Euthyphro dilemma

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The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro: "is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"[1] In more standard modern religious terms, this is usually transformed into: "Is what is moral commanded by God (or the gods) because it is moral, or is it moral because it is willed by God (or the gods)?"

The dilemma in Plato

In Euthyphro, Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing the nature of the pious. Euthyphro agrees to the proposal that the pious is the same thing as the god-loved, but Socrates finds a problem with this proposal. Clearly, the reason that the god-loved is god-loved is that the gods love it — this fact is what makes the god-loved god-loved. But we cannot likewise say that the reason why the pious is pious is that the gods love it. For, as Socrates presumes and Euthyphro agrees, the gods love the pious because it is pious (both parties agree on this, the second horn of the dilemma). And you can't have it both ways — you can't say that the gods love the pious because it is pious, and then add that the pious is pious because the gods love it, for this would be viciously circular. So, since what makes the god-loved god-loved is not what makes the pious pious, it follows that the god-loved and the pious are not the same thing — they do not have the same nature. Socrates admits that the proposal under discussion might give us a mere feature of the pious, but insists that it does not give us the nature of the pious.

Explanation of the dilemma

The first horn of the dilemma implies that morality is independent of god and, indeed, that god is bound by morality just as his creatures are. God then becomes little more than a passer-on of moral knowledge.

The second horn of the dilemma (known as divine command theory) runs into four main problems. First, it implies that what is good is arbitrary, based merely upon god's whim; if god had created the world to include the values that rape, murder, and torture were virtues, while mercy and charity were vices, then they would have been. Secondly, it implies that calling god good makes no sense (or, at best, that one is simply saying that god is consistent). Thirdly, it commits the naturalistic fallacy; to explain the evaluative claim that murder is wrong (or the prescription that one should not commit murder) in terms of what god has or hasn't said is to argue from a putative fact about the world to a value (to argue to an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’; see is-ought problem). Fourthly, it seems to lead to the conclusion that all moral values are at the same level (because what is wrong is simply to disobey god); that is, committing murder is no worse than telling a lie.

Attempts to resolve the dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma has troubled philosophers and theologians ever since Plato first propounded it. While both horns have had their adherents, the Divine Command Theory probably being the more popular, some philosophers have tried to find a middle ground.

False-dilemma response

Christian philosophers, starting with Thomas Aquinas have often answered that the dilemma is false: yes, god commands something because it is good, but the reason it is good is that good is an essential part of god's nature. So goodness is grounded in god's character and merely expressed in His commands. Therefore whatever a good god commands will always be good.

This approach is, however, essentially a rejection of the Divine Command Theory in favour of the other horn, depending on how the other horn is construed; in particular, it depends upon the notion that goodness is a property of god, and thus not under god's control. If the first horn is seen as bad because it takes god to be bound by morality, then this response does not help. But if the other horn is seen as bad only because it requires an external limitation on god, then this response solves the problem and is not equivalent to the first horn.

Necessary and contingent moral values?

Some modern philosophers have also attempted to find a compromise. For example, Richard Swinburne has argued that moral values fall into two categories: the necessary and the contingent. God can decide to create the world in many different ways, each of which grounds a particular set of contingent values; with regard to these, then, the divine command theory is the correct explanation. Certain values, however, such as the immorality of rape, murder, and torture, hold in all possible worlds, so it makes no sense to say that god could have created them differently; with regard to these values, the first horn of the dilemma is the best explanation.

Swinburne's account depends upon a clear distinction between necessary and contingent moral values — however, it's not at all clear that such a distinction can be maintained.

Different meanings of "moral"

In developing what he calls a "modified divine-command theory", R.M. Adams distinguishes between two meanings of ethical terms like "right" and "wrong": the meaning that atheists can grasp (which in fact Adams explains in roughly emotivist terms), and the meaning that has its place in religious discourse (that is, commanded or forbidden by god). Because god is benevolent, the two meanings coincide; god is, however, free to command other than he has done, and if he had chosen to command, for example, that murder was morally right, then the two meanings would break apart. In that case, even the religious believer would be forced to accept that it was correct to say both that murder was wrong and that god commanded us to commit murder.

Sources and references

  • Plato Euthyphro, in Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, Crito, edited with notes by John Burnet. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1986. ISBN 0-19-814015-0
  • Plato Euthyphro, in The Last Days of Socrates, translated and introduced by Hugh Tredennick. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969. ISBN 0 14 044 037 2
  • Euthyphro 10 a 2–3 (transl. Tredennick, p.31)