Do gods exist? 10 The Euthyphro dilemma

Photo: emission-line galaxy NGC 3749 from ESA/Hubble & NASA

Does a god cause things to be good, or observe that things are good? This is the tenth of a series of short posts about whether gods exist and why the question is an important one.

The Euthyphro dilemma comes from a dialogue written by Plato, in which Socrates is discussing the nature of morality with Euthyphro who believes that the gods tell him what he should do. In theology, this is known as Divine Command Theory.

Socrates then asks Euthyphro this question: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

In the language of morality today, Socrates is asking: “Does a god command an action because it is morally right, or is it morally right because the god commands it?”

The dilemma that this question poses has two horns.

On one horn of the dilemma, an action is morally right simply because a god commands it. If that is the case, then morality is arbitrary as it depends on the whim of the god. If the god told us to torture babies, then torturing babies would be morally right, simply because the god commanded it.

On the other hand of the dilemma, the god is commanding the action because it is right, but the god is not causing it to be right. If that is the case, then the god is merely observing that it is morally wrong to torture babies, for reasons independent of itself, and is passing on that message to us.

So either the god is commanding us to do things for arbitrary reasons that automatically become right or wrong, or else there are objective criteria of right and wrong that exist independently of the god.

Some theologians respond by saying that their god’s nature is to be good, and say that gets them off the horns of the dilemma. But it doesn’t. It merely pushes the dilemma back by a step.

The question then becomes: “Is the god’s nature good for arbitrary reasons, or is the god’s nature good because it corresponds to independent standards of goodness?”

Ultimately, a person who believes that gods tell us what we should do can not be satisfied by either horn of the Euthyphro dilemma.

Like this article? It is one of a series on this topic.
Click here to read the other articles in this series.

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