May 09, 2013

Euthyphro Dilemma: God is irrelevant to ethics?

Socrates (469-399 BC)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, May 9, 2013

Euthyphro Dilemma: God is irrelevant to ethics?

Some philosophers object to the idea that the Christian God is the basis of ethics because of what's called the Euthyphro dilemma, taken from the work of the ancient philosopher Plato (c. 429-347 BC).

(Euthyphro is a character in one of Plato’s dialogues by the same name wherein Socrates, who was Plato's teacher and whom Plato greatly admired, questions Euthyphro’s understanding of the relationship between the gods and moral value.)

The question raised by the Euthyphro dilemma is this: Does God will something because it is good, or is it good because God wills it? Both options, it is alleged, make God irrelevant to ethics.

On the one hand, if God wills something because it is good, then this would imply that there is a standard of goodness which is independent of God. The goodness of the thing is why God wills it, which means that even God is subservient to the good. So we don’t need God for ethics.

On the other hand, if something is good because God wills it, then this would make God's will seem morally ungrounded and capricious. God's will would make an action good, so whatever God wills would be right. But this means that God could will, say, child abuse and rape, and so child abuse and rape would be right. Of course, we already know that such behaviours are evil. So we (again) don't need God for ethics.

Either way, according to the Euthyphro dilemma, God isn’t the foundation of ethics. Or so the objection goes.

Is the objection reasonable? Answer: No.

It turns out that there is a third option which allows us to escape the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma: i.e., God is the standard of good and God wills something because doing so is an expression of God’s essentially good nature.

At this juncture, it may help to remember Plato's metaphysical understanding of reality. Plato distinguishes between The Good, i.e., the absolute Form (idea/ideal), and a demiurge, i.e., a god-like being (craftsman/artisan). On Plato's view, the demiurge is distinct from and subservient to The Good; the demiurge is a part of the cosmos; and the demiurge's role is to add pre-existent eternal forms/ structures to the formless stuff of the cosmos.

According to the Christian conception of God, however, God is significantly unlike Plato's demiurge. Rather, God is the Creator of the cosmos (including all its stuff, formless or not) and God also is The Good. This means that, contrary to the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, goodness is not independent of God.

Moreover, according to the Christian view of God, God’s will is subject to and reflects God's own unchangeably good nature. God can only do and will that which is in accordance with His own nature, which is perfect goodness itself. This means that, contrary to the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, God's will is not morally ungrounded or capricious.

Contemporary Christian philosopher William Lane Craig (in his book On Guard) clarifies: “[M]oral values are not independent of God because God’s own character defines what is good. God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial, and so on. His nature is the moral standard defining good and bad.”

Craig continues: “[God's] commands necessarily reflect His moral nature. Therefore, they’re not arbitrary.”

Craig adds: “When the [critic] demands, ‘If God were to command child abuse [or rape], would we be obligated to abuse our children [or commit rape]?” he’s asking a question like ‘If there were a square circle, would its area be the square of one of its sides?’ There is no answer because what it supposes is logically impossible.”

Therefore, the solution to the Euthyphro objection is that God wills the good because God is good, which means that independent of God no standard of goodness exists nor is God’s will arbitrary.

In other words, the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma—so God remains relevant to ethics.

(Note: To say that God remains relevant to ethics is not to say that a person who doesn't believe in God can't be moral or can't have knowledge of objective moral values. Rather, it is to say that God provides moral values with an objective/real metaphysical ground. Philosophically, this is significant.)

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence University College.The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence. )

P.S. Here is a very short video of William Lane Craig on the Euthyphro Dilemma with The One Minute Apologist:


Climenheise said...

The question: Would the area of a square circle be the square of one of its sides is a helpful response. I suspect that many of the objections we give to some aspect of God and of Christian faith are often of this nature: We say something that sounds profound, but is in fact nonsense. "Can God create something too heavy for him to lift? It's like the question we used to ask when I was young -- "What's the difference between a duck?" A: "One of its legs is both the same." It may sound like a koan, but it's really just a nonsense.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks, Daryl, for the thoughtful comment. You asked some interesting questions when you were young!

By the way, a while back I wrote a column on the question of whether God can make a stone too heavy to lift. You probably are aware of this column, but for folks who aren't aware yet might wish to read the column, here is a link: "God and the Stone".

Lee and Rebekah said...

Hendrik: Thanks for writing this, especially including a discussion of the context of the original dilemma. It's important to understand what Plato meant by "god" for it shows that the original dilemma does not pertain to the Christian conception of God. Still, this dilemma will not die! Again and again it is used by atheists to refute the moral argument. I have been struggling against it, once again, just these past few weeks. They seem to want some objective criteria by which we as humans can judge God, especially certain acts of God in the OT. Here is one response (and I must add that it is from a friend that is an agnostic, former Muslim):

"Bill Craig's argument is tautological. It also does not show how God's good is same as what we consider good. For instance, under Craig's understanding goodness is a necessary and primal quality of God, and cannot be adequately defined as it can be of human beings. This means that when a human commits murder we can evaluate him as good or bad based on some objective criteria, but if God was to commit or command a similar act we can only judge him as good. This is both vacuous and self serving."

It seems that still the Christian conception of God (and man) answers this objection: we have moral intuition (as evidenced by the convergence of social moral codes throughout human history). Still, our moral intuition is limited by our finitude and our sinfulness. Yes, we are correct to be repulsed by God killing all the first-born of Egypt (as my friend from above brought up), but that brings in other issues apart from God's goodness, doesn't it? Like God's justice and His omniscience. That it doesn't sit well with us doesn't mean that God is not "the Good".

If atheists are going to use the dilemma to attack the Christian conception of God, they have to take into account the FULL conception - not just His Goodness. This makes the argument much more complex, doesn't it?