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What’s the problem with Euthyphro?

This is adapted from an original post on 3 March 2010 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called”What was Euthyphro’s Problem?” It is about the Euthyphro problem, that poses a dilemma to the defender of any Divine Command Theory of ethics.

The moral argument for God’s existence goes like this;

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Those seeking to avoid the conclusion of this argument will often attack the first premise that puts forward the idea that the objective moral values and duties we all perceive are dependent in some way on God’s existence. They argue that this premise must be false because it leads to an insoluble problem.

The Problem of Euthyphro

The first problem is how to say Euthyphro (Youthie-Fro). Solved. But seriously…

Euthyphro is a guy whom Plato writes about in Plato’s Dialogue. The character is chatting with Socrates, another character who happens to have the same name as Plato’s mentor and teacher, the famous greek philosopher. In socratic fashion he asks Euthyphro,Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods

In today’s language the problem is put by Dr. Louise Antony of the University of Massachusetts like this:Are morally good actions morally good simply in virtue of the fact that God favours them? Or does God favour them because they are, independent of his favouring them, morally good?

If the former is true, and things are good because God says they’re good, supposedly this means that the things we think of as evil could well have been good had God said so. On the other side of the same coin, it means those things we think of as always being evil could well become good if God’s will ever changes. This makes the good appear to be arbitrary, which for many is counter-intuitive. Many goods are not only objective, but some appear to be necessarily true. For instance, it is wrong to torture a baby for fun. This will always be bad.

On the other hand, if the latter option is true, then God is ruled by something outside of himself. This would make God not the ultimate being – something most Christians would want not want to affirm. As neither option appeals it is thought that ethics based on religion or moral authority such as God fail.

This is supposed to be a knock-out blow for advocates of a Divine Command Theory of ethics – those who think God is the foundation for moral values and that his commands to us constitute our moral duties. Those who levy this argument, called the Euthyphro dilemma, are usually not aware of the vast amount of literature on the subject that shows the problem with the problem and seeks possible solutions.

Here is the situation. Imagine your are a matador, waving your red flag and dancing around a raging bull. Suddenly there is a problem. You realise that if you step left, you will be impaled on one of the bull’s sharp horns. If you step right, you will be impaled by the other horn. Either way and you’re caught on one of the horns of the dilemma. Which way do you jump?

The problem with Euthyphro’s problem

The problem with the Euthyphro’s problem is it creates an invalid either/or situation. The argument comes in the form of a disjunctive syllogism.

  1. P v Q (P or Q)
  2. ¬Q (not Q)
  3. P (Therefore, P)

In a true dilemma there are only two options available in the first premise. With only two options the premise is guaranteed true and the conclusion will follow necessarily and inescapably. To reach a sound (For an argument to be sound it must have a true premises and a conclusion which correctly flows from its premises) conclusion one has to show either;

  • that P and Q are in some way contradictory to each other (i.e. Q = ¬P), or else
  • add a premise which states that P and Q are the only two options.

Without at least one of the above, the argument will be logically unsound. Because the Euthyphro argument does not meet either of the above conditions, it is a false dilemma. When you have a false dilemma, it is always possible with a little ingenuity to find a third option (i.e. P v Q v R ). And even the possibility of a third option is enough to break apart the horns of the dilemma.

A possible solution

What is that third option? Here, Christians typically suggest that God is the paradigm of goodness. That is, God’s nature is what Plato called “the Good.” Put simply, that which is good is that which reflects the nature of God. Because God’s being is the fount of goodness, his commands flow downstream to us and constitute our moral duties.

What is good then is not independent of God, and neither is it arbitrary. To pretend that God could choose any horrible idea and make that good is to assign a truth value to a proposition with an impossible antecedent. It’s like asking, if a circle had four sides would its area be the square of one its sides? God’s moral perfection is an essential attribute of his being, just as three-sidedness is an essential attribute of being a triangle.

One might disagree and state that this option is not actually the case, despite the strong case that can be made for it from the biblical data about God. But so long as this option is even possible, it shows that Socrates provided Euthyphro with a false dilemma, and it is therefore logically unsound. That means it’s not a successful criticism of the first premise in the moral argument for God’s existence.

Is there a problem with that third option?

This third option has inspired what we’ll call the meta-Euthyphro problem. The proponent of this argument asks;Is God’s nature morally good simply in virtue of the fact that it is God’s? Or is God’s nature morally good because it conforms to an independently given standard of moral goodness? If the former, then God’s nature could be unjust and malicious, and our intuitions inform us that injustice and maliciousness could never be good. If it is the latter and God’s nature is good because it is just and loving, then justice and loving-kindness are the ultimate and not God.

In response, this meta-Euthyphro argument misunderstands what it is to be the paradigm of goodness. If injustice and maliciousness are always evil then God, as the paradigm of goodness, must necessarily not be unjust and malicious. So to say God could be unjust and malicious is logically contradictory – just like saying the married man could be bachelor, or a circle could be a taller than it is wide.

Hence, the answer to the meta-Euthyphro argument is – Yes, the first option: God’s nature is morally good simply in virtue of the fact that it is God’s. But criticism shot at this option fails to hit the mark.

The death of Socrates

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