17 Euthyphro Dilemma: God’s Relationship to Morality Loses Either Way

Is something good because God says so, or does God say so because it’s good? The first option makes morals arbitrary. They’re just whatever God says, and he could have made them something else. They’re not based on anything, including external facts.

If God couldn’t have made them anything else, then they’re constrained, and that’s the second option. But this is no better: morals are external, and this reduces God’s role in morality to a messenger. God is bound by an external morality. Arbitrary morality or morality external to God—which is it?

This is called the Euthyphro dilemma, and it comes from Plato’s dialogue of the same name.

Here’s an analogy. If I’m a clerk in a store and need the price of something, I look it up. I consult an external, superior source. But if I’m the owner, I could make the price whatever I want: “For you, let’s make it $5.95.” So which one is God? Is he the owner (morals are arbitrary and changeable) or the clerk (morals are external and fixed)? For the Christian, it’s “heads I lose; tails you win.” Either option is unpalatable—morality is either arbitrary or there’s an external morality that constrains God.

Christians may respond that this isn’t a true dilemma because other options are possible. They say instead that God is good because that’s his nature, but this doesn’t avoid the problem. This simply changes the dilemma to: Is something good because God’s nature says so, or does God’s nature say so because it’s good? Is “God’s nature” changeable (morality could be something else) or not? If not, what does God’s nature conform to? And we’re back to the original problem of arbitrary vs. external.

Euthyphro’s challenge to the atheist might be: Is something good because our genetic programming says so, or does our genetic programming say so because it’s good? But there’s no dilemma here—our genetic programming (or conscience) tells us what is good and bad, and it tells us that because that’s been useful for survival.

Let’s recast the original problem into an unambiguous dichotomy. Let A be the statement “Morality is defined by God” (or “God’s nature” if you prefer). The two possibilities are now A and not-A. No other option is possible.

Consider the consequences:

  • Option A is true, so morality is defined by God/God’s nature. Morality can be anything God says it is since it’s not bound by or evaluated against anything external, and morality becomes changeable. Murder would be a good thing, for example, if only God had said that. (And why couldn’t he? He’s not bound by anything.)
  • Or, option not-A is true, so morality is not within the control of God/God’s nature, and murder is wrong no matter who says otherwise. This makes morality external to God. God might report morality to us (through the Bible or our consciences, say), but morality’s source is something besides God.

Does God have such a fixed, external source of morality that he consults? Then Christians are caught on one horn of the dilemma. Or does the buck have to stop somewhere, and God is it? Then Christians are caught on the other horn. Neither makes God look good.

Continue to chapter 18.

Image credit: Wikimedia, public domain

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