Christian Morality and Euthyphro’s Dilemma

Is something morally right because God commands is or does God command it because it is right? This is the question that any morally objectivistic philosophy that bases morality on God’s commands or laws must answer.

The Appeal of Moral Objectivism

In philosophical considerations of the existence and origin of morality (the branch of philosophy called ethics) people tend to fall into three broad groups. There are the moral nihilists, who say that morality does not actually exist and that the semblance of right and wrong is an illusion. There are the moral subjectivists and relativists,[1] who say that some morals do exist but that individuals or societies, respectively, construct them; thus, morality is variable. And there are the objectivists, who say that a set of morals exists that is independent of humans and their societies.[2]

Many relativists argue that theirs is the most intuitive position, stating that through human history there has been a great deal of moral diversity and change. Certain actions that were previously deemed morally unacceptable are now accepted, and vice versa. An action that one person lauds deeply distresses another. Indeed, some of the biggest debates in our society in recent times have hinged on differences in ethical positions – to pick a few related examples, consider the debates on abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research and genetic engineering, which typically come down to questions of whether and in what circumstances it is morally acceptable to end or modify a human life. The changing views of society on these and other issues have to some been evidence of our moral improvement and enlightenment, and to others a sign of moral deterioration. Moral relativists have argued that such cases demonstrate that morals are not concrete things, but relative – subject to disagreement, change and development.

Is moral diversity a good reason to conclude that what is morally right or wrong is relative? I would argue that it is not. The fact that people have opposing opinions about whether or not something is morally right does not preclude the possibility of there being a definite answer; thus, making a convincing case for relativism is difficult. There are also good reasons to believe that it is false. While the diversity of moral systems makes one wonder whether morals are relative, one should wonder more at the surprising uniformity of certain moral stances through human history. For example, premeditated unjustified killing[3] and stealing have generally been considered wrong across cultures and have generally been punished in some way. Moral uniformity does not necessitate moral objectivism, just as the diversity of morals does not necessitate moral relativism – but it shows that there are some morals that are difficult to convincingly argue are relative.

Further, relativism has a more serious weakness. How should we respond when others behave in ways that to them are morally acceptable, but that to us are morally abhorrent? For example, should one take action to defend the rights or lives of others when the person seeking to destroy them sees nothing wrong with their actions? The intuitive answer is “yes”.[4] But what can the relativist use to justify an attempt to dissuade them from what they are doing? If morals are relative and the other person believes that their actions are right, how can one make the case that there is any moral reason for them not to do what they intend to do? To think that there is something wrong with their moral action is to imply that there is in fact a correct position that we are closer to than they are; but this is a rejection of relativism and an implicit affirmation of some kind of objectivism. Any kind of moral intervention is inconsistent with relativism. Disagreement must end in acquiescence and a tepid agreement to disagree. What would the world be like if we all behaved in a manner consistent with fully believing relativism to be true?

Moral nihilism suffers a worse problem. If nothing is actually morally right or wrong, anything is permissible. The nihilist might advise that unjustified killing is to be discouraged because of the injury to society it would cause, but it is unclear on what basis the lost life is valued in a system that denies moral value. It is also unclear what recourse apart from morality the weak have to defend themselves against the strong. These positions do not constitute a satisfying moral philosophy because they are not consistent with what most would take to be the appropriate response to certain moral questions.

It is difficult, then, to escape the impression that morals do exist and that certain actions have some intrinsic moral properties. Objectivist ethics is appealing because it is more consistent with moral intuition than either relativism or nihilism.

Christian morality is objectivist. God is the origin of morals and morals are understood in terms of God’s commands or laws.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma: An Objection to Moral Objectivism

In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates encounters a man called Euthyphro at the king’s court. As they talk Socrates is surprised to hear that Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father for causing the death of a servant. Euthyphro’s family is not happy with his actions because they believe that prosecuting one’s father is impious; Euthyphro contends that the gods would approve of his actions. This prompts Socrates and Euthyphro to discuss the nature of piety, in the course of which Socrates famously asks Euthyphro: “Is the pious [action] loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”[5] As is commonly done, we will henceforth consider this variant of the question: “Is an action commanded by God because it is morally right, or is it morally right because it is commanded by God?”

Euthyphro tries to have it both ways in what we shall call the Divine Command Theory: If an action is morally right, God commands it because it is morally right. Moreover, for an action to be morally right is for it to be commanded by God.[6]

Socrates argues against Euthyphro’s divine command theory. First he establishes a principle of asymmetry. He says that something is done because someone does it. We cannot, however, explain actions the other way around by saying that someone is doing something because that thing is being done. For example, this article is being written because I am writing it; on the other hand, I am not writing it because it is being written. In this way, explanations are fundamentally asymmetric.

Socrates then argues that the divine command theory leads to a curious conclusion: If God commands something because it is morally right and it is morally right because he commands it, it follows that God commands it because it is commanded by him. This violates asymmetry and Socrates would argue that we should, therefore, abandon the divine command theory altogether. This is often known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma and is one of the most commonly cited challenges to a moral objectivism based on God’s commands.[7]

To address Socrates’ objection two approaches are typically taken. One can either take the so-called “first horn” or the “second horn” of the divine command theory and dispense with the other. Both approaches are troublesome. If we take the first horn – that God commands actions because they are right – we seem to have made God unnecessary: if something is right in itself, why do we need God’s commands at all? Better, Socrates might argue, to bypass the middleman and determine what is right from its fundamental moral source. If we take the second horn – that actions are right only because they are commanded by God – the commands seem arbitrary: if they are right for no other reason than that God commands them, it could have been right to, say, killing our mothers for fun if God had declared it so. This does not feel like a satisfying explanation of morality.

Christianity Saves Moral Objectivism

I suggest another approach. It keeps both horns of the divine command theory, but with a modified first horn. The divine command theory becomes: if an action is morally right, God commands it because God is good[8] and an action is morally right if it is commanded by God.

This modification makes Euthyphro’s divine command theory sound more like the Christian model of the origin of morals. The Bible contains many references to God’s goodness as the foundation of morality, particularly in the Psalms and in the life and teachings of Jesus.[9] The modification to the divine command theory resolves the dilemma in two ways. Firstly, in determining what to command, God no longer appeals to an external standard to which he would necessarily be subordinate. Instead, he appeals to his nature – a kind of internal moral standard. His commands and the resulting moral rightness of the actions commanded flow entirely from his intrinsic goodness and are not independent of him. Thus, God is rendered both necessary and sufficient as an explanation for the origin of morality. Secondly, the charge of the arbitrariness of God’s commands is greatly weakened. God does not command on whims, but has a reason for commanding as he does: the goodness of his immutable, infallible nature. We can, therefore, trust that God would never declare unjustified killing right because this would not be consistent with his nature.

It might seem to the reader at this point that basing God’s commands in his goodness raises more questions than answers. It seems as though our modification of the divine command theory has merely shifted the arbitrariness of God’s commands up a level. If God is good by nature and his nature arbitrarily happens to be as it is, it is unclear whether we are really in a better position than if God commanded actions for no reason at all. On a related point, what is “good”? The success of the modification seems to rely on what we understand God’s goodness to mean.

Both of these objections can be answered by looking to moral intuition. An example of this can be found in the Book of Genesis. When Abraham learns of God’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness he asks whether God would destroy the cities if righteous
people could be found in them:

Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?[10]

How, long before the revelation of God’s moral commands in the Law of Moses, did Abraham know that God’s justice meant that God would not treat the righteous and the wicked alike? He knew it intuitively.

Similarly, I argue that all people intuitively have a concept of what it means to be just, to be kind, and the like. Granted, they may disagree on what precise actions may be considered just or kind. But they will generally agree at a basic level on what these terms mean. For example, they will generally agree that justice means giving people what they deserve, though whether someone deserves to be punished for such and such an action might be debated. Moreover, they would generally agree that justice and kindness are desirable qualities to have and that it is desirable to be treated in accordance with these qualities. As C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, even those who claim not to believe that fairness really exists will still quickly complain that they have been unfairly treated when they feel cheated. They intuitively know what the concept means and use it.

The intuitive understanding of goodness, then, makes God’s goodness anything but arbitrary. The worry that God might have decided to command us to kill our mothers for fun—that is, that the actions that he declared wrong he might have declared right—is not tenable because the nature of such a God would be jarringly incongruous with what we intuitively recognize to be good. God would not get away with delivering such commands, so to speak.[11] Therefore, we can reasonably hold that God’s goodness really is good and that the actions he declares right really are right. Not only is Euthyphro’s dilemma resolved, but also the problems that made the divine command theory morally unsatisfying are avoided.

I have argued that moral objectivism represents the most compelling and satisfying ethical position, and that its success lies in an intrinsically good God. Christianity has such a God. “He is the Rock, his works are perfect and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He.”[12] Let us look to him as the firm foundation on which our morality should be built.

 

1 I will henceforth use “relativism” and “relativists” as overarching terms referring to both moral subjectivism and moral relativism to avoid stilted repetition.
2 There are a variety of subtly different positions within each of the three groups that I do not have the space to dwell on here; my treatment of each of the groups is necessarily quite general. There are more arguments in favor of each than I have time to consider; in this article I address some of the most common.
3 It is true that killing has been justified for abhorrent reasons, often related to religion, war, security or the pursuit of justice. But this still underscores the universal requirement that killing have a compelling justification. I use “premeditated unjustified killing” instead of “murder” because murder is by definition unlawful and is therefore always wrong in any society.
4 Sometimes it does not seem wise to intervene. When stepping in directly would unduly endanger one’s safety it is better to call the police. Sometimes one’s personal power is not sufficient; then the action of government or the courts may be required. It is, though, surely unacceptable to do nothing. I argue that when relativism is consistently applied it requires such inaction.
5 http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html
6 One might ask about the things that God may not have explicitly commanded, since the Bible, as a finite collection of documents, naturally cannot present an exhaustive list of specific moral commands for every conceivable situation. I will take the Bible to be a sufficient and authoritative description of primary Christian morality; issues not specifically addressed are sometimes subjects of controversy
but can mostly be inferred from others that are addressed. I mean “commands” to be equivalent to what God declares it morally right for people to do.
7 Euthyphro’s dilemma is often stated as an argument against divine command theory based on the charge of circularity. This is similar to but not the argument that Socrates makes. Socrates does not talk about circularity but about the violation of asymmetry.
8 When I use the term “good”, I am referring to a host of God’s related attributes, such as goodness, justness, righteousness, holiness and love.
9 See Psalm 25:8; Psalm 119:137-138; Matthew 5:48; John 13:15; 1 John 1:5; 3 John 11.
10 Genesis 18:23-25, See Greg Koukl’s article at http://www.str.org/articles/euthyphro-s-dilemma#.VxvLDPkrKUk
11 Some might cite the apparent genocide of the peoples living in the Israelite’s Promised Land in the books of Joshua and Judges as an example of how divorced divine command theory can get from moral intuition, and therefore, of the seeming arbitrariness of God’s commands. Fewer are familiar, however, with the rather extensive justification, from God’s perspective, offered for this killing in Leviticus 18:24-30, Deuteronomy 7:1-4, 9:4-5, 18:9-14 and 20:16-18. Because this justification relied partially on knowledge only God could have had, it can be difficult to evaluate today, but in any case the justifications offered blunt worries of arbitrariness to some extent. Of critical relevance is that as Christians we can look to Jesus to understand God’s justice and mercy most fully and trust that God
had just, wise, and loving intentions as He looked forward to the cross.
12 Deuteronomy 32:4

Richard is a sophomore studying Mechanical Engineering and Nuclear Science & Engineering. He
is from the UK and enjoys discussing philosophy and politics.

Christian Morality and Euthyphro's DilemmaImage by Austin Lillywhite – The Brown & RISD Cornerstone.

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