Oh, it comes to this as I knew it must. The dreaded Euthyphro Dilemma: A prowling shark, unavoidable for any theist who swims frequently and deeply enough in these waters. I’ll admit I’ve been attacked by this shark, and I didn’t have the philosophical muscles or shark repellant to unclamp its jaws from my leg.
In my humble opinion, the Euthyphro Dilemma is without a doubt the most formidable argument against grounding morality in God. An atheist should be keen to have it in his or her arsenal. Well, without further ado, here’s my best effort at concocting “shark repellent.”
The Dilemma actually comes from Plato, who allegedly captures Socrates posing this riddle to Euthyphro. I’ll give a paraphrased or modern summary of it: “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” Either answer is undesirable for the theist.
If the first horn is taken, something is good because God commands it, morality is rendered ultimately subjective. Whatever is good is a matter of God’s opinion. Also, it implies a deplorable action, like torturing babies for fun, could have actually been praiseworthy only if God had decided differently. Therefore, instead of establishing an objective morality grounded in God, morality appears to be just a product of seemingly arbitrary divine fiats.
The second horn doesn’t bode better. It implies morality and the good are external from God, and he does not even factor into ethics. Moreover, it challenges God’s sovereignty as he is subject to the moral standard like every other moral agent.
Ouchie! So now what?
The False Dilemma Response
The most common theistic response is to split the horns in half and declare the dilemma a false one. In other words, the theist isn’t confined to the two options, but there’s a third. It’s to declare that God is the good, and his commands are reflections of his all-good nature. Under this third choice, God couldn’t command torturing babies for fun as morally praiseworthy because it violates his good nature. It also solves morality appearing to be external to God as it posits the good as a part of God’s haecceity or essential essence and grounding morality within it.
This third option happens to be Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig’s response of choice for the Dilemma and has probably achieved popularity among Internet and YouTube apologists thanks to his espousal. Craig’s stamp of approval on it has also made it too tempting of a target for Internet and YouTube atheists, who have developed a rejoinder to it.
I’m unsure of who came up with it, but these defenders of the veracity of the Euthyphro Dilemma claim this doesn’t solve the issue for the theist, but instead pushes it back into different terms: Is God’s nature good because he chooses it or is his nature good because of some other external force? Unfortunately, this riposte is not as lethal as internet atheists believe it to be. Often this erroneously triumphed death stroke is asserted with little or no argumentation whatsoever. This question is a fair one to ask about God’s ontology, but it doesn’t directly follow from the Euthyphro Dilemma.
I, however, still must contend there are other ontological problems with this false dilemma response and subsequent doctrine of divine simplicity. Namely, God becomes identical to his properties and becomes relegated to something of an abstract object without agency or causal power. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it this way:
If God is identical with each of his properties, then, since each of his properties is a property, he is a property – a self-exemplifying property. Accordingly God has just one property: himself. This view is subject to a difficulty both obvious and overwhelming. No property could have created the world; no property could be omniscient, or, indeed, now anything at all. If God is a property, then he isn’t a person but a mere abstract object; he has no knowledge, awareness, power, love, or life. So taken, the simplicity doctrine seems an utter mistake.
Enter the Mawson
The response I think is in the theist’s best interest comes from philosopher T.J. Mawson. Instead, Mawson takes the second horn of the dilemma, but argues theists should view some moral truths like the laws of logic in relation to God. In fact, most theists are of the mind that the laws of logic don’t constrain God’s omnipotence or freedom. Likewise, moral truths like torture is wrong should be considered necessarily true, hence it’s not within God’s power to make torture good.
If we view God’s omnipotence as not requiring of Him that he be able to bring about logically impossible states of affairs, then as of logical necessity agonizing pain can only ever refer to something bad, not even God can be required to be able to make agonizing pain refer to something and yet the thing to which it refers not be bad. Since of conceptual necessity torture involves the inducing of agonizing pain, so not even God can be required to be able to make a universe whereby something picked out by the concept of torture is good. We are hence not forced to say of God that he could make torture good; we are indeed forced to say the opposite, which is what our intuition told us to say anyway: not even God could make torture good in the same way that not even God could make bachelors married.
Is this to say God has no role in morality? Hardly. Instead he instantiates these moral truths via his act of creation. This especially works nicely when put into conjunction with the universal contingent facts about our actualized personhood that God chose freely to create. Mawson explains it thusly:
As it happens, all people in this world have the property of suffering agonizing pain if a large amount of electricity is passed through their bodies; this being so, it is a universal truth that it’s bad to pass this amount of electricity through people. But the universal badness of passing large amounts of electricity through people is obviously the result of contingent features of the natural world, features that on theism God has freely chosen to create and that consequently it is not at all counterintuitive to suggest could have been different. Thus the theist is free to say that all substantive moral truths (as opposed to conceptual necessities) depend on God’s will in creation, but this does not, after all, have the counterintuitive consequence that we must say that God could make torture, for example, good. As we have just seen, torture is of logical necessity bad and thus not even God could make it good.
There we have it! Thanks to Mawson’s response, God is still pivotal to morality while his sovereignty is still very much intact. I think it’s fair to say this is a common response to the Euthyphro Dilemma most theists and atheists online haven’t thought about. I’m receptive to any feedback, critical or concurring, that would be given. But until I get some:
Take that, shark!!!
 Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? 47, cited in Nash, Concept of God, 94.
 Mawson, The Euthyphro Dilemma, http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Mawson-The-Euthyphro-Dilemma.pdf.