Morality Redux: Euthyphro

The ongoing discussion that I’ve been having (largely off the blog) about the recent entries on morality has prompted me to cover one last topic that I only mentioned in passing last time: the Euthyphro dilemma. This should be the last time I talk about morality on the blog for a while, so don’t worry: the end is in sight.

I only recently realized how powerful the Euthyphro dilemma is. Throughout my life, I’ve had certain areas of thought that have been simply closed off to critical thinking. The journey out of religion has been the process of intentionally examining many of these areas and exposing them to the discerning light of reason, abandoning ideas that couldn’t hold up under basic scrutiny. Still, there are many things that I know I have yet to consider in a critical light. Until a few months ago, the Euthyphro dilemma was one of them. I was so used to accepting the stock religious answers without questioning their validity that I didn’t see why the Euthyphro dilemma was particularly compelling. So let’s get to it.

As you likely know already, the heart of the dilemma comes in Plato’s dialogues where Euthyphro tells Socrates, “Piety is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” Socrates responds, “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” In other words, “does God command what’s moral because he recognizes that right and wrong exist objectively outside himself, or does he define right and wrong as simply whatever his own nature dictates?” Neither of the two answers is acceptable.

Let’s look at the easy one first. If right and wrong exist outside of God and he’s just going along with them, then there’s a higher power and authority than God. There’s something or someone else that we can look to for moral authority, and God is an irrelevant part of the equation. I don’t personally know any Christian who would affirm this option, although, without the irrelevant God part, it would probably be the position taken by most secular humanists when exploring morality.

So what about the second answer–that right and wrong are an inherent part of God’s nature and that he makes the moral rules himself, based on what he wants? For a while, I thought this was very compelling. I thought that right and wrong were based on God’s nature and character, and that if God liked different things, we’d think different things were right and wrong. As a fundamentalist Christian in high school, I actually told a friend the following: “All our morality comes from God. If God was a murderer, we would think that was a high virtue and pursue it as best we could.” Yes, I actually said that.

When you really think about it, however, I don’t think theists can affirm this option in the Euthyphro dilemma, either. Morality isn’t as simple as “because I said so.” Life is more complex than “what are God’s preferences?” If right and wrong are indeed completely arbitrary for humans, based on what God happens to like (though his omnipotence means that he can change his mind about morality, as he most certainly did when transitioning from Old Testament to New), then God himself has no standards.

After critical examination, can you really think that murder wouldn’t be wrong if God, whose preferences are our only moral source, happened to like it? We’re alive, and we want to stay that way. Life is short, and living is, for the most part, good. How could any of this change, structurally speaking, if God’s preferences were different? We know that killing is wrong and harmful completely separately from what God might or might not be like.

I can hear the objections now–because I’ve heard them before: “Of course we can’t imagine a system where murder could be okay, because our minds are so completely influenced by God’s character; we just couldn’t picture it any other way.” This objection does not stand, as most Christians would admit that our morality isn’t perfectly in line with God’s to begin with. Why else would some people feel fine about being gay, getting drunk, or committing other sins? In Christian theology, we don’t share God’s perfect holiness–we think about things in a different, human way.

It’s not like our wills are so intertwined with God’s that if he changed his mind we would suddenly start seeing morality in a completely different light. We’d still have our separate, human way of going about things, which would be based on our experience and expectations about life, and open for revision as time goes on and we refine our moral sensitivities. Unless it’s not already clear, this is a good thing. Commands from God (or actions based on God’s perceived character) are dangerous fantasies because they can justify almost anything and aren’t up for discussion. Not having those dictates (or a moral system based purely around what you think God’s arbitrary personal preferences are) is a good thing because it means we can discuss important moral issues and come to reasonable, human-focused answers.

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16 Responses to Morality Redux: Euthyphro

  1. mikhailovich says:

    Right. I think this is where theology starts to fold in on itself in an attempt to stay consistent with religious premises. If morals are intrinsic to God, can he change them? Supposedly not, which is what differentiates them from whim. And yet then God is constrained by something more powerful than himself in the sense that he can’t change it. This is one of the reasons why the attribute of omnipotence is contradictory within itself–a contradiction upon which the dilemma rests in our discussion.

    As for the street level….I think it’s a mix. Humans are among the ranks of creatures that have developed cooperative traits for survival (group selection theory, etc.), and yet functioning societies also have to employ restrictions and punishments to help keep people in line when their self-interest outweighs their empathy and desire to see others in the group succeed, etc. You’re right that this is “where it gets interesting,” but I think that’s a discussion for another thread.

  2. wytworm says:

    Where it gets interesting is the extension of the argument where you take it down to street level and ask:

    Are one’s morals sourced from outside, or are they sourced internally?

  3. wytworm says:

    Its distinct in that the second argument seems to be defining morals as God’s whim rather than being intrinsic to God. It anthropomorphizes it a bit.

  4. mikhailovich says:

    Absolutely. I think these discussions are usually quite helpful.

    While I acknowledge that different theologies might provide internally consistent ways to circumvent the incarnation of the dilemma that I presented, I haven’t heard one yet that makes sense. T Tennent’s claim, for example, that God IS morality, doesn’t seem distinct from the second option in the dilemma when considering humanity’s moral source.

  5. wytworm says:

    Thanks for your gracious response.

    I agree that the nature of the ‘I AM what AM’ statement and the relationship of the Christian god to morality is not dinner table conversation in most places. I have been over the ground frequently with some of my friends who are deep thinkers in regard to Christianity (Roman Catholic flavor), so within that circle, and apparently with T Tennant we have niche consensus on that point.

    It is of course, but a niche consensus, and your milage may vary…

    Thanks for the discussion.

  6. mikhailovich says:

    You’re right to call me out on the false dichotomy fallacy, and it’s always good to be on your guard when two options are presented in a “one side or the other” type of choice.

    As the question is a theological one, however, it is difficult to determine exactly how many choices we may have in the dilemma. Differing understandings of who or what god/gods is/are will naturally change the way you approach the question, and more “complex” theologies will present third or fourth options which skirt the dilemma by adding on more contorted explanations.

    As none of these various theologies have more evidential support or validity than any other one, I chose the one that I felt was the most common in contemporary Christian circles and went with it so that the article would appeal to what I subjectively felt would be the highest percentage of readers. I recognize that not all Christians will view the Euthyphro dilemma as a true dichotomy.

    This is, of course, a particular application of the dilemma that, as we agreed, is legitimate for discussion. Perhaps I should have been more explicit, as you suggested, about presenting it as a certain application of the dilemma for a specific modern theological context. I agree that by bringing up the origin of the dilemma, I do have a responsibility to acknowledge my source and the cultural framework jump that is taking place to phrase the question in a new context; and I agree that I should have taken some time in the article above to discuss the matter more thoroughly before jumping into an analysis of one approach to the Christian understanding of morality.

  7. wytworm says:

    I am glad that you agree with me that it is a legitimate application of the question.

    Consider: What are the differences between the two frameworks and what impact do those differences have on the nature of the question?

    Consider: When making the jump between the two frameworks, is there a burden on the writer to announce or acknowledge the jump?

    The question you cite is flawed. There are but two choices being presented leaving the misleading impression that those choices encompass the whole of the potential outcomes. This is being done reflexively as it was the structure of the original question, however it is problematic within the framework of the Christian god as it assumes, perhaps incorrectly, that these are the only two outcomes within that framework. As T.Tennant has suggested, and I agree, the reason for the seeming disconnect is not an inconsistency in the nature of morals and the Christian god, but in the flaw of the transposed and limiting question.

  8. mikhailovich says:


    You are right to point out the philosophic/cultural framework under which the Euthyphro dilemma was originally posed. However, using the dilemma as a starting point for a discussion of modern Christian moral theology isn’t invalid.

    The question, “does God command what’s moral because he recognizes that right and wrong exist objectively outside himself, or does he define right and wrong as simply whatever his own nature dictates?” can be asked and discussed separately from an analysis of the pantheon that originally framed Socrates’ question–even if Socrates’ distinct question is used as a starting point to formulate my own.

  9. wytworm says:

    T Tennant has it right as far as the relationship between the Christian god and morality. It is the most proper to say that the Christian god AM the moral framework.

    To me, the whole point of the dilemma is to stimulate the qustioner to contemplate where morals reside. There are many who have no internally sourced moral code, and there are those whose morality is sourced from within. Which is more effective? How does this schism occur? It is an interesting study.

    The tension in the analysis of Euthyphro dilemma in this blog is that the philosophical question has been taken out of the framework which supports it, and artfully shoved it into one that does not, with some cognitive dissonance resulting.

    In the original post this passage does it very seamlessly:

    “Euthyphro tells Socrates, “Piety is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” Socrates responds, “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” In other words, “does God command what’s moral because he recognizes that right and wrong exist objectively outside himself, or does he define right and wrong as simply whatever his own nature dictates?” Neither of the two answers is acceptable.”

    We enter the paragraph in a polytheistic framework peopled by well documented capricious and ‘specialist’ gods, and leave it in a monotheistic framework occupied by a universal god.

    To apply the question to Christianity is legitimate, but one can not do it without acknowledging the differences between the two frameworks and examining the impact of those differences on the question.

  10. mikhailovich says:

    If God embodies some other morality, as you seemed to say at first, he’s aligning with a higher, external form. If God simply is moral sense, the “=” sign in the middle of that statement has to work both ways, and you’ve redefined God in his entirety to simply be a set of ultimate moral sensibilities and ideas. If morality is just one attribute of a person who IS God, it’s still the arbitrary dictate of a single dude. You’re arguing both side of the dilemma.

    Either way, the biblical account blows all this to pieces by portraying a capricious megalomaniac who outlaws killing one day and wipes out thousands (of children, no less) the next. If this is the “embodiment” of morality in your mind, I think I’ll have to pass.

  11. T. Tennent says:

    Not quite. It is not “morality simply IS what God says”, it is “morality simply is what God is.” It is not “because I said so” but “because I AM”.

  12. mikhailovich says:

    Right….so if you’re saying that, then you’re right back on the other side of the Euthyphro dilemma. You said, “he simply IS Elvis,” which in this analogy would mean, “morality simply IS what God says.” You’re reducing all moral dialogue to the vastly unsatisfying retort, “because I said so.”

    The point of my first comment was that you haven’t worked your way out of the dilemma, and you still haven’t.

  13. Timothy Tennent says:

    Yes, you got it. The point is not that I embody Elvis (what a thought!), but that that Elvis himself embodies the “spirit of Elvis” and if Elvis embodies Elvis than there is no “better” or “more original” Elvis which exists externally to Elvis. Elvis does not conform to “Elvis-ness”…nor is he the creator of some “other” Elvis. He simply IS Elvis.

  14. mikhailovich says:

    I’m not sure you’re making a valid distinction there. “Embodying the moral law” implies that some moral law must exist to be embodied. If I say that you “embody” the spirit of Elvis, the statement wouldn’t have any meaning unless Elvis existed outside you as a better original copy of what you’re embodying.

    The rest of what you said is simply spectral. You’re assuming unverified premises for making your argument, thus begging the question (or employing circular reasoning). I’m not particularly impressed by theologians who have to twist or redefine words entirely to make a point that relies on those new definitions.

  15. T Tennent says:

    I think you posed the Euthyphro Dilemma well. However, I just want to clarify that the Christian view – or dillemma – is not, as your blog seemed to indicate, that God either “obeys” or “creates” the moral law. The Christian view (with some interesting exceptions) is that God embodies the moral law in such a way that he neither conforms to some external law which is “above” him or that he arbitarily “creates” it. Rather, God is inherently relational and his core nature is holy-love. It is descriptive of the inner life of the Trinity (and, later, through creation), rather than independently prescriptive in the way the Euthyphro Dilemma presupposes. The entire moral law is an expression of what God loves. Even when it is codified in specific, prescriptive commands such as the Ten Commandments, they should not be viewed as primarily external commands, but as tangible descriptions which help us to understand – and conform to – the inner life of the Triune God.

  16. Pingback: Secular Morality | Steel City Skeptics

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