a child it still would not be a moral action. Perhaps you would say that since God is moral he would never do that, but the reason for that is what I am interested in. Since he is moral and child rape is inherently immoral, God would never tell you to do that. If this is the case, there is some morality outside of God.

If there is a morality that is independent of God, the charge that atheists are inherently immoral falls flat. We don't need God to tell us how to be moral, because morality exists outside of him.


  1. I vote #2 every time. That said, I always find the claim of religious moral superiority as interesting--particularly from Christians. They reject almost all of the moral teachings of the bible and even uphold some of the punishments for abandoned "immoral" acts as immoral today. They very much cherry pick the parts they want to use.

    Then there is the fact that many many pastors and priests are guilty of some pretty awful stuff...they can hardly be beacons of morality!

  2. Whenever you point out the horrible things that Christians do, the answer always seems to be something along the lines of "just because a few Christians break the rules doesn't show that Christians are bad." This misses the point though, it's not that Christianity makes you bad, it is that it fails at making you good.

    I have been thinking about making a post to that effect but I'm still solidifying my thoughts on it.

  3. s is one of those questions that I've always had trouble getting a straight answer out of Christians about. While both are reasonable, I don't think either of them are satisfactory for Christians. Each would seem to pose a problem. God's ordered stuff like raping, pillaging, and outright genocide, even his rules on rape are f**king awful.. There are verses about human sacrifice and slavery etc. If stuff is “moral” because God says so, I would say, that this is not the moral compass that I use. My morals surely come from elsewhere.

    I've heard WLC and Douglas Wilson defending the liquidation of the Caanities by saying that the people deserved it because of their sin. “They had it coming” (sic) It really churns my stomach when I hear those kinds of things. Would this mean that there is no absolute morality by Christian standards? I think the dilemma occurs when there is absolute morality, but not without. Christians seem to believe, to my understanding anyway, in an absolute morality. Now I'm just thinking out loud. Any thoughts?

  4. JKerber, I completely agree with you. They say that there is absolute morality, but that doesn't make sense with the horrible things that God has ordered. And I agree about when the apologists defend genocide, its hard to listen to because it is so horrible.

  5. If you are after an understanding of the Euthyphro Dilemma and how it's been addressed by modern philosophy, can I recommend a couple of websites that set it out succinctly.

    Glenn People's blog "Say Hello to my Little Friend" has both a podcast dealing with it as well as his article which was published in Think: Philosophy for Everyone. This is a journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy of which Stephen Law (of the Evil God Challenge) is the current editor.

    The other would be Stand to Reason and Greg Koukl's article here:

    As a bonus, you'll find atheists, agnostics and theists all frequent the comment sections of both these sites often and ought to give you plenty of thoughtful and engaging discussions.


    1. Thanks for the links. I have added the podcast to my phone and I will listen to it when I get the chance. I tried to look at the paper, but it was behind a pay wall.

      I went to the stand to reason page and I must admit, I'm not convinced. In the section "A Second Problem" it ends with the following

      "According to Christian teaching, God is not good in the same way that a bachelor is an unmarried male. When we say God is good, we are giving additional information, namely that God has a certain quality. God is not the very same thing as goodness (identical to it). It's an essential characteristic of God, so there is no tautology."

      It seems to me that it is claiming that the phrase "God is good" is not a tautology, but it doesn't explain why at all. Is there something I am missing?

      I think the next section might be trying to answer this question, but all it seems to say to me is that goodness is imprinted on our natures, and that this points to God. I would argue that this instinct could have evolved. We have empathy which could evolve for social creatures and we therefore have morality. I don't see why God is necessary for this at all. For a full argument sam harris' book the moral landscape.

      Let me try another angle

      "Christians need not fear Plato on this score. When Euthyphro's dilemma is applied to Christianity, it mischaracterizes the Biblical view of God. Goodness is neither above God nor merely willed by Him. Instead, ethics are grounded in His holy character. Moral notions are not arbitrary and given to caprice. They are fixed and absolute, grounded in God's immutable nature."

      This sounds to me exactly like option 1, that things are good simply because god declared it. God declares that X is good, also, he imprints on our souls that X is good, therefore when we see X we think it is good and we are happy that God's will happens to include X and is therefore good. Isn't this just divine fiat? All we have added now is that God won't change his mind. In our universe, X could be "do not murder". Great. What if it had been "murder every day"? Wouldn't we still see this as good as it has been imprinted on our souls?

      As far as I can tell, nothing has been solved here. If I am missing something please explain.

      (also, after I listen to the podcast I will make another reply here if I find something interesting to add, or potentially I might just make a new post about it, depending on how much I have to say I suppose)


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