Euthyphro’s Dilemma and the Goodness of God

Brendan Woods — The Dartmouth Apologia

One of the most persistent issues in the philosophy of religion has been the origin of our concept of “moral good.” While most theists would agree that God has some influence on our standard of good, there is disagreement as to the nature of his involvement. The conflict generally goes like this: in setting moral standards, is God reinforcing the objective facts of what is right, facts determinable through the processes of logic and experience, or is he setting down standards that need not have any logical or intuitive basis for us?

This apparent conflict, known as Euthyphro’s dilem­ma, has occupied philosophers and theologians since Plato first described it in his Dialogues. Both positions come with their own difficulties: If one takes the stance known as the “first horn”—that God determines what is good because he knows that it really is good—he must acknowledge that there is a force beyond God. This position seems to limit God and implies that his will is constrained by some external logical or moral law, thereby rendering false the classical Christian con­ception of an all-powerful God. Taking the second horn, that God determines our notions of right and good and morality, would be problematic as well. To borrow a phrase from seventeenth-century philoso­pher Ralph Cudworth, implying that God arbitrarily lays down what is right and good carries with it a set of “unpalatable implications.”1 For one, it would seem to mean that if God commanded us to murder or blas­pheme, we would be bound to do so. Furthermore, for God to command such seemingly horrific acts would not be inconsistent with God’s essential nature; since his will is arbitrary anyway, it makes no difference whether God’s actions match up with our intuitions or his previous commands. Additionally, the second horn would take away the moral obligation of follow­ing God’s will; if morality is not really objective, then God’s will would be no better than other moral sys­tems. He would then simply be one among others who could, by virtue of his power, enforce his own subjec­tive will.

At first this may appear to be a fruitless philosophic exercise. It attempts to make sense out of the defini­tions we have given to truly indefinable concepts. The dilemma also ignores the Christian idea that goodness is an essential aspect of God’s nature and that every­thing he commands is therefore in keeping with this essential nature. And of course, this sort of logic is spe­cious at best. It assumes that there are two distinct con­ditions (being morally good and being willed by God) and that one condition must necessarily be a result of the other. In doing so, this style of reasoning ignores a host of other alternatives, including that the two con­ditions are really the same thing, that they are both two equal parts of a larger whole, and that the conflict is re­ally just due to limitations in the precision of language. To see this weakness in the Euthyphro argument, we must only apply the reasoning to other situations. For instance, it may be true that I enjoy a certain movie. One could ask the question, “Do you enjoy the movie because it is enjoyable to you, or is it enjoyable to you because you enjoy it?” Clearly, this is a ridiculous ques­tion. If we apply the dilemma’s style of reasoning to situations like these, we find that it does not disprove the existence of God any more than it disproves the fact that I like a certain film.

Given the ancient origin of Euthyphro’s dilemma, many Christian and non-Christian thinkers have of­fered solutions. There have been three main positions taken by theologians. The first possible solution to the dilemma is to take the first horn, a stance that has been supported by Aquinas,2 the Cambridge Platonists like Ralph Cudworth, and several modern philosophers like Richard Swinburne. There are several nuances that can characterize the first horn approach and address the difficulties inherent in it. For example, the Muslim philosopher Averroes offered an insightful analogy that shows how objective morality still needs God. For Averroes, God can be compared to a doctor whose aim is “to preserve the health and cure the diseases of all the people, by prescribing for them rules which can be commonly accepted… He is unable to make them all doctors, because a doctor is one who knows by de­monstrative methods the things which preserve health and cure disease.”3

Averroes’s analogy refutes the major atheist claim that the first horn does not require God for objective morality. While it may be true that a moral logic exists and can be theoretically determined by the process of reason, there is no basis for believing that we would be forced to arrive at moral truths through empirical reasoning, a process that many philosophers believe to be misleading. G.E. Moore’s concept of the “naturalistic fallacy” highlights the unreliability of this line of reasoning. To summarize, the naturalistic fal­lacy points out that it is impossible to draw normative “ought” statements from em­pirical “is” statements; just be­cause the world is a certain way does not mean that it should be.4 Without the idea of a God, we would have no reason to believe that our logical conclusions about morality have any bearing on the truth of their moral content. After all, humans throughout history have differed on the content of true morality, and history provides us with no shortage of instances that demonstrate the fal­libility of human reason. Because logic on its own can­not be guaranteed to provide us with a reliable—if still objective—morality, God is necessary to act like the doctor and provide us with the reasons to accept the logical conclusions of morality. So, in answer to the atheist’s claim that the first horn denies the necessity of God for an objective morality, the theist can reply that God is still necessary for the proper functioning of objective morality. Kant offers a moral argument that has been slightly altered to accommodate this change:5

1. It is rationally and morally necessary to attain the perfect good (i.e., for Kant, happiness aris­ing out of complete virtue).

2. What we are obliged to attain, it must be pos­sible for us to attain.

3. Attaining the perfect good is only possible if natural order and causality are part of an over­arching moral order and causality.

4. Moral order and causality are only possible if we postulate a God as their source.

Theists have been able to make a reasonable case for the second horn as well. Figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin have focused on the logical impossi­bility of having a standard higher than God. As Calvin pointed out, “If his will has any cause, there must be something antecedent to it, and to which it is annexed; this it were impious to imagine.”6 Luther agreed, iden­tifying God as the “rule” that the first horn advocates appeal to: “He is God, and for his will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it, since there is nothing equal or superior to it, but it is itself the rule of all things.”7

As mentioned above, the major objection to the second horn—and the reason some philosophers see Euthyphro’s dilemma as a refutation of the moral argu­ment—is that it makes morality entirely arbitrary and contingent on the whims of God. For many, it encour­ages an image of a flippant and ungrounded God, a deity who decides what is right without regard to an independent standard of goodness. Under the second horn, we cannot call God good, the objection goes, because whatever he does we would be forced to call good by definition. If God suddenly commanded us to worship a different deity, or if he had given in to Satan in the desert, we would have to accept it as morally correct. Indeed, some see this horn as implying that if we were in Jesus’ shoes in the desert, we would not have any reason to stay true to God at all, for his com­mands would carry just as much weight as Satan’s.8 It is important to note that these objections refer to our intuitive and emotional conceptions of God. They do not necessarily disprove the possibility that God could be behind our morals, just that he is arbitrary in doing so. It could very well be that God really is arbitrary in his standards.

However, I would make the case that taking the sec­ond horn does not necessarily imply that God is a fick­le moralist. For one, the second horn would not make morality any more arbitrary under God than it would be under the first horn. If God is not behind morality, then logic or culture or some other motivation must create it. A morality based on culture, logic, or anoth­er potential first horn cause would be just as random as one based off of God’s will; when we consider that man’s flawed skills of interpretation will determine moral conclusions, we can see that a morality coming from a “first horn” source cannot be considered any less arbitrary than the second horn’s explanation of a morality determined by God.

However, it is not clear that the God of the sec­ond horn truly fits what we think of as arbitrary. To call God an arbitrary moralist would indicate that he picks moral rules on a whim and sets moral standards without any regard to the concerns of his people. This is not the case. Biblical morality is largely in keeping with our logical, cultural, and intuitive moral conclu­sions. The moral values advocated by Jesus Christ are largely in line with both major historical moral tenets like generosity, honesty, and piety and with the conclu­sions of utilitarianism and other attempts at a purely logical morality. Additionally, to borrow the language of utilitarians, a case could be made that Christian morality provides for human flourishing more com­pletely than do other moral systems. There is no doubt that the world would be a much better place if every­one followed the Ten Commandments: murder and theft would end, more families would remain intact, and people would enjoy the increase in longevity and happiness that comes with regular church attendance.9 We can hardly call a second horn morality arbitrary given our standard usage of the word. If we assume the second horn, then we can also acknowledge that the Christian God has created a consistent and accessible morality that corresponds to our intuitions and logic and which provides for our common benefit.

The two classical horns are therefore not as much of a problem for Christian ethics as some atheists claim. Nevertheless, there is a third possibility that would make the choice between these horns unnecessary. The rise of analytic philosophy, with its emphasis on rigor­ous and formal reasoning, has shed doubt on the logic behind Euthyphro’s dilemma. Many philosophers now see it as a false dilemma dependent on Plato’s own particular definition of good and either recognize that there are other possibilities beyond the two horns or see a problem with the logical foundations underlying the issue.

To see the fallacy behind Euthyphro’s dilemma, we must consider what it is we mean when we call some­thing “good.” In the Euthyphro dialogue, Plato as­sumes good to be an abstract and independent state, a quality that is either inherent in something or else not at all present. For the dilemma to work as Plato describes it, the concept “good” must be defined to (1) exist outside of the concept “God,” and (2) exist at a rank either above or below him. This is where the “dilemma” seems to arise: if “good” exists at a higher level than God, it limits his power (i.e., the first horn), whereas if it exists beneath God it would be an arbi­trary product of his will and would also be inappli­cable to God himself (i.e., the second horn). This two-pronged definition of good is the only one that can produce a dilemma like Euthyphro’s.

If we define “good” differently than Plato does, then Euthyphro’s dilemma must be seen as false. And in­deed, the common conception of good is not the ab­stract and independent state that Plato imagined it to be. Instead, we use the word good—or holy or pious, words that are used in place of good in some transla­tions of Euthyphro—in a relational way. We do a good job of something when we do it as it was intended to be done; someone does good by us when they act out of respect and love for us; a person is a good person when they act like a person is meant to act.10 For Christians, good (or holy or pious) describes one very important relationship: that between a person and God. When we act out of concern and respect and love for God, we become good. Likewise, we call God good because he does the same for us. It is because God always acts out of love that we look to him as the standard of good.11

Christian ethics recognizes this difference between good as a state and good as a description. Christians are not deontologists and so do not pursue a set of “good actions” that defines their moral system. Instead, the basis for Christian morality is love of God and neighbor. As a Dominican priest stated in a lec­ture he gave at Dartmouth College, the saints do not follow the Commandments; the saints love God.12 It is from this love that they do the things they do and—either consciously or unconsciously—follow the Commandments. We apply the word “good” to the saints because they were experts at their relationship with God. They had a relationship with God that was more in harmony with how we were intended to live before the fall.

This is a very different conception of good from what Plato assumed, and it is one that does not fit with Euthyphro’s dilemma. The Christian conception of good sees it as both an objective and a normative idea: it describes something objective because it tells us that the “good” person is living in harmony with how God intended for him or her to live—i.e., by “loving God with all one’s heart, and loving one’s neighbor as one loves oneself”—and it is normative because this is the way we ought to live.

I would posit that if we conceive of good as having an objective element—as describing how someone is—in addition to its normative element, then Euthyphro’s dilemma becomes irrelevant. Euthyphro’s dilemma depends on there being exactly two alternatives: that either God’s actions flow from the concept of good or that good comes from God. The Christian response to Euthyphro’s dilemma should start by rejecting the second horn statement that good comes from God’s will. However, this approach is not as limiting for God as the first horn view is because it does not see good as a concept outside of God. Instead, good is a descriptor attached both to him and to us, not something apart from God that must necessarily exist at a rank above or below him. Good is simply a word that we apply to describe the proper functioning of our relationship with God and is thus not applicable in the way Plato uses it in the Euthyphro dialogue.

When we approach Euthyphro’s dilemma with a different conception of good—such as the definition used by Christians—the dilemma falls apart. As we struggle to achieve the love and respect for God and neighbor that is in keeping with our intended nature and which, if successful, will result in us being called “good” people, God executes his relationship with us perfectly. Euthyphro’s dilemma is no longer a dilem­ma, but rather a tautology. When we ask why it is that we call God good, we must answer simply, because God is good.


1 Ralph Cudworth, A Treatise Convening True and Immutable Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 19-22.

2 “For the Divine law commands certain things because they are good, and forbids others, because they are evil, while others are good because they are prescribed, and others evil because they are forbidden.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae 57.2.

3 Averroes, On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, trans. George Hourani (London: Messrs. Luzac & Co., 1976) ch. 3 line 174.

4 G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) § 11.

5 Peter Byrne, “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy <>.

6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Boston: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008) 626.

7 Martin Luther, “On the Bondage of Will,” Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1969) 236.

8 William Wainwright, Religion and Morality (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing House, 2005) 76.

9 Donald E. Hall, “Religious Attendance: More Cost-Effective Than Lipitor?” Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (2006) 19: 103-109. SK Lutgendorf, et. al., “Religious participation, interleukin-6, and mortality in older adults,” Health Psychology (Sep. 23 2004): 465-475.

10 Some may say this assumes an Aristotelian approach to metaphysical issues. However, I believe that this is an appropriate assumption to make in a discussion of Christian approaches to philosophy.

11 See Mark 10:18-21.

12 Father John Corbett, “Can You Be Happy and Holy?” lecture at Dartmouth College, 31 January 2010.


Brendan Woods ’13 is from Glastonbury, Connecticut. He is an Economics and Philosophy double major.


Image by Budda from Stock Free Images.