This is the first of a potential series of posts. I get into a lot of ~internet debates~, and I’m getting tired of explaining and rehashing basic thought problems.
I usually point people to SEP for clarification or explanation, but even SEP uses terminology that could be unfamiliar (and intimidating) to someone lacking a background in philosophy. In this case, SEP doesn’t even have an article on the problem!
My intent is to make these posts opinionated — they’ll cover the subjects, but will conclude with my own thoughts. Charity and evenness are goals, but secondary ones: if I think that a thought problem is devastating, I won’t pretend that the two sides are evenly matched.
So, let’s do this.
The Euthyphro dilemma (which I learned as the “Euthyphro paradox,” even though it isn’t one), is from Plato’s Euthyphro.
The original form goes something like this:
Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods? (Source)
However, modern forms swap “holy” for “good” and singularize “the gods,” giving us something like this:
Is the Good dictated by God because it is Good, or is it Good because it is dictated by God?
This second form is what I’ll use, since it avoids the theological connotations of “holy.” I’ve also capitalized “Good” to emphasize that it’s being used to mean “morally good,” and capitalized “God” to emphasize that we’re talking about some vaguely Abrahamic, monotheistic deity with a widely accepted record of prescribing moral rules. I’ll use lowercase-g god when talking about the more general concept of a deity.
Now that we have a modern formulation, let’s break the dilemma apart and see where each horn leads us.
The first horn of the dilemma, in my opinion, is the more immediately troubling of the two for theists.
If the Good is dictated because it is itself Good, then two things follow:
The Good does not need to be dictated by God.
If the Good is Good in itself, then God’s only role in the Good is that of a broadcaster. In other words, if there was a more effective source than God for the Good, we might (and perhaps ought to) lend our ears to that source instead.
God is not omnipotent, because she does not decide what the Good is
If we accept that the Good exists and that God concerns herself with it, then we must ask whether God decides the Good or merely repeats it (as above). If God does not decide the Good, then we have reason to doubt her omnipotence.
Interestingly, a theist could note that this does not preclude God’s prescience — God could know the Good fully but not control it, just as we understand mechanics but fail to control avalanches. However, I think that most theists wouldn’t be content with a merely omniscient God — God’s omnipotence is central to Abrahamic conceptions.
That summarizes the first horn. Let’s cover the second.
The second horn of the dilemma is probably more appealing for theists. It also, at first glance, resolves the two problems above:
If the Good is dictated by God, then the issue of a more powerful or accurate mouthpiece for the Good disappears. We only need to refer to the scripture itself.
Similarly, if God decides the Good, then her omnipotence isn’t threatened.
However, the second horn has its own problems, and those problems represent the meat of the dilemma:
It turns morality into divine command.
This is a perfectly reasonable conclusion for some theists, but has substantial consequences:
If the Good is decided by God and God is omnipotent, then the Good is completely contingent.
Actions that we take as unambiguously and unconditionally Good (possible examples: protecting the innocent, caring for our families) are actually contingent, and could become unambiguously and unconditionally bad at God’s whim.
This, at the very least, contradicts our intuitions about moral principles and renders the discovery of “first” principles impossible (since moral contingency precludes any first principles other than itself).
If the Good is an arbitrary command, then God’s reasons for commanding do not need to be Good themselves (or even rational).
The Abrahamic God is usually interpreted as having good reasons for her actions and commandments. However, the second horn makes this impossible: God appeals to nothing but herself when dictating the Good, since appealing to anything else would amount to a form of the first horn.
Leibniz puts it well in his Discourse on Metaphysics:
Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful? Besides it seems that every act of willing supposes some reason for the willing and this reason, of course, must precede the act. This is why, accordingly, I find so strange those expressions of certain philosophers who say that the eternal truths of metaphysics and Geometry, and consequently the principles of goodness, of justice, and of perfection, are effects only of the will of God. To me it seems that all these follow from his understanding, which does not depend upon his will any more than does his essence. (Source)
It produces a separate morality for God.
If we accept God’s omnibenevolence (another Abrahamic trait), then what substantiates it?
In other words, if God is not susceptible to our Good but to another Good, have we really made any progress beyond the first horn? Does God decide that Good as well? If God decides the rules that characterize him as omnibenevolent, then aren’t we back at contingent morality?
These problems are not exhaustive. Indeed, there are many other plausible concerns that arise from the second horn. But this is a summary, so I won’t elaborate on them.
Historically, a popular (but not universal) response among theologians to the Euthyphro dilemma has been to dismiss it as a false dilemma. I think many of those dismissals (at least, all of the ones I’ve read) represent an abuse of metaphysics or semantics, so I didn’t include them in this post.
Provided they accept the dilemma, however, I think that most theists will choose the second horn — it retains God’s omnipotence, even if it calls into question the basis for claims of omnibenevolence and reason. That in turn raises questions, which I express in bullet-point form here:
On the other hand, should you choose the first horn:
It should be clear, overall, that I view the Euthyphro dilemma as a serious challenge to the idea of god that I see taught in churches, synagogues, and mosques. Although the dilemma itself is not evidence that god (as such) doesn’t exist, it calls into question her fundamental properties of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. With those properties ceded, whatever sort of god remains is not an easy one to recognize.
Like I mentioned in the preword, this post was supposed to be half explanation of a thought problem, and half opinion about the implications of the problem. It’s not an attempt to express my final or paper-worthy thoughts on a problem, but to motivate productive discussions during my many ~internet debates~.