Can Morality Be Objective without God?

5. Euthyphro Dilemma

The major problem with the Divine Command Theory is exposed by the Euthyphro dilemma (pronounced as U-thee-fro). The name of this dilemma is inspired by Socrates' question to Plato's character, Euthyphro, in Plato's play of the same name. In this play, Socrates asks Euthyphro:

'Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?'

[Euthyphro 10a]

In today's language, we can express this question as 'Does God love the good because it is good? Or is it good because God loves it?' In trying to answer this question, Divine Command Theorists are placed on the horns of a dilemma, illustrated in the following diagram:

Diagram 1 – Euthyphro Dilemma

Diagram illustrating two horns of Euthyphro Dilemma for Divine Command Theory

Let's consider the implications of sitting on each of these horns in turn.

First horn: If God loves the good because it is good, then, as the above diagram illustrates, goodness is independent of God's wishes. This option conflicts starkly with the central premise of Divine Command Theory. On this option, William Lane Craig's and C. S. Lewis' God is now done out of a job. At most, God is simply a law-transmitter and not a law-giver.

Second horn: If the good is good because God loves it, then to say that 'God is good' is just to say that 'God loves God'. This is true, but it's trivially true. It says nothing of moral significance. It also makes morality entirely arbitrary; a conclusion summarized above. God could have commanded genocide or the taking of sex-slaves and then this would have been 'good'. This divine capriciousness is what we actually find told in the Old Testament. However, we think that what is 'good' and 'right' today was 'good' and 'right' yesterday and will be 'good' and 'right' tomorrow. Taking this horn of the dilemma reduces Divine Command Theory to the worst forms of subjectivism and relativism, a charge that Christian theologians have levelled consistently at non-believers. Think back to William Lane Craig's and C. S. Lewis' critique of non-theistic ethics that I quoted earlier.

Book cover: A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz

Now, you could object that God cannot love one thing one day and the opposite on another day because he or she is unchanging and is virtuous by nature. I think a couple of problems arise with this response. Firstly, if God is unable to change his or her nature, then it appears his or her power is limited. I can change my nature with a little effort. I can work on myself to be a better listener or to be less of a perfectionist. If God cannot do what I can do with a little effort, then how can we claim God to be omnipotent?

The second problem I see is this. If God finds him or herself possessing a particular kind of immutable nature, then he or she could have had a different nature. Let's suppose that it just so happens that God loves charity. Then it could equally have been the case that God had an immutable greedy nature. And in that case, today we would have been calling greed 'good'. So, appealing to God's immutable nature only pushes the problem of the arbitrariness of God's moral injunctions one step back. If you'd like to find out more about the Euthyphro dilemma, you can read a good introductory article on handling the dilemma in the Wikipedia entry of the same name.

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