This blog entry is part 4 in a series on the moral argument. The entries in the series:
- The Moral Argument for God Part 1: Going from Morality’s Existence to God’s Existence
- The Moral Argument for God Part 2: Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?
- The Moral Argument for God Part 3: Does Objective Morality Exist?
- The Euthyphro Dilemma
- Epilogue: Awakening the Sensus Divinitatis
The Euthyphro Dilemma
The name of the Euthyphro dilemma goes back to Plato’s Euthyphro in which Socrates asks Euthyphro if the gods love something because it is holy, or if it is holy because the gods love it. Applied here, the Euthyphro dilemma goes something like this: for any X that is good, “Does God will it because X is good, or is X good because God wills it?” On the first horn of the dilemma (God wills X because it is good), what goodness is becomes external to God, and therefore isn’t grounded in God. God simply recognizes what is good and then wills it. On the second horn of the dilemma (X is good because God wills it) God arbitrarily creates what goodness is in the sense that it could have been anything; God could have created goodness in such a way that it is good to torture infants just for fun, for example. So no matter which horn of the dilemma the theist picks, it doesn’t look plausible that God is the foundation of morality.
So the objection goes. One problem with the Euthyphro dilemma is that it is a false dilemma. It is not an “A or not-A” type dichotomy (e.g. “it is raining or it is not raining”) but rather an “A or B” type dichotomy (e.g. “the ball is green or the ball is red”) that does not exhaust all the options. A third option to the false dilemma is that what God wills is good because he is good. One view is that God is what Plato called the Good (the paradigm or model of what goodness is). God’s perfectly holy nature is the standard of moral goodness; e.g. God is by nature loving and just, and these attributes become moral virtues for us. As an analogy, the fidelity of an audio recording of a symphony is measured against how closely it matches the actual, original performance; the original performance sets the standard for audio fidelity. Similarly, God’s perfectly holy nature sets the standard of what moral goodness is.
If the conception of God we’re using includes God being the Good, applying a Euthyphro style dilemma becomes problematic. It doesn’t seem sensible to ask, “Is the Good good because it creates the Good (the paradigm/model of what goodness is), or is the Good good because the Good is external to it and it recognizes the Good?” If there were an answer to this question it would be something like, “Neither.” The Good does not (arbitrarily or otherwise) create the Good, the Good is the Good. It’s also not true that the Good is external to the Good; the Good is the Good. Or to make it more explicit for the Euthyphro dilemma: it isn’t true that God creates the Good (the paradigm/model of what goodness is), God is the Good; it’s also not true that the Good is external to God, because God is the Good.
Still, let’s ignore the problem of the false dilemma and consider the objection that if morality is grounded in God in any way, morality becomes arbitrary in the sense that God could (via divine commands or via his nature or via some other mechanism) make anything morally wrong/right/good/bad/etc.; e.g. God could have made torturing infants just for fun ethical. We can follow this train of thought with the following deductive argument:
- If God is the basis of morality, then it is possible for God to make torturing infants just for fun ethical.
- If it is possible for God to make torturing infants just for fun ethical, then it is possible for torturing infants just for fun to be ethical.
- It is not possible for torturing infants just for fun to be ethical.
- Therefore, God is not the basis of morality.
Perhaps because God is omnipotent, but God’s omnipotence as accepted by modern theists is more limited than the ability to do literally anything. Rather, God’s omnipotence is more accurately understood as being “maximally powerful” since most theists recognize that there are some things that even God cannot do, like create a married bachelor. The theist could also posit other limits on God’s behavior, which incidentally is nothing new. For example, the idea that God cannot lie goes at least as far back as early Christianity. Similarly, many theists believe there is no possible world where God creates another deity and worships it. We can also conceive of God as being necessarily loving and just, which would therefore prevent any divine commands from being arbitrary.
If it is impossible for torturing infants just for fun to be ethical, then it is equally impossible for the basis of morality—whatever that is—to make it ethical. It follows logically and inescapably then that if God is the basis of morality then he cannot make it ethical either. If it is impossible for the basis of morality to make such torture ethical, we might reason that the basis of morality has some type of immutable, necessary nature such that it can never make it ethical. There doesn’t appear to be any reason to think that God does not or cannot have that nature if he were the basis of morality. All things considered then, the objection that grounding morality in God would make morality arbitrary doesn’t work.
 See Hebrews 6:18 and Titus 1:2.
 The conception of God I’m using is that as the supreme authority in the universe he grounds moral obligations essentially, i.e. that he is the source of moral obligation in all those possible worlds that he exists. Even if I wasn’t using that conception of God though, it’s still an important thing to keep in mind is that in all possible worlds where God does ground moral obligations, he cannot command people to torture infants just for fun if it is impossible for such an act to be ethical.
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