Evading the Euthyphro Dilemma


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.

Riddle me this, Euthyphro!

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.

If only all philosophers looked so hardcore when they think.

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.[1]

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.

T.J. Mawson

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.[2]

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.[3]

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!!!

Modus Pownens


[1] Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? 47, cited in Nash, Concept of God, 94.

[2] Mawson, The Euthyphro Dilemma, http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Mawson-The-Euthyphro-Dilemma.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

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5 thoughts on “Evading the Euthyphro Dilemma

  1. Hey Modus,

    You say,

    “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.”

    Though I may be misinterpreting, this seems to imply that there is the possibility that God is outside of moral truths, as is the case if He were to be outside the laws of logic. Either notion seems a bit ridiculous to me – the latter for the obvious, the former because it would render morality non-objective if there is an agent that is not constrained by it.

    If objective moral truths are contingent on Creation, would this not then be imposing a limitation on God? If indeed objective moral truths were instantiated at Creation, this would mean that objective moral truths did not exist prior to Creation, thus God would not be constrained by these moral truths. By instantiating such truths, He thus limits Himself – would this not negate his omnipotence? Free choice or not, the fact remains that there is a form of limitation there that was not prior to Creation.

    Lastly, if these moral truths are focused on reducing, or avoiding, suffering, why is there a need for God? The mere notion of reducing or eliminating pain can be easily explained by naturalistic means.

    1. Hey Oscar,

      I think you are misinterpreting, but I think fault lies with me as I wasn’t clear and probably didn’t unpack Mawson as completely as I should of. When I talk of “constrain,” I mean the inability to do the logically impossible is not a limitation. Not being able to create a married bachelor, a logical absurdity, is not even a possible, let alone coherent notion. I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to even think that God’s omnipotence doesn’t imply such an ability. In regards to moral truths, like torture is bad, God is likewise unable to ever make torture good like he is unable to make a round square.

      “If objective moral truths are contingent on Creation, would this not then be imposing a limitation on God? If indeed objective moral truths were instantiated at Creation, this would mean that objective moral truths did not exist prior to Creation, thus God would not be constrained by these moral truths. By instantiating such truths, He thus limits Himself – would this not negate his omnipotence? Free choice or not, the fact remains that there is a form of limitation there that was not prior to Creation.”

      I didn’t mean all objective moral truths, just contingent ones. “Torture is bad” isn’t a contingent moral truth. Mawson I think refers to them in another paper as “conceptual necessities.” They’re analytic and insubstantial. That, in whatever world God created, torture must and always would be bad. God could have created a world in which water boarding would not be torture nor bad because in that world we would have had gills or whatnot. Instead, we would be beached, and that would be torturous and bad. I think you get my drift? Mawson means by the instantiation of moral truths Contingent moral truths, and I think Mawson’s example is “It is good for Jones to pay Smith $10.” Mawson literally takes the second horn for necessary moral truths and the first horn for contingent ones. Looking over the article, there’s a lot more philosophical rigor dealing with supervenience of moral and non-moral properties, descriptivism, objectivism and subjectivism he identifies and distinguishes between that would be tedious to really get into right now. He also spends a good deal of time criticizing Richard Swinburne who proposed a similar solution. Here’s a link to the entire thing if you’re interested:

      http://ora.ouls.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid%3Aa4e1eaaa-b67c-45da-a721-0b8599751e74/datastreams/ATTACHMENT01

      As to your last question/objection, these truths don’t all entail the reduction of suffering/pain. They’re true out of analytical and logical necessity. Mawson labels another necessary moral truth that it is good to pay one’s debts. Sorry, Oscar. Here’s where I have to hold your feet to the fire and ask why to unpack “The mere notion of reducing or eliminating pain can be easily explained by naturalistic means.” Under naturalism, why is the reduction or elimination of pain good?

  2. Check your text of the dialogue! In the dialogue, Socrates is the attacker; and the animal to be captured is Proteus. You say “…the Euthyphro Dilemma is without a doubt the most formidable argument against grounding morality in God”. Except in the Laws, old Plato grounds the constitution of the polis on Zeus and Athena.

    Try this: the relation of the ood and divine command is like the relation of brother and sister. Does the brother cause the sister, or does the sister cause the brother? Geach’s notion of Cambridge Change is altogether relevant.

    1. Thanks for commenting Xenagas,

      I’ve been taught the Euthyphro Dilemma in one of my classes, but I actually haven’t studied or read the actual dialogue. I will this semester, so I don’t know what you mean “the animal to be capture is Proteus.” What I did say, that in my humble, very limited experience of studying philosophy for three to four years — and a fair deal of it is self-taught — it’s the best argument I’ve seen. It was me being generous in the discourse of philosophical debate. And I’ll be studying Plato a lot more in depth and then maybe I’ll know how the grounding of the constitution of the polis on Zeus and Athena is unless you’re suggesting that Plato is contradicting himself in separate works.

      I’m aware of there is distinction between divine command and the good that the ED is silent about that theist bring up to weaken the dilemma. I didn’t think it particularly necessary to this post, however. Again, you’re going to have to elucidate how Peter Geach’s notion of Cambridge Change is altogether relevant when I have not had the pleasure to read Geach. All I know, he and his wife GEM Anscombe are considered among the first analytical Thomists.

  3. I was too terse. Your shark metaphor is too violent too cruel. Socrates uses the metaphor of trying to capture Proteus (15d). But he’s too terse too. Go to Homer (Odyssey Book IV) to hear the story of Menelaus and Proteus.

    The argument “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” is a wussy effort. Replace ‘good’ with ‘double’ and ‘God commands it’ with ‘half’. What do you get? I get ‘Is something double because something else is a half, or is something half because something else is a double’. So what does that prove?

    My point is that formal causes have no real-world causal potency. I can also assure that Plato’s Socrates is a certifiable religious nut who believes strongly in the goodness and power of the gods of Homer. Maybe he knows something that we need to recollect again and again and again…

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