Euthyphro’s Problem

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.

27 replies
  1. Godlessons
    Godlessons says:

    Hume explained what being is fairly well in refuting the ontological argument. Might want to look it up before saying that God's being necessitates anything.

  2. Godlessons
    Godlessons says:

    Sorry for the third post, but I was thinking about what Kant said, and why it pertains to this. You are saying that God is moral, simply by the nature of his being. What Kant says about existence applies to this as well, even though existence and morality are quite different concepts.

    Morality is the concept of an overall set of good and bad acts. Morality is therefore only exemplified in a thing. By saying that a person is moral, we are saying that that person's actions are an example of the concept of morality. This holds for the concept of good as well. Good is not a property, it is concept of things which we consider moral. Good and moral are synonymous when used in the context where it is speaking of actions, not opinions on things like food tasting good for example.

    We make this confusion with lots of things. For example, if I say you are human, that means you have the attributes of what it is to be human. Now, if I say you are Stuart, that is totally different. Stuart is not a concept, Stuart is an actual thing, and it happens to be subset of the concept of humans.

    Thus to say that God's nature is moral is the same as saying that God is the concept of the set of all the good and bad things, and this would also say that God is merely a concept. If you want to hold to that, I'll let you.

  3. AndrewFinden
    AndrewFinden says:

    even the possibility of a third option is enough to break apart the horns of the dilemma.

    Exactly.

    (really I just wanted to subscribe to the comments… had to say something!)

  4. Godlessons
    Godlessons says:

    It would be true if there were actually a viable third option. There is not unless you want to say that God is a concept.

  5. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    No, the horns of a dilemma are split on the mere possibility of a third option, not only if there is a third option known of that is viable.

    Besides, God is a concept. And I fail to see the premises in your argument above from which you derived your conclusion that God is merely a concept?

  6. Lenoxus
    Lenoxus says:

    What all of this misses is that God is necessarily and by definition evil, not good. God is necessarily that from which all malevolence flows, and evil is to be defined solely in reference to how it conforms to God's nature. That's simply part of the definition of “God.”

    Now, why exactly is the prior paragraph nonsense? Why couldn't it be the case?

    It is not only impossible but inconceivable for a two-dimensional object to have exactly five sides and not be a pentagon. Conversely, it is entirely conceivable for the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of a universe to be evil, or at least morally neutral. Unlike with the polygon examples, God being good is not an axiomatic part of the definition of God. Sure, one can assert that it is, but that's only an assertion, just like my first paragraph's assertion of an evil God.

    And that's not even getting into the fact that there's a world of difference between being-necessarily-good and being-the-foundation-of-morality. The fact that all triangles have three sides does not require some Platonic ur-triangle to cause it to be so, or maintain its truth. And it's not really coherent how a triangle possibly could cause geometric truths. Likewise, I find it hard to conceive how a being, any being, can be the cause of moral principles. A being can only be a subject and/or exemplar of moral truths, not their ultimate source. God may have rights or responsibilities, but for him to be the source of Right and Responsibility itself is just as meaningless as it is for him to be the source of logic (which I imagine most DCT people believe of God as well).

    I'll stick to more straightforward, verifiable, humane, and reason-based sources for my morality, thanks.

  7. StuartsIdeas
    StuartsIdeas says:

    Hello Lenoxus,

    Your objection only holds by redefining the concept of God. You recognise that in the following.

    . . . it is entirely conceivable for the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of a universe to be evil, or at least morally neutral. . . . God being good is not an axiomatic part of the definition of God. Sure, one can assert that it is, but that's only an assertion, just like my first paragraph's assertion of an evil God.

    But it would be inconceivable that God be evil if the very concept of God included the attribute of omni-benevolence – which it does. Moreover, as good is a perfection, as the greatest possible being God would have to be good necessarily.

    The Euthyphro is an objection against Divine Command Theory of Ethics' internal consistency. My post shows it is internally consistent given certain facts about God. Your comment only disputes those facts, not the internal consistency of the theory – with one possible exception;

    I find it hard to conceive how a being, any being, can be the cause of moral principles. A being can only be a subject and/or exemplar of moral truths, not their ultimate source.

    Any commander, say a General in the Royal New Zealand Army Corps, would not see the difficulty you find in your first sentence, nor agree with the reason given in the second. To be a source of moral duties, one only needs to have authority and issue commands. For those moral duties to be good, the commander (the RNZAC General) needs only to display some goodness. To be the ultimate source of goodness, one would have to be the ultimate being.

    Now God displays goodness because he is a good person. He therefore gives good commands. These then constitute our moral duties. So the necessarily-good-being and the ultimate-foundation-of-moral-duties have the same referent.

    Pretty straightforward to me.

  8. Lenoxus
    Lenoxus says:

    I only just managed to dig through my email for the link to activate comment subscription, so sorry this is, Internet-wise, late (although my original post was quite a few weeks “late” anyway!) Here we go…

    But it would be inconceivable that God be evil if the very concept of God included the attribute of omni-benevolence – which it does.

    For my money, demonstrating that a being is omnibenevolent requires either a posteriori evidence (like an accounting of all its good actions, and demonstration that it has performed no evil actions) or a priori logic (which I have yet to see solidly made in the case of God. Some argue that he is omnibenevolent by consequence of being the universe’s creator, but as I said before, I don’t see how that follows.) Even with the former case, omni- is still too big a claim for me to accept, for any being. I simply have no way of knowing that a given person doesn’t have a dark past, even if I can be reasonably confident that such a person is 99% morally good.

    Until such time as God’s omnibenevolence can be demonstated as a necessary consequence of his other attributes, it’s still just an assertion. I could assert that all electricians are morally perfect by virtue and definition of their being electricians. This would be laughable. An entity can be an electrician without being morally perfect. And an entity can be the creator of the Universe, or all-powerful, or self-sacrificing, or own-child-sacrificing, or free-will-granting, or even all of the above, without being morally perfect.

    Additionally, part of what gets Euthyphro conversations tangled is the confusion of a being’s (possible) moral perfection with the idea that this being is the source of morality itself. As I see it, the two are radically different things. In fact, AFAIAC, if it were a coherent possibility for a being to be the source of morality, that being could still itself be morally evil or neutral; it would be like carrying a gene which doesn’t manifest. I don’t even see how the one has to have anything to do with the other. (“Mrs. Smith, we checked the back of his neck, and it appears your newborn son is the source and definition of morality. Congratulations!”)

    So what is logically problematic about the inverse of DCT — a universe created and governed by an evil god, who governs all morality by negative example? A god who logically defines what is evil with respect to itself? If the answer to that is that evil is privative, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll ever accept that. Some evil is privative and some is positive, just as some good is positive and some is just “privative evil”. (For example, in my book, pain is a “positive” evil and its prevention a “privative good”).

    Now God displays goodness because he is a good person. He therefore gives good commands. These then constitute our moral duties.

    This, by itself, I have little problem with. The problem for DCT is that this presents God as moral reporter (“displays goodness”), when something even “bigger” is supposed to be going on — God as moral standard (who is nonetheless somehow incapable of issuing, in any possible universe, such commands as “Please enslave and rape”).

    Of course, at the end of the day, most of this conversation sort of goes in one of my ears and out the other, because of all the talk that god is the “greatest being”, or the “ultimate”. These terms are used by themselves as though they means something straightforward and consistent, when in fact the term “greatest” can be applied to any possible quantity or quality. God is the Greatest basketball player and the Ultimate galaxy and the Greatest mass murderer. A point in every direction is no point at all.

  9. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    You’re not arguing against a DCT of ethics, you are arguing against the conception of God. God being omni-benevolent is intrinsic to the definition. Thus it need not be demonstrated – though demonstrating it is very is easy.

    1) God is the greatest possible being
    2) the greatest possible being must maximally possess all perfections.
    3) Benevolence is a perfection
    4) God maximally possess benevolence. i.e. is omni-benevolent.

    Additionally, part of what gets Euthyphro conversations tangled is the confusion of a being’s (possible) moral perfection with the idea that this being is the source of morality itself.

    I’ve already dealt with this confusion of yours above, in my previous comment. Remember; To be a source of moral duties, one only needs to have authority and issue commands such as a General in the RNZAC.

    You aver that a being being the source of morality is incoherent, but you have yet to demonstrate this.

    I don’t feel obliged to give an answer to what you call the “inverse of DCT.” I would however defend the DCT.

    Your example of pain being a “positive” evil and its prevention a “privative good” is an ill founded notion. First it would require pain being the norm, which it is obviously not. Second, its not altogether clear that pain itself is an evil. What if inflicting pain is required to save a life. Pain is necessary for character formation, such as developing the trait of endurance. Pain can teach valuable lessons.

    I’ve heard it said that those who criticise DCT have never read a paper on it, or seen the theory’s formulation. I think this might be the case here when I consider your confused objections. Such as is follows;

    The problem for DCT is that this presents God as moral reporter (“displays goodness”), when something even “bigger” is supposed to be going on — God as moral standard (who is nonetheless somehow incapable of issuing, in any possible universe, such commands as “Please enslave and rape”).

    That’s not DCT.

    “Please enslave and rape”

    …is not a command by the way. Requests are not commands.

    Then you object to the use of terms…

    These terms [“greatest” and “ultimate”] are used by themselves as though they means something straightforward and consistent, when in fact the term “greatest” can be applied to any possible quantity or quality. God is the Greatest basketball player and the Ultimate galaxy and the Greatest mass murderer.

    I fail to see the source of your confusion here, as “Greatest” and “Ultimate” are not applied to any (arbitrary?) quantity or quality. They are applied specifically to a “possible being.”

  10. Lenoxus
    Lenoxus says:

    Ah, I forgot to respond to the bit about the authority of military commanding officers. Well, as far as I’m concerned, they have exactly zero “moral authority”, and the same goes for all other possible beings, if “moral authority” is defined as the ability to cause moral truths. Governments grant military officers legal authority, so that militaries can function efficiently. Your NCO is someone who, when in the field of battle (and many other situations), almost certainly knows what he’s talking about, so he’s certainly an authority. But that’s very different from the situation DCT describes.

    And regarding “enslave and rape”, I’ll subtract the “Please,” so it’s no longer a “request”. Now, yes or no, could God command the following to a large city:

    “Enslave all the people of the nearest suburb, and rape the enslaved women.”

    For DCT to be consistent, the only answer can be “yes”.

  11. Lenoxus
    Lenoxus says:

    I fail to see the source of your confusion here, as “Greatest” and “Ultimate” are not applied to any (arbitrary?) quantity or quality. They are applied specifically to a “possible being.”

    I suppose my confusion is that the very phrase “greatest possible being” has no coherent meaning to me. If you say it means “maximally possessing all perfections”, then I would say the problem is the word “perfection”. Is physical size (something not normally ascribed to God) a perfection, and if not, why not? What about passive-aggressiveness? What about the perfection of being loved? (God, I would argue, is not maximally loved).

  12. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello Again Lenoxus

    Now, yes or no, could God command the following to a large city:
    “Enslave all the people of the nearest suburb, and rape the enslaved women.”
    For DCT to be consistent, the only answer can be “yes”.

    If the answer was “no,” how is that inconsistent with DCT?
    In answer to your question, the answer is “No, if such a command is indeed evil.” This based on the fact that God is good, and therefore cannot command evil actions.

  13. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Lenoxus,

    you say…

    Well, as far as I’m concerned, they [Army Generals] have exactly zero “moral authority”, and the same goes for all other possible beings, if “moral authority” is defined as the ability to cause moral truths.

    Is this to say that you disagree with the idea that a commanding officer has moral authority over his or her subordinates? Do you think we don’t have a moral duty to obey legal authority?

    “moral authority” is defined as the power or right to give moral commands and ascribe truth value to moral values.

  14. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Lenoxus,

    I think it is a good question you ask – what counts as a perfection? My dictionary defines “perfection” as a condition, state or quality of being free of all flaws or defects. This I think is an adequate working definition.

    Is physical size a perfection? Obviously not. What does it even mean for physical size to be free of all flaws and defects? Physicality conveys a limit on something’s presence, which would be a perfection – it is a state. The greatest possible presence is omnipresence – in other words, everywhere-fully-present.

    Passive-aggressiveness is obviously not a perfection. Passive-aggressiveness is a flaw – a privation of virtue – namely, the virtues of patience and kindness. Virtue is a perfection – it is a quality. The greatest possible virtue is omni-benevolence – in other words in everything, at every time, in every place, acting wholly good.

    What about the perfection of being loved? (God, I would argue, is not maximally loved).

    No, being loved is not a perfection – it is not a condition, state or quality. I think this is where our working definition finds its limitations, for we might say it [being loved] is a condition. First, I do think God is being loved perfectly. One might ask though, is God being hated perfectly? So secondly and more importantly, I think one would have to say that being hated is not a condition intrinsic to someone’s being – being hated is not what makes something or someone itself.

    Loving is a perfection though – it is a quality of a person.

    You say you would argue that God is not maximally loved. What does that mean, precisely? And where is the argument? Does this argument take note of Trinitarian theology?

  15. Lenoxus
    Lenoxus says:

    Is this to say that you disagree with the idea that a commanding officer has moral authority over his or her subordinates? Do you think we don’t have a moral duty to obey legal authority?

    Yep. I’m not advocating mass civil disobedience or anything — I think laws and authority serve the greater good of society. But they are simply a very good way of getting things done, not the end-all and be-all. Legal authorities are perfectly capable of issuing immoral commands, and these commands should be disobeyed — although when they are obeyed, the obeyers still have a reasonable excuse.

    In answer to your question, the answer is “No, if such a command is indeed evil.” This based on the fact that God is good, and therefore cannot command evil actions.

    But that makes goodness external to God! If God is incapable of changing, or ever having changed, moral truths, then he cannot be said to be their cause. If God is incapable of making or ever having made rape morally good, than to say that moral truths originate with God is meaningless. Rape would be evil even in a Universe lacking direct access to God.

    Another way of putting it is — if there were no quarks, life as we know it would not exist. But quarks are still not the authors of morality, because in possible worlds without quarks, the same moral truths would obtain. So even if God is necessary for living, breathing, thinking, loving beings to exist, he is still not the origin of moral truths.

    You say you would argue that God is not maximally loved. What does that mean, precisely?

    I mean that God is not loved by a maximal percentage of all beings (100). Yes, I understand that free will, among other things, prevents that from being the case, but it still means the being-loved is less than maximal. That’s the thing about “maximally everything” — some of the maximal qualities must “budge” to make room for the other ones. God cannot simultaneously make the Universe maximally red and maximally blue, nor can he exhibit two contradictory maximal qualities, although much of Christian theology is all about contradictory qualities anyway (fully human / fully divine, flesh of Christ / merely a wafer, etc). (Of course, if God is the author of logic, I suppose he can break any of these logical rules, and thus all arguments won on his behalf.)

    All that aside, I’m okay with the assertion that being “the Ultimate” makes God “merely” all-good-knowing-powerful, plus the First Cause. (And that’s when the problem of evil comes into play! Although I don’t feel like discussing that one here.)

  16. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Lenoxis,

    Stuart: In answer to your question, the answer is “No, if such a command is indeed evil.” This based on the fact that God is good, and therefore cannot command evil actions.

    Lenoxus: But that makes goodness external to God!

    No it does not. Refer to the article above. God is the locus of goodness, so it is right to say “God is good.”

    …nor can he [God] exhibit two contradictory maximal qualities, although much of Christian theology is all about contradictory qualities anyway (fully human / fully divine, flesh of Christ / merely a wafer, etc).

    Perhaps one could say “seemingly contradictory qualities,” but to say God exhibits “actually contradictory qualities” is false.

    On Christ being simultaneously fully human and fully divine, seehttp://thinkingmatters.org.nz/2010/03/chalcedonia

    On Christ being flesh and merely a wafer – I feel no need to defend distinctives of Catholicism, but I’m pretty sure that is not what transubstantiation affirms – Christ is never merely a wafer.

    (Of course, if God is the author of logic, I suppose he can break any of these logical rules, and thus all arguments won on his behalf.)

    God is not the author of logic. God is the logos. see John 1:1. The logos is roughly; “the rationality that pervades and underlies all of reality.” God cannot be illogical, for God cannot do or be anything contrary to his own nature.

  17. Joe
    Joe says:

    even if god’s character is to be determined as “good”, that in itself suggests there is another thing to which it is considered “good”. It’s not good because it is like god.

    The dilemma still stands.

  18. Joe
    Joe says:

    Also, forgot to add, it's not a third possibility since before you can call it good, it must first be determined to be good- a claim which has not been substantiated.

  19. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello Joe,

    Thanks for the comment. It’s difficult to respond to such a short-winded objection – a refreshing change though it is. Usually the more someone goes on the clearer their misunderstanding becomes.

    Do take care to note that I have been talking ontology here – not epistemology. God’s nature being good, and God’s nature being determined to be good, is not the same thing. I have been speaking of the former.

    And remember, the possibility of a third option splits the horns of the dilemma. Also, if God’s nature is the ultimate paradigm of goodness, then we have a third option. This makes the Euthyphro dilemma a trilemma.

  20. Joe
    Joe says:

    So it’s just an unsupported assertion. Yeah. Okay.

    Not to mention such claim brings about the problem of evil.

  21. StuartsIdeas
    StuartsIdeas says:

    Hello Joe,

    I would usually appreciate the brevity, but it's difficult to see what your comments refer to, and how you draw such conclusions as "[this] claim (what claim exactly?) brings about the Problem of Evil."

    I think it would be worth pointing out that if we could determine God to be good, that might suggest a standard of goodness independent to God, but not necessarily. It could equally indicate that God has fashioned our ethical judgments, and the process by which we arrive at them, to correspond to his own nature, which is itself the ultimate paradigm, or the locus of goodness. Indeed the Christian Scriptures say we are made in his image, and are his handiwork.

  22. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello Joe,

    To be an objective source of moral duties, one only needs to; (i) exist objectively, (ii) have authority, and (iii) issue commands. To be the ultimate ground of moral duties, one only needs to be; (a) the ultimate authority, (b) good, and (c) personal.

  23. coty
    coty says:

    It is unrealistic to say that a Being can be omnipotent. If God were omnipotent then he could imagine the biggest rock and still imagine a bigger one. The same corresponds to morality. If a beings morals are perfectly good, yet it can think of an even more perfectly better moral then its original and infinitely following moral positions would also be wrong. Therefore an omnipotent's moral structure is not moral and is instead debunked as the perfect source of morality; if not immoral.

  24. Jared Clarke
    Jared Clarke says:

    Hi Coty,

    Just to be clear, the definition of omnipotency used by theists isn't the ability to do (or imagine) anything. Instead, omnipotency as defined by theists is the ability to do anything that is *logically possible*. Afterall, it is not possible for an agent to bring about an impossible state of affairs (for example, there being a colourless blue object), since if it were, it would be possible for an impossible state of affairs to obtain, which is a patent contradiction.

    So, an omnipotent agent should not be required to have the power to bring about a state of affairs unless that state of affairs is first possible. Most scenarios that atheists like to bring up (the rock that cannot be lifted, God creating a copy of himself, etc) are states of affairs that are logically impossible. The problem isn't with God, but with the impossibility of that particular state of affairs.

    Similarly, your argument against God as a perfect moral being misses the point. The definition of God that is used is a being that which nothing greater can be conceived. So theists mean two things here: we deny that God holds any attributes we think to be imperfections, and secondly, we affirm of God in the highest degree any attributes we find to be perfections. If you can conceive of a greater being, than you weren't talking about God in the first place.

    If you want to debunk God, you might want to investigate a little more the God that theists traditionally believe in, otherwise you're just debunking a straw-man.

  25. Jason
    Jason says:

    Although, as Vox Day pointed out in The Irrational Atheist the dilemma only existed because "Socrates" could switch between gods to provide a conflict.

    Firstly, Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.

    For the Christian it is obedience, not piety, that is of concern. Piety can hide many vices, as Jesus was only too quick to point out in the Pharisees.

    Secondly, They [the gods] have differences of opinion, as you say, about good and evil, just and unjust, honorable and dishonorable: there would have been no quarrels among them, if there had been no such differences—would there now?

    Christians attribute authority to only one God, who in turn determines what is right for human beings, and for any lesser spiritual agents who may exist. Euthyphro is really a dead duck for Christian theism, and those who bring it up as an objection pretty obviously don't understand it.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *