In Plato’s Dialogue Euthyphro there appears a problem often put to the defender of Divine Command Theory of Ethics. Socrates, a character hoping for instruction from Euthyphro, asks, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods” Stated in today’s vocabulary the problem is stated in the following way by Dr. Louise Antony of the University of Massachusetts:
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, supposedly this means that the things we think of as evil could well have been good. Also it means those things we think of as always being evil could become good if God’s will ever changes. This makes the good appear to be arbitrary, which for many is counter-intuitive (for a good that is arbitrary cannot be objective). If the latter, then God is subjugated by some independent thing outside of himself. This would make God not the ultimate being, and that is something most adherents to Divine Command Theory of ethics would want to avoid affirming. As neither option appeals to Divine Command Theorists it is thought that ethics based on religion or moral authority such as God fails.
The problem with the Euthyphro problem is it creates an invalid either/or situation. The argument comes in the following form.[*]
1) P v Q (P or Q)
2) ¬Q (not Q)
(D.S.) 3) P (Therefore, P)
In a true dilemma there are only two options available in the first premise, and this ensures that the conclusion is necessary and inescapable. To reach a sound** conclusion one has to show either (1) that P and Q are in some way contradictory to each other, or else (2) add a premise which states that P and Q are the only two options. The absence of at least one of the above criteria renders the argument logically unsound. Because the Euthyphro argument does not meet 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 or Q or R). And even the possibility of a third option is enough to break apart the horns of the dilemma.
What is that third option? Here, Christians typically suggest that God is the paradigm of goodness. That is, God’s nature is Plato’s the Good. Put simply, that which is good is that which reflects the nature of God.
Therefore, God’s being is the fount from which his commands flow, and these 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. That’s like asking, if a circle had four sides would its area be the square of one its sides? God’s benevolence is an essential attribute of his being. That is like saying three-sidedness is an essential attribute of 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 the Euthyphro argument creates a false dilemma, and is therefore logically invalid.
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 a married man could also be bachelor at the same time.
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 that particular criticism of this option fails.
* A disjunctive syllogism
** For an argument to be sound it must have a true premises and a conclusion which correctly flows from its premises.