Tag Archives: Euthyphro dilemma

#5 Post of 2015 – Is God Subject to Justice?

Skeptics of Christianity sometimes claim that either God is subject to an external standard of justice and morality, or else whatever God arbitrarily says or does is the standard of justice and morality. Both of these choices are a problem, however, for the Christian.

If there is an external standard of justice, then God is not the ultimate being. There is a moral law that is greater than him. The Bible, however, rules that out.

If God can arbitrarily decide what is right and what is wrong, then justice and morality become meaningless because even though it is wrong to kill an innocent person today, tomorrow it could become OK, if God willed it to be. This idea, however, seems ludicrous as well.

The Christian answer to this dilemma is that God’s very nature is the Good and the Just. In other words, the moral law is built into God, and because God will always act according to his nature, the moral law will never change, and is thus not arbitrary. God is not subject to an external standard, because the standard is God himself.

Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Apply to Evolutionary Ethics?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

One of the most popular, but misguided, challenges that atheists fling at theists is Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma. I have written about why this is no dilemma at all for theists in other blog posts, so I won’t cover that ground again now.

Philosopher Matt Flannagan, though, has introduced a new wrinkle in this debate. Flannagan argues persuasively that the Euthyphro Dilemma is actually a serious problem for those who argue that morality is the product of evolution.

In an article in the Christian Research Journal (vol. 36, number 01), Flannagan specifically challenges the position of Jerry Coyne, a biologist and outspoken atheist. Flannagan claims that “Coyne’s own secular account of morality falls prey to the Euthyphro dilemma.” Here is Flannagan:

After claiming that moral obligations cannot be constituted by God’s commands, Coyne offers an alternative: morality comes from evolution—humans evolved a capacity to instinctively feel that certain actions are wrong.

This position is pretty standard among many atheists that I speak to, so Coyne serves as a useful proxy for the wider atheist crowd. How is Coyne’s account susceptible to the Dilemma?

Plato’s question [in his dialogue Euthyphro] is equally applicable here. One can ask, “Are actions wrong because we have evolved a disposition to condemn them, or do we condemn them because they are wrong?” If the latter is the case, then actions are wrong prior to, and hence independently of, evolution, and so ethics is independent of evolution.

So how does Coyne avoid this problem?

To avoid this implication, Coyne must adopt the first option: actions are wrong because we have evolved an instinctive disposition to condemn these actions. The problem is this option makes morality arbitrary. Couldn’t evolution have produced rational beings that felt that infanticide and theft were obligatory or that rape was, in certain circumstances, OK?

As Darwin himself noted, “If men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.”

So option 1, for Coyne, is also very troubling because now morality is arbitrary, based on the randomness of the evolutionary lottery.

Coyne is left with either affirming that 1) morality existed prior to and independent of evolution, or he must affirm 2) that morality is really just arbitrary because moral values could have turned out very differently. Now that’s a real dilemma.

In What Sense Is God the Good?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Classical Christian theism affirms that God is the Good. David Baggett and Jerry Walls explain that

in some important sense we wish to argue that God just is the ultimate Good. This view . . . has a venerable history within Christianity. Thomists, Anselmians, theistic Platonists, and theistic activists, including such contemporary analytic philosophers as Alvin Plantinga and Robert Adams, all concur that on a Christian understanding of reality, God and the ultimate Good are ontologically inseparable.

Notice that last sentence. Ontologically inseparable means that God and the Good are the same thing. If we look at Thomas Aquinas’s view, in particular, we see that the

terms “being” and “goodness” are the same in reference, differing only in sense. A thing is perfect of its kind to the extent to which it is fully realized or developed; the extent to which the potentialities definitive of its kind—its specifying potentialities—have been actualized. In acting, a thing aims at being.

Being and goodness . . . co-refer, picking out the same referent under two different names and descriptions, . . . Since Aquinas took God to be essentially and uniquely “being itself,” it is God alone who is essentially goodness itself. This allows us to make ready sense of the relationship between God and the standard by which he prescribes or judges.

Many atheists still throw the Euthyphro Dilemma at Christians, as if it is a telling blow against the existence of the Christian God. This dilemma, in essence, argues that either moral laws exist ontologically independent of God, or moral laws are arbitrarily commanded by God. Both of those options are problematic for Christians, but as has been stated numerous times by Christian thinkers, there is another option – the moral law is built into God’s nature. In other words, God is the Good.

Baggett and Walls expand this point:

For the goodness for the sake of which and in accordance with which God wills whatever he wills regarding human morality is identical with his nature. Yet since it is God’s very nature and no arbitrary decision of his that thus constitutes the standard of morality, only things consonant with God’s nature could be morally good. . . .

We are inclined to think that the ultimate ontological inseparableness of God and the Good is something of an axiomatic Anselmian intuition; a vision apprehended, not just the deliverance of a discursive argument. That so many solid theists through the centuries have gravitated toward such a view bolsters this impression.

If God is the ultimate Good, such that necessary moral truths are reflective of an aspect of God, then indeed Plantinga is right that to apprehend such truths is to catch a glimpse of God himself. Moreover, if such dependence or even identity obtains or is even possible, then the Euthyphro Dilemma is effectively defused and the moral argument for God’s existence accordingly gains strength.

Is God the Source of Morality?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Christians assert that God is the only source of morality.  Wanting to reject this assertion, atheists sometimes offer a counter-argument which claims to invalidate the Christian God as the source of morality.

The challenge is often referred to as the Euthyphro Dilemma because it was first raised in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro.  The argument goes like this.  Either something is good because God commands it, or else God commands something because it is good.

Christians have problems with both options.  If you say something is good because God commands it, then right and wrong are arbitrary.  God could command tomorrow that murder, rape, and theft are right, and that love, kindness, and generosity are wrong.  That seems bizarre; it runs counter to all of our common moral intuitions.  It also conflicts with traditional and orthodox concepts of the Christian God.  If murder and rape can be declared good, then we have no idea what kind of God we are worshiping.

On the other hand, if God commands something because it is good, then goodness exists outside of God.  The ground for morality would then be independent of God –  a stand-alone entity.  God would be subservient to this source of morality, and therefore not God at all.  The Christian God is not subservient to anything outside himself.

What is the solution to this dilemma?  Christians have split this apparent dilemma by offering a third option: goodness is part of God’s nature.  God, according to Christians, is the good.  God commands the good because he is essentially good.  His nature does not change, so he cannot declare murder to be right tomorrow.  On the other hand, morality does not exist outside of him, but as part of him.  He is only subservient to himself, which is no subservience at all.

It turns out that no dilemma really exists once you understand the nature of God.  He truly is the source for all moral values and duties.