Thursday, March 8, 2012

The horse named Euthyphro and how it's flogged to death

Reading on moral ontology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I came across theological facts and noticed that the encyclopedia offered the Euthyphro dilemma as a kind of defeater for God giving us moral knowledge. Unfamiliar with the supposed dilemma? Here it goes (as given by SEP). 

"In this dialogue Euthyphro tries to explain to Socrates that piety is what the gods love. Socrates then asks Euthyphro whether the gods love the pious because they are good or whether the pious are good because the gods love them. To put the dilemma in terms relevant to the present context, consider the view that genocide is wrong because it is contrary to God's will. (The argument doesn't change if we talk about commandments or love instead of will.) We can ask of this view whether God forbids genocide because it is wrong, or whether it is wrong because God forbids it. In the latter case God's will appears to be arbitrary or at least not based on an appropriate moral reason. For believers who regard God as supremely moral, the latter possibility would be unacceptable. In the former case, however, God's will would be based on the wrongness of genocide, conceived as being separate from and logically prior to the concept of God's will. Hence, in this case the appeal to God's will does not provide an answer to the skeptic, but rather presupposes that we already have an answer. In sum, unless we are prepared to suppose that what God wills, loves, or commands has no moral basis, the attempt to base the possibility of moral knowledge on knowledge of God's will or love or commandments is, like Euthyphro's explanation of piety, viciously circular." 1

Perhaps this is why smart guys like Sam Harris actually bring up the dilemma to try and show the moral argument for God is an antiquated and weak argument even though it's actually neither of those things because (at least to my knowledge) the SEP doesn't even offer the answer to the dilemma. What is the answer? I'll let Greg Koukl and others explain. 

"A proper understanding of Christian teaching on God removes one problem, yet we still face another: What is "good"? How can we know goodness if we don't define it first? 

The way Abraham responded when he first learned of God's intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah gives us a clue to the answer:
Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:25)

Here's the question. How did Abraham know justice required that God not treat the wicked and the righteous alike? As of yet, no commandments had been handed down.
Abraham knew goodness not by prior definition or by some decree of God, but through moral intuition. He didn't need God to define justice (divine command). He knew it directly. His moral knowledge was built in.[13]
Even the atheist understands what moral terms mean. He doesn't need God in order to recognize morality. He needs God to make sense of what he recognizes. 

This is precisely why the moral argument for God's existence is such a good one. The awareness of morality leads to God much as the awareness of falling apples leads to gravity. Our moral intuitions recognize the effect, but what is the adequate cause? If God does not exist, then moral terms are actually incoherent and our moral intuitions are nonsense. 

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. 

Further, no outside definition of piety is necessary because morality is known directly through the faculty of moral intuition. God's laws express His character and--if our moral intuitions are intact--we immediately recognize those Laws as good. 

This doesn't mean Christianity is true, only that it's is not handicapped by Plato's challenge to Euthyphro." 2
Bill Craig writes "...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." 3 
Glenn Peoples writes, "Yes God is good in the sense that God is loving, just and so on. But as Craig has noted on a number of occasions, God has no moral obligations and therefore cannot live up to any external standard. This has the implication that God is not morally good. God is good in the sense that he is loving, just, forgiving and so on, and we identify these things as good in the way that, say, hot soup on a cold day is good for us, or an apple is a good one rather than a rotten one. God’s good nature motivates God to command the things that he does, and this in turn gives rise to moral duty – rightness."
I don't want to muddy the waters made here by the philosophers quoted, so I'll save my comments for another post on another day. 
1. Moral epistemology, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
2. Euthyphro's Dilemma, Greg Koukl 
3. William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), pg. 135  


  1. That's a dilemma I had never pondered before. And now that I've read this, my mind will be hurting by the end of the day pondering it :P

  2. haha, it is a conundrum, but not without a good answer. When I was a skeptic, I cherished this dilemma. After hearing the answer of God's nature I was shocked. When I was a skeptic, Christian folks told answered my dilemma by saying God can will anything to be 'good,' but that never made sense to me (nor should it make sense to anyone...)


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