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Philosophy Summarized: The Euthyphro Dilemma

Sep 5, 2017     Tags: philosophy    


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

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.

First Horn: Dictated by God because it is Good

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:

That summarizes the first horn. Let’s cover the second.

Second Horn: Good because Dictated by God

The second horn of the dilemma is probably more appealing for theists. It also, at first glance, resolves the two problems above:

However, the second horn has its own problems, and those problems represent the meat of the dilemma:

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~.