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The Euthyphro Dilemma

by Francois Tremblay



In one of Plato’s dialogues, called Euthyphro, Socrates is questioning the title character on the nature of holiness. At one point in the dialogue, Socrates asks the following question, the answer to which occupies the rest of the discussion:

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

This question gave the dilemma its name. In general, the Euthyphro Dilemma consists of asking whether the Good exists because God wills it, or whether God acts in conformity to the idea of the Good.

In short, it consists of asking “where do moral standards come from ?”. Either answer to this question is fatal for the theistic position. Here is a formalization of the argument.

  1. Either:
    1. The Good is willed by God because it is the Good.
  1. The Good is the Good because it is willed by God.
  1. If (1a) is true, then the Good is independent of God’s will.
  2. If (2) is true, then God did not create the Good, and is not Creator.
  3. If (1b) is true, then the Good is contingent and subjective (to God’s will).
  4. If (4) is true, then there is no objective standard of morality, and the absolute of value-selection is false.
  1. God does not exist. (from 1, 3 and 5)

    There is little need for expansion of this argument, because it is a variant of Materialist Apologetics. Frame’s answer – that the Good is an invariant part of God’s nature – is refuted there. In the specific case of the Dilemma, there is no middle ground – either God is the origin of moral principles, or it isn’t. If morality is an inherent property, then it is not chosen by God, and therefore falls on the second horn of the dilemma. Good already existed, and God is not the Creator of morality. In fact, God, in this scenario, is wholly irrelevant to the existence of morality.

    You can see how Euthyphro’s Dilemma is inscribed within TANG and the materialist approach that I propose. They are all founded on the contingency of material facts within the theistic scenario, including morality. If God can only exist in a reality where everything is contingent, and therefore subjective, to its will, then this cannot possibly be reconciled with a necessary, objective morality.

    Furthermore, the subjectivity of the relation between God’s nature and God’s actions is another problem with the inherent-properties objection that I have never seen examined before, and would be worth discussing. I don’t push this strongly enough in my own article. The problem is this : if every principle is contingent to God, then how can the theologian assume that God’s nature, which he posits as necessarily logical (whatever that means), necessarily dictates its will ? In the case of human beings, for example, the fact of possessing logic does not dictate our will. So why should a god be so vulnerable ? Indeed, we can only assume this by removing the principle from God’s sovereignty, which is, once again, a denial of the Creator property.

    Now, why can’t the Christian return the problem to us ? Let’s do the flip side :

    If materialism is true, then we have two options…
    1. Are things good because we say they are good, or
    2. Do we say things are good because they are good ?

    And we end up with the same horns : either morality is subjective, or it is intrinsic and humans have nothing to do with it. In both cases it can be argued that materialism is ultimately defeated, if you are willing to push the point hard enough.

    But in the case of human beings in a materialist scenario, we do have a middle ground. We do have facts to rely on, facts that are beyond our choice. We can drop things and measure their speed enough times to realize that masses attract – and give it the label of “gravity”. We know inductively that when we drop a ball in a normal earthbound scenario, it’s not gonna stay suspended in the air. This is not a subjective proposition, or an intrinsic one, but rather knowledge gained by observation and reasoning based on them.

    To us human beings, living in reality, knowledge and the Good are neither personal nor magical. They are rooted in the determinism of this causal universe we live in and can understand. This illustrates the gigantic difference between the cartoon nature of the Christian scenario and the grounded nature of materialist reasoning. In short : nature left alone is solid ground, but nature dreamed by a Creator is an extremely simplistic and suicidal quicksand.

    Where do we end up in terms of moral responsibility in the theistic scenario ? If morality is subjective, then there can be no such thing as moral responsibility, since there is no way to judge any action. And if morality is intrinsic, then moral responsibility can also be applied to God. Either possibility is fatal. Not only can we apply the Problem of Evil to the second case, but also the act of Creation itself. The fact that God creates anything can only imply that God was not perfect. If God was infinite and perfect, then the only possible moral action would be to do nothing at all. This thought was inspired by a very similar point made in “The Non-Existence of God”, by Nicholas Everitt, which I recommend.

    Last updated: February 24, 2005