Saturday, December 4, 2010

Objective morals and Euthyprho's false dilemma

Continuing the summary of Bill Craig's moral argument for the existence of God, I'll cover:
Objective Moral Duties Require God and The Euthyphro Dilemma.
These arguments are covered in much more detail in Craig's book On Guard

Objective Moral Duties Require God

If there is no God, what basis remains for objective moral duties? That's an excellent question! According to the naturalists' view, we are just animals, and we know that animals have no moral obligations to one another. Certainly, animals have shown moral actions toward one another, Craig doesn't deny that, but animals aren't morally obligated to one another. When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it doesn't murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it does not rape her-for there is no moral dimension to these actions. They are neither prohibited nor obligatory. 1
So if God doesn't exist, why think that human beings have any moral obligations to one another? Who or what imposes these moral duties on us? Further, where do they come from? Without God, it would be difficult to see moral duties as "anything more than a subjective impression resulting from societal and parental conditioning."2
When asked what actions are morally wrong, one might think of rape and incest and one would be correct in thinking said actions are morally wrong. Of course, maybe those actions (rape and incest) just aren't biologically and socially advantageous to the structure of society and have just become taboo. That does nothing to show that rape and incest is wrong, it just shows that those actions are not beneficial to society. That kind of behavior is readily observable in the animal kingdom. Craig says, "The rapist who goes against the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably, like the man who belches loudly at the dinner table. If there is no moral lawgiver, then there is no objective moral law that we must obey."3 Just like in the animal kingdom, there is no morally wrong action, just unfashionable actions. Without God, that's all we can say about the "unfashionable" actions done by humans. There is no right and wrong. 

Now, it must be made clear that "the moral argument asserts, not that belief in God is necessary for objective morality, but that the existence of God is necessary." 4 This is really important to understand so the argument can be effectively used. The theist is not saying that belief in God is necessary to act morally, but that the existence of God is necessary for objectivity of morality. Not all atheists are bad people, in fact, some are very benevolent. There are going to bad seeds in all camps of thought. 

"Again, the question is not: Can we recognize objective moral values and duties without believing in God? There's no reason to think that you have to believe in God in order to recognize that, e.g., we ought to love our children. 

Or again, the question is not: Can we formulate a system of ethics without referring to God? If the nonbeliever recognizes the intrinsic value of human beings, there's no reason to think he can't work out an ethical code of conduct that the believer will generally agree with.
Rather, the question is: If God does not exist, do objective moral values and duties exist? The question is not about the necessity of belief in God for objective morality but about the necessity of the existence of God for objective morality."5
The Euthyphro Dilemma

What is another response from unbelievers? It's called the Euthyphro Dilemma (named after a character in one of Plato's dialogues). The dilemma is: Is something good because God wills it? Or does God will something because it is good? This is a popular objection to the moral argument for God's existence. If you say something is good because God wills it, then that good becomes arbitrary. God could have willed that cheating is good or that hatred is good, etc. That doesn't work does it? If you say that God wills something because it is good, then that good becomes independent of God, which makes moral values and duties exist independently of God, which contradicts premise 1. 

How does Craig answer the Euthyphro dilemma? He says that "we don't need to refute either of the two horns of the dilemma because the dilemma is a false one: There's a third alternative, namely, God wills something because He is good...I mean God's own nature is the standard of goodness, and His commandments to us are expressions of His nature. In short, our moral duties are determined by the commands of a just and loving God."6
So according to Craig, moral values and duties don't exist independently of God because God's own character/nature defines what is good and those morals flow out of God's nature. When the atheist asks, "If God were to command spouse abuse, would we be obligated to abuse our spouses?" he's asking a question akin to "If there were married bachelors, who would the bachelor be married to?" There is no answer because the question is absurd. 

Craig assures us that the Euthyphro dilemma presents us with a false choice, and we shouldn't be tricked by it. "The morally good/bad is determined by God's nature, and the morally right/wrong is determined by His will. God wills something because He is good, and something is right because God wills it."7

1. William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), pg. 132
2. ibid, pg. 133
3. ibid, pg. 133
4. ibid, pg. 134
5. ibid, pg. 134
6. ibid, pg. 135
7. ibid, pg. 136

Common questions to this answer of Euthyphro's Dilemma are: How do we know God is good? How is his nature good? Wouldn't it be possible for murder and rape to be 'good' if God commanded it? 

Philosopher Ed Feser has an answer to the above questions. [h/t] Joe's comment on WK's blog post.

“Given the doctrine of the convertibility of the transcendentals, on which being is convertible with goodness, that which is Pure Actuality or Being Itself must ipso facto be Goodness Itself. Given the conception of evil as a privation – that is, as a failure to realize some potentiality – that which is Pure Actuality and therefore in no way potential cannot intelligibly be said to be in any way evil. Given the principle of proportionate causality, whatever good is in the world in a limited way must be in its cause in an eminent way, shorn of any of the imperfections that follow upon being a composite of act and potency. Since God is Pure Actuality, he cannot intelligibly be said either to have or to lack moral virtues or vices of the sort we exhibit when we succeed or fail to realize our various potentials. And so on. All of this is claimed to be a matter of metaphysical demonstration rather than probabilistic empirical theorizing, and the underlying metaphysical ideas form a complex interlocking network that is (as anyone familiar with Platonism or Aristotelianism realizes) motivated independently of the problem of evil or the question of God’s existence.” 

Read more by clicking here

Study objective moral values and duties further:

Do objective moral values and duties exist?

Euthyphro Argument

What is the basis of our values?

For more posts on morality click here.


  1. "According to the atheistic view, we are just animals, and we know that animals have no moral obligations to one another."

    that's a clear fallacy. We just happen to be animals with a moral sense.

  2. What makes the statement a fallacy?


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