Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Euthyphro Dilemma

I'm of the opinion that Euthyphro should have been the one asking Socrates the questions. Roughly, the modern defender of the alleged dilemma asks, "is something good because God wills it, or does God will something because it is good?" Let's tackle this question by separating each part of the disjunction:

A. X is good because God wills it.

B. God wills X because X is good.

Now, in order for this to be a true dilemma, B must be the negation (or the equivalent to the negation) of A. Otherwise, the disjunction that Socrates presents is a false dilemma. Euthyphro should have asked Socrates why A and B are contradictory. Why can it not be the case that both A and B?

In debating the question over the years, it has become clear to me that defenders of the dilemma are making a very crucial assumption. What the Euthyphro Dilemma requires in order to work properly is the implication that B entails independence of God. A and B should really be rephrased like this:

A'. X, which is good, is dependent on God.

B'. X, which is good, is independent of God.

Obviously, A' and B' are mutually incompatible, but this raises an even more obvious question: why not simply state the dilemma like this? The answer is likely that Euthyphro would have simply affirmed A'. Hence, there is no dilemma for him to consider. What Socrates and his modern counterpart have to defend is that B entails B'. Are there any forthcoming arguments to support this? I doubt it. In any case, the theist should not accept the burden of proof in trying to explain away the (false) dilemma. Rather, the dilemma's defender ought to accept responsibility for arguing that B and B' are ultimately identical.


  1. I don't think that your understanding of "dilemma" is correct. What makes the choice difficult is that both options are unpleasant. They need not be contradictory.

  2. Why are they unpleasant?

  3. They are unpleasant because that is what makes it a dilemma. If either or both of the options were satisfactory to the person making the choice, it would not be a dilemma.

  4. @Vinny:

    You have not answered the question. In your first post, you say it is a dilemma because both choices are unpleasant. In the second, the choices are unpleasant because well, it is a dilemma.

  5. My first comment merely concerned the general definition of "dilemma."

  6. I always thought that, for a dilemma, the Euthyphro was easy to solve. You can have a theological basis for morality by rooting right/wrong in God's being, rather than His volition. At which point, you can accept the second branch of the "dilemma" without negative consequence, because at this point you're saying that God wills the good because it is good, and it is good because of how it is rooted in God's necessary and immutable being.

  7. Vinny, the whole point of the post is that the advocate of Euthyphro needs to show that it [i]is[/i] a dilemma. Since the two choices are not (evidently) contradictory, the Divine Command Theorist can simply say "I see no need to accept either of those options." The advocate of Euthyphro needs to [i]show[/i] that the DCTist must choose between the two choices.

  8. I don't see why "God wills X because X is good" is unpleasant. I presume God is bound by logic and numeracy - i.e. he doesn't think A = ~A, or 1 + 1 = 5. And I don't think his omnipotence suffers from that. So why not the same with ethics? To paraphrase CS Lewis, you can't make a nonsense proposition sensible by putting "God can't" in front of it.

    So what of the moral argument? Does this mean we don't need God to have objective ethics? I think we still do need God because we have lost our moral compass, and we need God's authority to avoid the relativistic ethical morass we find ourselves in.

  9. unlkeE,

    ethics have prescriptive content, which cannot exist without some prescriptive intent. That's why God is suggested as the ground of moral values in the first place.

    If ethical truths are metaphysically necessary facts, which is the intuition here, then they must be, due to their prescriptive content, metaphysically necessary facts about what God authoritatively wills.

  10. unlkeE,

    If "God wills X because X is good" is true, then I have to be able to determine objectively whether something is good in order to determine whether God wills it. If I can determine objectively that something is good, then I can pursue that which is good regardless of the existence or non-existence of God.

  11. Hi Vinny,

    You're actually describing an epistemological problem. The moral argument for God's existence has to do, not with moral epistemology (how do we know what is good?), but with moral ontology (what is the ground of the good?).

    So, let's say we can know what is right and wrong, good and bad, apart from God. This still doesn't explain why X is good and ~X is bad.

  12. "If "God wills X because X is good" is true, then I have to be able to determine objectively whether something is good in order to determine whether God wills it. If I can determine objectively that something is good, then I can pursue that which is good regardless of the existence or non-existence of God."

    As Doug said, the question is one of ontology, not epistemology. If God does not exist, moral values do not exist, but are merely contingent figments of human imagination and social convention. "God wills X because X is good," in no way implies that this good is external to God, instead of being grounded in His essential nature (which I have always considered a gaping flaw in the Euthyphro Dilemma). The dilemma simply seems to assume that anything that is not due to God's volition must be external to His nature, which is a radically question-begging assumption.

  13. However fairly or unfairly the Dialogues were set up, Socrates was responding to Euthyphro's definition of the pious as 'what all the gods will'. (They had some inefficiency due to polytheism, but eventually agreed on that definition.)

    Socrates is then interested in the flow of causation. Thus the structure of the dilemma.

    In the modern version, we have a similar question about causation. Is something 'good' simply due to God saying so (which would be the ultimate case of 'might makes right')? Or is there something about 'the good' that makes it good - whether or not God says so? (Could God have ordered Abraham to follow through with Isaac? Were the genocide orders in Joshua 'legal orders'?)

    If you go the A' route, "X, which is good, is dependent on God." - you have a problem. Perhaps, like William Lane Craig ( you might say that killing Canaanite infants was perfectly justified because God said so. If you disagree with that genocide, though, you now are either disagreeing with God, or else you have to have a standard with which one judges God's orders to detect false ones - which starts inching closely to the B' territory.

  14. Ultimately, it's a question about the nature of 'good'.

    Is "murder is wrong/evil" a fact on the order of "George Washington was the first President of the United States" (something true but that could have been different had God willed something different) or is it more along the lines of "1+1=2" (something that it's very hard to argue God could ever have changed... but by that very fact doesn't seem to depend on God for its verity)?

  15. I'm sorry - I know you don't intend for this to be funny, Doug, and I know I shouldn't laugh at people, but...this is just too funny.

    "B. God wills X because X is good...What the Euthyphro Dilemma requires in order to work properly is the implication that B entails independence of God."

    So you're saying that B does not entail that the good is independent of God. Okay - so then B becomes:

    B''. God wills X because X is willed by God.

    Surely the word "because" there has now become meaningless. Moreover, now we have no answer for the question that inspired the dilemma: why does God command X?

    It's not necessary for you to have an explanation, of course: no matter what system you subscribe to, not everything could have been otherwise. So maybe God commanding X is just one of those things that just has no explanation. But at least own up to the fact that you don't have an explanation. Don't try to retreat back to a circular and vacuous system of ad-hoc premises. That just makes you look like a joke.

  16. Why can't God will something *because* of his nature?

  17. Taken from my posts on first things:

    The problem with the dilemma is that is takes a voluntarisitic view of God, i.e, God relates to creation primarily by his will. This is certainly the angle that many Protestants take, following Luther and Calvin, who were generally both nominalists (i.e. there are no universals out there in the world that reflect the mind of God, thus God is completely unknowable, and therefore the only way for him to relate to us is via His will). The traditional Neoplatonic and Aristotelian formulations of Christianity, both East and West, instead have a different formulation: these things are good because they measure up to the standard of goodness, which is God himself. Of course, this position would also entail a commitment to divine simplicity.

    With divine simplicity, the dilemma is rendered false because a third option becomes possible: for if God just IS perfect goodness which just IS the divine will which just IS immutable and necessary being, then God is not willing in accordance with a standard independent of Himself or willing arbitrarily. Instead, what is objectively good and what God wills for us are just THE SAME THING under different descriptions.

    To put this another way, this dilemma only emerges when we anthropomorphize God into a really powerful person who we can relate to univocally, rather than as one only understandable and approachable by recourse to analogy.

  18. You can maintain that A and B are consistent only if you interpret "because" so that it allows symmetry. But most people who rely on the Euthyphro Dilemma assume that on the relevant interpretation it expresses an anti-symmetric relation. That is, they hold the following principle: for any propositions p and q, if p because q, then it's not the case that q because p. You can't consistently hold A, B and this principle at the same time.

    "Because" behaves this way, for example, when it's used to express a causal relation. We say that the light turned on because Tom flipped the switch, but not that Tom flipped the switch because the lights turned on. There's an epistemic sense in which the latter may be felicitous (e.g.: how do you know that Tom flipped the switch? Because the light turned on and he was the only one in the room), but if you're making a causal statement, then you can't have it both ways.

    The relevant relation in the Euthyphro isn't causal, but it's similar to causation insofar as it's a species of determination. The question is whether the facts about God's decisions determine the moral facts, or whether it's the other way around.

  19. I don't see any compelling reason to think that moral facts stand in any causal relations in the first place. In fact, that seems almost inconceivable to me, but I can't speak for everyone. In any case, the theist can simply point out that God and the objective moral law may be what you call "symmetrical."