July 20, 2006


Euthyphro's Dilemma: Plato's challenge concerning the nature of goodness is still being heard today: Is an act right because God says it's so, or does God say it's so because it's right? (Gregory Koukl, Stands to Reason)

Plato's famous dilemma concerning the nature of goodness is still being raised today as a serious challenge to Christianity. Is an act right because God says it's so, or does God say it's so because it's right? The question first surfaces in Plato's dialog Euthyphro.

The Challenge

In Plato's dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, Socrates is attempting to understand the essence of piety and holiness:

Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro? Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euthyphro: Certainly.

Socrates: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

Euthyphro: No, that is the reason.

Socrates: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?

The dilemma Euthyphro faced is this: Is a thing good simply because the gods say it is? Or do the gods say a thing is good because of some other quality it has? If so, what is that quality? The problem stumped Euthyphro. [...]

Plato's challenge forces us to consider an important detail in any discussion on the nature of morality: grounding.

The word "ground" originally meant "the lowest part, base, or bottom of anything."

In philosophy it refers to the foundation or logical basis of a claim. Euthyphro's task was to identify the logical grounding of piety or virtue. What base does morality "stand on"?

Frank Beckwith and I chose a title for our book on relativism that paints a word picture: Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Our point: Relativists who make any claim to knowledge have no basis for their assertion. They are standing not on solid ground, but on thin air.

A law is only as legitimate as the authority upon which it rests. The U.S. government can't pass laws governing Canadians. Our federal laws apply only to the people of this country. Individuals can't make up laws that apply to their neighbors. They don't have that authority.

The founders of our country argued that even governments are subject to a higher law. Certain truths are transcendent, they argued, grounded not in human institutions but in God Himself. This appeal to higher Law was their rational justification for the morality of the American Revolution.

The problem of grounding morality is a difficult one for atheists who claim one can have ethics without God. Certainly, an atheist can act in a manner some people consider "moral," but it's hard to know what the term ultimately refers to. It generally means to comply with an objective standard of good, a Law given by legitimate authority. However, without a transcendent Lawmaker (God), there can be no transcendent Law, and no corresponding obligation to be good. [...]

The general strategy used to defeat a dilemma is to show that it's a false one. There are not two options, but three.

The Christian rejects the first option, that morality is an arbitrary function of God's power. And he rejects the second option, that God is responsible to a higher law. There is no Law over God.

The third option is that an objective standard exists (this avoids the first horn of the dilemma). However, the standard is not external to God, but internal (avoiding the second horn). Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness.

Could God simply decree that torturing babies was moral? "No," the Christian answers, "God would never do that." It's not a matter of command. It's a matter of character.

So the Christian answer avoids the dilemma entirely. [...]

Even the atheist understands what moral terms mean. He doesn't need God in order to recognize morality. He needs God to make sense of what he recognizes.

This is precisely why the moral argument for God's existence is such a good one. The awareness of morality leads to God much as the awareness of falling apples leads to gravity. Our moral intuitions recognize the effect, but what is the adequate cause? If God does not exist, then moral terms are actually incoherent and our moral intuitions are nonsense.

This "dilemma" is to the atheist as the peppered moth hoax is to Darwinists.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 20, 2006 10:34 PM

God's standards are eternal; they are a consequence of His nature. God cannot abide sin and demands justice. This is why we as sinners need Christ, who is the only one that can possibly pay the penalty to His satisfaction.

Posted by: Gideon at July 21, 2006 10:09 AM

You are most correct in holding that we have no such dilemma. Where mere reason seems to conflict with divine positive law either our reason or our understanding of God's will is in error.

A line from the Tantum Ergo, Aquinas' hymn to the Trinity and the Eucharist has it:

Praestet fides supplementum ,
Sensuum defectui.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 21, 2006 11:34 AM

The moral argument for God's existence is the only good one. All the others are garbage, Kant proved that.

Posted by: Brandon at July 21, 2006 11:55 AM

Kant was a nitwit. The felt need for morality is certainly sufficient, but all of science is equally "good" rational proof of the Creator. And, of course, neither does God need proving nor does Kant have any way good way of proving Kant exists.

Posted by: oj at July 21, 2006 12:04 PM

Kant doesn't exist anymore.

Posted by: Brandon at July 21, 2006 2:06 PM

In rational terms he never did, nor do you.

Posted by: oj at July 21, 2006 2:50 PM

As an atheist and a secularist, I think that neither god belief nor the lack of it, is any guarantee of morality.

Posted by: beepbeepitsme at August 3, 2006 9:05 PM