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The Good grounded in God: A Response to the Euthyphro Dilemma

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The nature of goodness has concerned human beings for millennia. In philosophy, the questions over what is goodness, what it is grounded in, and how it relates to humans are metaethical questions. Metaethics is wholly distinct from normative ethics, which prescribes how we should morally behave. The former is descriptive and the latter is prescriptive. The ancient Greeks, specifically Socrates, discussed and argued over the nature of goodness. In the Euthyphro, Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the nature of piety – or goodness – and how it relates to the gods. In the dialogue Socrates incessantly questions Euthyphro about what the pious is. He wants to know the nature of piety because he is about to be put on trial. Socrates’ philosophical method is based around dialoguing with others and trying to establish definitions. He poses the dilemma to Euthyphro: “is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious? Or is it pious because it is loved?” (Euthyphro 9e 11-12) This dilemma is not only problematic for the polytheist but it is also problematic for the Christian. This dilemma is applicable to monotheism. John 1:1-3 states that, “[I]n the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” This is my ontological commitment and will be the principle when analyzing the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma. I want to present my view that is theologically consistent with what the Bible says. For this argument I will be defining God as He has been defined in classical Christian theism: a wholly good, all knowing, all loving, necessary being. By saying that God is a necessary being, I mean that God exists in all possible worlds. God must exist and He cannot not exist. These attributes of God along with His divine aseity are the assumptions I will be working with when discussing the dilemma. My presupposition is that there are grounds for objective moral values. Moral relativism or moral nihilism is something that the Christian is unable to affirm. In this paper I will argue that the Euthyphro dilemma is not a problem for the Christian theist because there is a third option – that God’s moral commands are determined by His good nature. The dilemma is extremely important in philosophy of religion because it can shape one’s metaethics.

In the dialogue, Euthyphro explains to Socrates that he is going to prosecute his own father for murder. Euthyphro explains to Socrates that his action is pious and he appeals to the Greek gods as his proof to support his concept of piety. Socrates presses him on his knowledge of the definition. Euthyphro tells Socrates that “what’s pious is precisely what I am doing now: prosecuting those who commit an injustice, such as murder…” and that “not prosecuting them, on the other hand, is what’s impious” (Euthyphro 5d9-5e3). Again, Euthyphro appeals to the divine and Socrates exposes a contradiction because the Greek gods do not all agree on what is pious. The problem arises because the gods love what is pious and impious at the same time. Socrates wants to get to a pure definition of piety (Euthyphro 6a8-9e10). He asks two questions: “is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious? Or is it pious because it’s loved?” (Euthyphro 10a2-3). The first question makes piety outside of the gods’ opinion. Piety is a standard of morality that the gods adhere to and hence they love it. Piety in this sense is outside of the gods. It is the Platonic form of piety. The Platonic forms are immaterial, unchangeable, and eternal. They are also universals. The second question of the dilemma has the gods determine what is pious. The mere love the gods have with certain moral actions makes them pious. The gods are the creators of piety under the second question. We can call both of these the horns of the dilemma. This dilemma applies not only to monotheism in general but more specifically it applies to Christian theism. We can restate the horns this way: The good is loved by God because it is good or the good is good because God loves it. The problem that applied to the Greeks still applies to believers today

The first horn of the dilemma is that the good is loved by God because it is good. Goodness is outside of God. The goodness as described by this horn is objective. It is outside of all opinion including God’s opinion. This objective goodness is typically thought of as being an abstract object. We can think of goodness as an immaterial substance that is separate from God. Goodness is just as necessary as God is and is at least the source of some moral obligations. In his book The Coherence of Theism, Oxford philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne argues for why he thinks the first horn – at least in most respects – is correct. He explains that this horn “seems to place a restriction on God’s power.” He says that God cannot do what is logically impossible (203). If it is necessary that a certain action is wrong then God cannot change the ethical status of that action. Swinburne says that this horn limits what God can command us to do. Goodness is independent of God’s will. Swinburne thinks that the Christian could “take different horns for different actions” (204). If God commands an action, then that action would be morally obligatory. The reason for this is that God is the creator and we depend on Him for our existence. Swinburne uses parents as an example to demonstrate this point. Our parents brought us into this world, raised us, and sustained us. We have a moral duty to obey them. God is far greater than our parents and has done much more to keep humanity alive. Thus, we have an even greater obligation to Him. A second reason would be that God created not just humans but the whole universe itself out of nothing. The obligation we owe Him is infinitely more than our parents. But Swinburne still thinks that it would be impossible for God to remove our obligation to keep a promise or to not torture the innocent. Therefore, Swinburne argues that there are some necessary ethical obligations that we must follow even if God did not command them. His “argument suggests that commands sometimes make acts right or wrong and make acts which are right or wrong anyway right or wrong in a new respect” (Swinburne 208-9). Swinburne is motivated to hold to necessary moral propositions. He grounds the necessary propositions outside of God’s commands. Is Swinburne’s argument satisfactory for the Christian when thinking about this dilemma? I think it falls short of the ontological commitment. To say that there are necessary ethical obligations that exist whether or not God commands them seems to make them outside of God. But the Apostle John says that all things came through God. God is the Logos, or Word, and the creator of everything other than Himself. If these ethical obligations necessarily hold whether God commands them or not, it seems to contradict this verse. The Christian is justified in rejecting this horn as a metaethical alternative. Let’s look to the second horn to see if the Christian can accept that one.

The second horn of the dilemma is that the good is good because God loves it. This horn falls under what we call divine command theory which many philosophers and theologians accept. Under this view, our moral obligations stem from what God commands. Goodness is grounded in God’s commands. God determines what is good and our moral obligations. Rene Descartes was a proponent of this horn. John J. Blom writes that Descartes thought that God is “the first principle of created truths, including the ‘necessities’ of mathematics and substance” (74). In Descartes’ view everything is created by God including “necessary” truths. This seems baffling since God could have created a different set of these pseudo-necessary truths. Necessary moral propositions would also fall under this category. God could have willed that murder or theft is objectively good. Descartes writes, “You ask me by what kind of causality God established the eternal truths. I reply: by the same kind of causality as he created all things, that is to say, as their efficient and total cause” (Cunning). God has created any and all types of eternal, necessary, and objective truths by Descartes’ belief. This puts him on the second horn of the dilemma. These truths are not necessary though. Descartes affirms a logical contradiction. These moral truths are contingent since they are dependent. God can easily change them in Descartes view. William of Ockham also accepts the second horn of the dilemma. Michael W. Austin, writer for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that, “William of Ockham states that the actions which we call ‘theft’ and ‘adultery’ would be obligatory for us if God commanded us to do them.” Ockham grounds the goodness of a moral obligation in God’s commands. It seems that Descartes and Ockham are grounding goodness in God’s commands because they see God as being all-powerful and as being our moral lawgiver. Are either of these views about the Euthyphro dilemma presented by Ockham and Descartes true and can the Christian theist comfortably hold to this horn of the dilemma without facing any tension? One advantage to the divine command theory is that we don’t have to appeal to something outside of God. There is no abstract goodness outside of God since God commands what is good. Divine command theory is consistent with my ontological commitment from the Gospel of John. This horn does have a major disadvantage. The biggest disadvantage is that it makes morality completely arbitrary on God’s will, or commands. It seems morally obvious that one ought not to murder, which is objectively true and not arbitrary. This is true in all possible worlds with at least two moral agents. God cannot do the logically impossible. God cannot create a married bachelor or a round square. Since God is the Logos, He also cannot violate an objective grounding of morality. He cannot make murder good. It is impossible. I do agree with Swinburne here that there are objective non-arbitrary moral propositions and obligations. The second horn must be abandoned since it is impossible for morality to be arbitrary. I do not want to hold to any type of relative or contingent morality.

A clear understanding of the second horn of the dilemma evaporates the dilemma completely. It is true biblically speaking that God commands what is good. He does give us laws and moral standards to live by. A basic example is God’s giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses. He is the moral lawgiver. As I have stated above, I think both horns of the dilemma are problematic and uncomfortable. I think there is a way out of this dilemma. God commands what is good, but why does He command what is good? This is because He is good. God’s nature is goodness itself. This moral goodness is instantiated through His commands. This instantiation is contingent – He did not have to actualize a world with moral agents. An analogy is similar to Plato’s theory of Forms and the way they’re instantiated. Plato thought, for example, that the property of red is a universal that is instantiated in objects. Redness is the Form and red is the property. The property participates in the Form of redness. Similarly, our moral duties and obligations participate in the “Form” of goodness. The “Form” allows for the moral proposition to be intelligible (Melchert 130). A moral proposition such as “one ought to not murder” is an instantiation of goodness but not the complete definition of what goodness is. This analogy with the Platonic Forms is only analogous in the relationship. The relationship a Form has with the particular is the same relationship God’s goodness has with a moral command. The ontological goodness is similar to the universal, and the command and obligation are similar to the particulars. The analogy is not completely analogous. Neither God nor any of His attributes are abstract. God is a concrete person. He can enter into causal relations with other things since He is a person. Platonic Forms have no personhood and are abstract entities. They cannot enter into causal relations. Moral propositions come in the form of commands precisely because they come from a person with a will. In the following paragraphs we will look at what other philosophers have said about God being the ontological grounding of goodness.

Robert Adams, a philosopher of religion, states in his book Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics that, “if God is the Good itself, then the Good is not an abstract object but a concrete (though not a physical) individual. Indeed it is a person, or importantly like a person” (14). When Adams talks about the Good, he means it to be transcendent and absolute. He does not mean this in the same way how we would call our friend a good person. Adams wants to say that this is much greater than a general meaning of the word good when used to apply to human action or nature (A Modified Divine Command Theory for Ethical Wrongness” 472-3). “The Good is transcendent in the sense that it vastly surpasses all other good things, and all our conceptions of the good. They are profoundly imperfect in comparison with the Good itself” (“Finite and Infinite Goods” 50). The Good is completely valuable and that is what makes it transcendent. Adams does think that divine command theory is still a viable theory; it just needs to have the considerations he poses. It needs to be modified (“Finite and Infinite Goods” 249-250). “Roughly, Divine Command Theory is the view that morality is somehow dependent upon God, and that moral obligation consists in obedience to God’s commands” (Austin). God’s commands are still completely relevant for the metaethical theory. Adams goes on to say the following:

A main advantage of a divine command theory of the nature of moral obligation is that it satisfies the demand for the objectivity of moral requirement. Being commanded and forbidden by God are properties that actions have independently of whether we think they do, or want them to. Divine commands are more unqualifiedly objective than human social requirements, inasmuch as their factuality is independent of socially established as well as individual opinions and preferences (“Finite and Infinite Goods” 256).

God’s commanding our moral obligations gives us objective grounds because God Himself is good. We do not have to necessarily appeal to human reason or relativism for any type of ethical behavior. Reason does help us understand normative ethics but it’s problematic because the ethical theories are not as cut or dry. There seems to be validity to most ethical theories based in reason alone. If God commands morality, then we have an obligation to follow them as Swinburne proved earlier. We also cannot be agnostic as to what is moral or immoral if God commands our obligations. Adams’ modified divine command theory as a response to the second horn of the dilemma gives the Christian a way out of the dilemma. A clear understanding of what the second horn means in relation to God makes the dilemma dissolve completely.

Thomas Aquinas also argues that God is good. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas makes clear statements about the nature of God. He says that, “God is good essentially” (Aquinas 29). This supports Adams’ theory. When Aquinas uses the word essentially he is using it in the same way that contemporary analytic philosophers use the word necessarily. A thing is good according to its perfection. He lays out three aspects of perfection. Perfection of a thing is according to its own being, in respect to any accidents being added as necessary for its perfect operation, and consists in the attaining to something else as the end. “This triple perfection belongs to no creature by its own essence; it belongs to God only, in Whom there are no accidents; since whatever belongs to others accidentally belongs to Him essentially…” (Aquinas 29). Aquinas’ insights into the nature of God further the point of God being wholly good and necessarily good. God’s good nature allows the moral facts to be instantiated for humanity. The commands flow from His necessary ontological good nature. Thomas’ view of God allows the Christian to escape the problems of the second horn. His view is consistent with objective morality and my ontological commitment.

There could be a few objections raised against the view I have presented. The first could be that God’s good nature is in need of an explanation. The objector could ask why God’s nature is good, or what makes God’s nature good. This would seem to miss the point of my thesis. God’s nature cannot be explained by an outside explanation. The explanation exists in God Himself and nothing prior to Himself. To understand His being as necessary is to understand that He needs no explanation. Another objection could be raised on epistemic grounds. I know God is good on the basis of Biblical authority. It is impossible to know the fullness of God’s nature by reason alone. Theologians divide two types of revelation from God. The first of which is general revelation. General revelation encompasses revelation about God in nature and in reason. Natural theology works with general revelation to prove God’s existence. For example, the teleological argument shows that the design of the universe points to a designer. This would be an argument based in reason and appealing to the order of nature. Special revelation, on the other hand, is the kind of revelation that is revealed specifically about God. It is special because it is revealed through the Bible which is His word. Both of these objections do not stand with these considerations in mind.

God’s nature is wholly good and allows for objective morality to be grounded in God Himself. In this paper I have shown the dilemma posed by Socrates and its relevance to philosophy of religion today. The first horn must be denied in order to avoid metaphysical Platonism. The dilemma is only problematic if one does not understand the second horn. At face value the second horn makes the divine command theory arbitrary. I have argued that the second horn is not a problem at all. The ground for goodness is in God, not His commands. The structure of God is good, and He gives humans moral obligations. God allows us to see the full scope of morality. In my view, this full scope also shows us God’s plan of salvation for humanity through the person of Jesus Christ. It also shows us our intrinsic moral value and our human nature against the backdrop of God’s goodness. The modified divine command theory is not only theologically adequate but also philosophically plausible if God exists. I have shown both to be the case. Robert M. Adams’ view is the same view I hold to. Aquinas also would hold to the same view. It is interesting how a dilemma thousands of years old is still prevalent today. The discussion between God’s nature, His commands, and human moral obligations will always be an area of debate in philosophy and theology.

Works Cited

Adams, Robert M. “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness.” (n.d.): n. pag. A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <;.

Adams, Robert Merrihew. Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Aquinas, Thomas. “Of Goodness in General and The Goodness of God.” Summa Theologica Vol. I. New York: Benzinger Brothers, n.d. 23-30. Print.

Austin, Michael W. “Divine Command Theory.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <;.

Cunning, David. “Descartes’ Modal Metaphysics.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 15 Apr. 2002. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <;.

Descartes, René, and John J. Blom. “All Other Knowledge Depends on the Knowledge of God.” Descartes, His Moral Philosophy and Psychology. New York: New York UP, 1978. 73-75. Print.

John. “Gospel of John.” The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008. N. pag. Print.

Melchert, Norman. “Plato: Knowing the Real and the Good.” The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 128-30. Print.

Reeve, C. D. C., and Patrick L. Miller. “Euthyphro.” Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2006. N. pag. Print.

Swinburne, Richard. “A Source of Moral Obligation.” The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. 203-09. Print.


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