Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I

Perhaps the most common argument against an appeal to divine commands in ethical reasoning is the Euthyphro dilemma, first articulated by Plato and utilised by numerous critics of divine commands ever since. A representative example of this line of argument occurs in Peter Singer’s widely-acclaimed monograph Practical Ethics. In the first chapter of Practical Ethics, Singer offers the following argument.

[E]thics is not something intelligible only in the context of religion. I shall treat ethics entirely independent of religion. Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.[i]

Several features of this critique are noteworthy. Singer identifies a position known as the divine command theory of ethics. He construes this position as the view that “the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves.” He bases this on the testimony of “some theists”. Singer’s argument here consists of three stages. He proposes the famous dilemma proposed by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro. He then claims that divine command theory makes God’s commands arbitrary. He asserts that acceptance of divine command theory entails that paradigmatically-evil actions such as torture could be good. He concludes that divine command theory makes God’s goodness redundant,

Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?[ii]

In this three part blog series I will respond to the Euthyphro dilemma. In this post I will comment upon Singer’s description of his opponents’ position and suggest it is a straw-man. In the next two posts I will assess the arguments he proposes and argue they are unsuccessful. Contrary to what is commonly asserted in ethics textbooks and first year philosophy lectures, I do not think the Euthyphro dilemma is sound.

As I stated above, Singer’s argument is an attack upon a position known in the literature as divine command theory or voluntarism. Schneewind notes that in the late Middle Ages two schools emerged as to the relationship between God and the existence of an objective law. The first and older position is known as Intellectualism. In this view, God does not create morality; rather, God’s will is guided by his intellectual knowledge of eternal moral standards. The second position is divine command theory. This position grounded the moral law not so much in God’s intellect but in his will. God himself creates the moral law.[iii]

It is worth noting at this juncture that divine command theory is only one possible way of construing the nature of divine law and since Singer only offers an argument against this position, even if his argument is sound it fails to establish that the idea of divine law is problematic. Nevertheless, even as a critique of this theory the argument appears to attack a straw man.

Singer construes divine command theory as claiming “the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves.’” It appears then that Singer characterises divine command theory as a theory about the meaning of the evaluative term “good”; however, this is a caricature.

Few, if any, notable defenders of divine command theory propose it as a theory about the meaning of the term ‘good’. This is demonstrated by examining the literature of those contemporary theists who do defend versions of the theory. A notable, contemporary defender of divine command theory is Robert Adams. In Divine Command Ethics Modified Again and later in his monograph Finite and Infinite Good, Adams puts forward the view that “ethical wrongness is (i.e., is identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God”.[iv] [Emphasis original]

Note two things here; firstly, Adams does not offer a theory about ‘the good’ but explicitly limits his theory to deontological properties such as wrongness. Secondly, his theory is not about the meaning of terms; rather it is a metaphysical claim about identity.

This last distinction is important. Contemporary philosophy of language offers several examples of this distinction between two terms having the same meaning and two things being identical. One of the most famous is the relationship between water and H20. Water is H20. This is a claim of identity. The liquid on earth that we call water is hydrogen hydroxide. However, this is not a claim of meaning. The claim that water is H20 is not an analytic truth that is true in virtue of the meaning of the words, rather it is a claim discovered by empirical investigation. Moreover, a competent language user could refer to water and understand the meaning of this term without needing to know about the atomic structure H20. Similar examples are available with such claims as ‘the morning star is the evening star’ or ‘Superman is Clark Kent.’ In each case, we have a statement of identity that is distinct from the claim that two words have the same meaning. Adams then explicitly denies he is proposing the position Singer attributes to modern theists.

Similar things can be said about the other major defenders of divine command theory. William Alston holds that divine commands are constitutive of deontological properties and notes Adam’s identity claim as a paradigm of the type of relationship he is defending.[v]

Philip Quinn defends a version of divine command theory that is limited to the deontological status of actions.

In speaking of the deontological status of an action, I mean to refer to whether it has such properties as being morally permitted, being morally forbidden or prohibited, and being morally obligatory or required.[vi]

Quinn argues that God’s commands cause or bring about these properties. He specifically denies that he is offering a theory of ‘the good’ in general or that the relationship between God’s commands and moral properties is one of meaning. In fact, he argues against such a view.[vii]

Edward Weirenga defends a similar theory proposing that divine commands are those properties of actions that make them possess deontic properties such as right and wrong. He does not affirm that the word ‘good’ means commanded by God.[viii] Similarly, John Hare argues, “that what makes something obligatory for us is that God commands it”.[ix]

This is not just true of contemporary defenders of divine command theory. In a survey of the historical literature, Janine Marie Idziak notes that, historically, divine command theory was usually understood as a theory about what makes actions right and wrong and not a theory about the meaning of moral terms.[x] Moreover, historically, divine command theorists such as Locke[xi] and Puffendorf limited it to deontological properties and not to broader axiological properties such as goodness.

Robert Adams did defend a semantic theory in some of his earlier writings but, as noted, he later rejected his theory in favour of the one I sketched above. Moreover, the semantic theory Adams did initially defend bears little resemblance to the interpretation of divine command theory made by Singer. Adams explicitly asserted that his theory was limited to analysing the meaning of the word wrong and not broader notions such as goodness. Moreover, it was limited to an analysis of what the word means in Judeo-Christian discourse not what the word meant in general.[xii]

It is difficult then to ascertain to whom exactly Singer is referring when he states “Some theists” hold this view and he fails to provide any citations as to whom he is referring. He appears to attack a straw man that has little resemblance to the theory as it has usually been articulated and defended in both historical and contemporary literature.

Not only does Singer attack a straw man but attention to the arguments he uses reveals that in the very next sentence he changes his interpretation from a theory of meaning to a dependence or causal theory. Immediately after stating, “the very meaning of “good” [is nothing other than] what God approves”, Singer follows Plato in suggesting that either something is good because God approves of it or God approves of it because it is good.[xiii] However, this presupposes that the relationship between divine approval and goodness is some kind of asymmetrical relationship where one entity in the relationship is temporally or ontologically prior to the other.

If, as Singer maintains, divine command theory is the claim that “the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves’,” then the relationship between divine approval and goodness is not an asymmetrical relationship but rather a relationship of meaning so this dilemma simply does not apply.

Consider the following example. A person tells you that a bachelor is an unmarried man because the word bachelor means unmarried man. It would not make sense to respond to this claim ‘yes, but is he a bachelor because he is unmarried or is he unmarried because he is a bachelor?’ A person’s unmarried-ness is not prior to or the cause of his bachelorhood nor is his bachelorhood the cause of his being unmarried. His being unmarried is just a different way of referring to his bachelorhood. The relationship between a bachelor and an unmarried man is not causal; the relationship is one of meaning.

Immediately after stating that divine command theory is a theory about the meaning of terms, Singer offers an objection that presupposes it is not a semantic theory but a causal one. However, only a few lines later he offers the following objection to the theory “what can they [theists] possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?”[xiv] Here Singer’s objection relies on the claim that good means approved by God in order to generate the trap he refers to. Not only does Singer attack a straw man but also his target appears to change throughout the discussion. In fact, it appears to change in order to fit the objections raised.

In Part II I will look at the arbitrariness objection.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 3.
[ii] Ibid., 3-4.
[iii] Jerome Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 8-9.
[iv] Robert Adams, “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again,” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979): 76.
[v] William Alston, “Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists,” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 303-304.
[vi] Phillip Quinn, “An Argument for Divine Command Theory,” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 291.
[vii] Ibid., 293.
[viii] Edward Weirenga, The Nature of God: An Inquiry into the Divine Attributes, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 215-27. See also “Utilitarianism and the Divine Command Theory,” American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984): 311-318 and “A Defensible Divine Command Theory,” Nous 17 (1983): 387-408.
[ix] John Hare, God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands and Human Autonomy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 49.
[x] Janine Maree Idziak, “In Search of Good Positive Reasons for an Ethics of Divine Commands: A Catalogue of Arguments,” Faith and Philosophy 6:1 (1989): 60.
[xi] For a defence of the claim that Locke was a voluntarist see Francis Oakley & Elliot W. Urdang, “Locke, Natural Law and God,” Natural Law Forum, 11 (1966): 92-109.
[xii] Robert Adams, “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness” In Divine Commands and Morality, ed. Paul Helm (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 83-108.
[xiii] Singer, Practical Ethics, 4.
[xiv] Ibid., 3-4.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Ibid., 40.

Cross Posted at MandM

20 replies
  1. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Moreover, historically, divine command theorists such as Locke[xi] and Puffendorf limited it to deontological properties and not to broader axiological properties such as goodness.

    There is no difference between deontological properties and goodness. They are parasitic to one another if god made everything, including 'goodness'. And if it could not be otherwise that God was good, then not only is 'good' a property that is beyond god, but so is the relationship of god to goodness.

    "but is he a bachelor because he is unmarried or is he unmarried because he is a bachelor?"But is it good because god proclaimed it so, or did god proclaim it so because it is good?

    The first is analytical – no dramas there.If the second is analytical, did god make it so? If it is a posteriori, how can god have made it so without it being analytical?

  2. Matt
    Matt says:

    1. Simon, actually there is a difference between axiological properties and deontological ones. An example, it is good to donate ones kidney to a needy stranger but one is not required to do so. This shows an action can be good without being morally required.2.I agree that deontological and axiological properties are parasitic on each other. I think the property of being wrong is constituted by the property of being contrary to Gods commands. This actually shows that there is a difference between them something can’t be in parasitic relationship to itself.3. God did not make, everything given he himself exists that would be an incoherent notion . Strong notions of divine creation claim He made everything distinct from himself., weaker notions claim he created everything that is contingent. I am inclined to follow Thomas Carson and identify goodness with a certain type of Divine desire 4. You state “ And if it could not be otherwise that God was good, then not only is 'good' a property that is beyond god, but so is the relationship of god to goodness.” Not sure how this follows, if God is essentially good, then there no possible world where God is not good.5. If the second is analytical, did god make it so? not sure it makes sense to say God makes something analytically true. If the idea is that God could have made it synthetic but choose to make it analytic then the idea is incoherent, it imagines a logically impossible situation.6. The statement “what God commands is morally required” is a necessary a posteriori claim a bit like “water is H20” . Again I don’t understand what you mean by making a necessary truth the case. Its impossible for a necessary truth to be false. The idea that there is a possible world where God made a necessary truth false is an incoherent notion.

  3. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Matt,Thanks that clears up a lot of things.

    God did not make, everything given he himself exists that would be an incoherent notion . Strong notions of divine creation claim He made everything distinct from himself., weaker notions claim he created everything that is contingent. I am inclined to follow Thomas Carson and identify goodness with a certain type of Divine desire

    Hmmm. It seems to me that you are saying that there is something beyond god. For if god is a necessary being, who or what made it such that god is a necessary being? (There is no end to the question 'Why is it so?')Why is it that the notion that god might have made himself is incoherent? Why is the question 'who made god necessary' invalid?

  4. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Stuart001,Those are merely analytic questions. Saying that a square has four sides is merely to say it is a square! Saying that god did not make himself is quite different.

  5. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Original Simon,Its not different at all. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the very concept of God is of a necessary being. That is to say God is by definition an uncreated, eternal, self-existent being who cannot not exist. Thus, to proffer the question "who or what made God?" in any form as you do above, is an analytical absurdity, just as it is to ask "Is the bachelor married?" In fact, it is precisely to ask "Who caused the first uncaused-cause?"

  6. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    That is to say God is by definition an uncreated, eternal, self-existent being who cannot not exist.

    This was only invented so that awkward questions could be avoided.Who or what made it such that god is a necessary being?

  7. Jan Suchanek
    Jan Suchanek says:

    "In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the very concept of God is of a necessary being."The problem with the argument that follows is that you do not consider that the Judeo-Christian might be wrong.

  8. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Original Simon,You say "This was only invented so that awkward questions could be avoided."You have made this argument before and I have responded that the concept of God as a necessary being, is rooted within the earliest scriptures (Mosaic, Job), as well as the cosmological arguments. Asking "Who or what made it such that god is a necessary being?" show that you have failed at ever level to understand what it is to be a necessary being. Please reply when you have something intelligent to add, and not before.

  9. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    The idea that god is a necessry being is not in the scriptures. In the case of the cosmological argument the "neccesary being" concept is manufactured specifically to avoid causality. And causality is an empirical thing; and never has a cause been observed that is anything like an uncaused cause.It is a perfectly valid question to ask who or what made it such that god is a necessary being.Actually a square is merely an abstract idea just as god is. So perhaps you're right; perhaps it doesn't make sense to ask where god came from. But these abstract ideas don't have to have anything to do with reality. God certainly doesn't.

  10. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Original Simon, I said reply when you had something intelligent to add, and not before. Please follow instructions. Perhaps one day when I can muster the patience to deal with your absurd statements above I'll respond kindly and responsibly. Until then, perhaps you should to brush up on some basic theology before you deem fit to criticize that which you obviously currently do not understand.

  11. C. Combe
    C. Combe says:

    This was only invented so that awkward questions could be avoided.

    Do you have evidence to support such a claim? I do not believe you do.

  12. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    One does not have to understand astrology to show it absurd. The same is true of 'theology'. And what does the astrologer claim when their ideas are exposed? That you 'don't understand' it properly.To reiterate:There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest that anything has ever been uncaused; and the motive to fabricate one is merely to avoid infinite causality. This is obvious from the ideas get-go with Plato etc (prime mover….).There is no alternative to Divine Command Theory without inviting questions such as "then the concept 'goodness' must somehow precede god" and "why is it necessary that god is good? and who or what made this so". (The answer that god is "necessarily good" seems to be saying that "it couldn't have been otherwise". But how can you detect the veracity of this? How can you know that it couldn't have been otherwise without knowledge of good that is beyond god's?)Any actual comment anyone?

  13. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    Why is it that the notion that god might have made himself is incoherent?Because a cause preceds its effect, to create itself a being would therefore have to exist prior to its existence Why is the question 'who made god necessary' invalid? Because it implies that its possible for the being to not exist, and a necessary being is by definition one whose non- existence is impossible.

  14. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    And causality is an empirical thing; and never has a cause been observed that is anything like an uncaused cause. Well its not clear causality is an empirical thing, Hume pointed out some years ago we never actually observe causes. But to press your point, we have also never observed a law of nature applying in an unobserved part of the universe. We have never observed any part of the world existing independently of us or any observer, and so on, yet we don't go from this to claim that the universe depends on us for our existence. There is no alternative to Divine Command Theory without inviting questions such as "then the concept 'goodness' must somehow precede god" There is confusion here, you note correctly that our knowledge of the concept of good, in some instances preceeds our knowledge of the concept of God. But that does not show right and wrong or goodness does not depend on God for its goodness. Our knowledge of the concept of water proceeded our knowledge of hydrogen and oxygen it does not follow water is not dependend on water and hydrogen for its existence. and "why is it necessary that god is good? God is usually defined as a being worthy of worship and the greatest supreme being , this is based on religious experience people experience a being worthy of devotion, worship, adoration, etc. However a being that was evil would not be worthy of worship, hence if God could be evil in some situation, God could cease to be God in such a situation. Moreover, a God who could be evil in a possible situation would be less worthy of worship and great than a God who would refrain from evil in the same situation and so on, a lot of this is simply the working out of the concepts of deity implict in religious devotion. One can question wether these concepts have application and refer to something real, but thats a different question to wether this is the concept believers work with.The answer that god is "necessarily good" seems to be saying that "it couldn't have been otherwise". But how can you detect the veracity of this? How can you know that it couldn't have been otherwise without knowledge of good that is beyond god's?See above your confusing wether our knowledge of what is good is independent of our knowledge of God, but thats a different question to wether right and wrong can exist independent of Gods existence. BTW necessary truths are not generally ascertained empirically, observation tells us what is, it does not tell us wether something necessarily is, or how thinks would have been in different possible worlds which we do not observe. This is usually determined conceptually, and by rational intiutions, and metaphysical argument. It seems to me you are operating with an excessively empiricist epistemology and one that is implausible.

  15. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    Simon wrote First of all, this is an incoherent statement. Of course we have never obseved something that we are not observing! This is a contradiction you say first the statement is incoherent and then state “of course its true”. In fact the statement we have never observed an entity when it is not being observed is coherent and is a tautology and hence true. "It has no bearing on anything, because we will never be looking when we are not looking, and we will always be looking when we are looking. "Actually it does have a bearing on this issue, you said its silly to believe an entity can exist uncaused because we have never observed something existing uncaused. My point is the same line of reasoning entails nothing exists when no one is observing it. This question seems a lot like the observation “What if we are merely living in a computer simulation?”Yes, exactly, if you want to claim that we are only rational in believing what we have observed empirically then one cannot claim we are not in such stimulation. I agree with you the suggestion we are is really silly and absurd, but that’s my point your position entails absurdity Sadly – in my experience – the theist seems to implode and claim that we are all at sea and why don’t we start murdering each other etc.And when I point out your position entails absurdities you change the subject and start harping on about sterotypes about what theists say on other topics. Nice evasion, not a good response.– there is every reason to not care at all if we are living in a computer simulation (or what happens when we are not looking(which amounts to worrying about square circles)). In this respect the non-theist is the one living in the real world; the theist is not.Ok this tells me you don’t care , but wether you like what I said or not really is not the issue, wether its practical or not is not the issue, the issue is that on your view Dinosaurs never existed because if they did, they would have done so when humans did not exist, and we have never observed anything that was not observed by humans, hence the standard you used to reject theism leads to clearly false conclusions. You may not care that your argument is absurd, and irrational, but that only tells us about your preferences nothing else.

  16. George Holdorf
    George Holdorf says:

    A few years ago the pastor of Denver Bible Church posted A Christian Answer to Euthyphro’s Dilemma on TheologyOnline.com. Since then it’s become rather popular, even being linked to from the Euthyphro article at creation.com. Unlike many responses, this answer quotes Christ’s relevant comments (that His own testimony is not credible unless there are other concurring witnesses). Has anyone here ever evaluated that answer which is based on the three eternal witnesses within the Christian Godhead? The point is made that one does not have to agree with the Trinity to consider whether or not the doctrine of the Trinity can answer Euthyphro.

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  1. […] at MandM but can be found here on occasion. Read more from himMy first post in this series, Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I, I examined Peter Singer’s version of the Euthyphro argument and demonstrated that it relies […]

  2. […] my previous post, Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I, pointed out that his version of the Euthyphro argument relies upon a straw man. Divine command […]

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