Euthyphro dilemma

Euthyphro dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato's dialogue "Euthyphro", in which Socrates asks Euthyphro: "Is the pious () loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" (10a)

In monotheistic terms, this is usually transformed into: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?" The dilemma has continued to present a problem for theists since Plato presented it and is still the object of theological and philosophical debate.

The dilemma

Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing the nature of piety in "Euthyphro". Euthyphro proposes (6e) that the pious () is the same thing as what is loved by the gods (), but Socrates finds a problem with this proposal, since the gods may disagree among themselves (7e). Euthyphro then restricts his definition to include only as pious what is loved by all gods unanimously (9e).

But we cannot likewise say that the reason why the pious is pious is that the gods love it. For, as Socrates presumes and Euthyphro agrees, the gods love the pious "because" it is pious (both parties agree on this, the first horn of the dilemma). And we cannot say that the gods love the pious because it is pious, and then add that the pious is pious because the gods love it, for this would be circular reasoning and create a chicken-and-egg problem.

So, since what makes the god-loved god-loved is not what makes the pious pious, it follows that the god-loved and the pious are not the same thing — they do not have the same nature (10e). Piety belongs to those actions we call "just" ( "observant of custom or social rule, lawful, just, right"), but the pious is not identical with the just, since an action may be just without necessarily being pious (12d). The problem is thus reduced to pinpointing the quality of piety between the god-loved and the just, and Euthypro suggests that it is as it were the conjunction of the two, the part of the just which does service () to the gods (12e), in the sense of commerce or barter with the gods, benefitting them by giving them honour (), esteem () and gratification () (15a), and, Euthyphro has to agree, what is gratifying to the gods is necessarily also what they love. The two philosophers recognize that this is in contradiction to what they had agreed upon before, but they break off the argument because Euthyphro is in a hurry.

To understand the difficulties the philosophers experience to come to terms with the adjective "ὅσιος", it is important to note that it carries a double meaning of "hallowed" and "profane": "hallowed" in the sense that what is "ὅσιος" is dependent on the divine, as opposed to "δίκαιος", which is justice as promulgated by human lawmakers, and "profane" in the sense that what is "ὅσιος" are actions which take place in the sphere of human relations, as opposed to "ἱερός", which refers anything religiously dedicated to the gods. Thus, the very term "ὅσιος" embodies the crux of the dilemma, viz., the attempt to separate "piety" from the divine sphere as something that can stand on its own in the human sphere.

In monotheism

The monotheistic version of the dilemma, replacing τὸ ὅσιον with
"moral" or "good", and with "God" is still the object of theological and philosophical debate.

Explanation of the dilemma

Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?The first horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is moral is commanded by God "because it is moral") implies that morality is independent of God and, indeed, that God is bound by morality just as his creatures are. God then becomes little more than a passer-on of moral knowledge.

The second horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is moral is moral "because it is commanded by God", known as divine command theory) runs into three main problems. First, it implies that what is good is arbitrary, based merely upon God's whim; if God had created the world to include the values that rape, murder, and torture were virtues, while mercy and charity were vices, then they would have been. Secondly, it implies that calling God good makes no non-tautological sense (or, at best, that one is simply saying that God is consistent and not hypocritical). Thirdly, it involves a form of reasoning that G.E. Moore classified as a naturalistic fallacy; to explain the claim that murder is wrong (or the proscription that one should not commit murder), in terms of what God has or hasn't said is to argue from what Moore classified as a putative fact about the world to what Moore classified as a value (see is-ought problem).

Attempts to resolve the dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma has troubled philosophers and theologians ever since Plato first propounded it. While both horns (and their aforesaid consequences) have had their adherents, the Natural Law Theory probably being the more popular, some philosophers have tried to find a middle ground and, in doing so, maintained a non-arbitrariness to a nonetheless religious morality.

False-dilemma response

Christian philosophers, starting with Thomas Aquinas have often answered that the dilemma is false: yes, God commands something because it is good, but the reason it is good is that "good is an essential part of God's nature". So goodness is grounded in God's "character" and merely "expressed" in moral commands. Therefore whatever a good God commands will always be good.

Some followers of this approach, following Aquinas and earlier readers of Plato such as Plotinus, say that "God" is in whole or part the definition of goodness itself. John Frame and others say this avoids the naturalistic fallacy because the source of God's whims or commands is in some way the definition of good for everybody. This view led Anselm of Canterbury to say that God exists outside of all motion or change and does not really feel passions such as love. It only seems that way to our finite minds. Aristotle had proposed in his "Metaphysics" a similar view of Gods who feel no emotion towards the world or their worshipers, but inspire imitation.

Gnosticism and other dualistic schools similarly postulate that God is identical with goodness, which turns the dilemma into a tautology. Equating the God of the universe and creation as the demiurge and the gnostic God as the true God or God of Good.

Necessary and contingent moral values?

Some modern philosophers have also attempted to find a compromise. For example, Richard Swinburne has argued that moral values fall into two categories: the necessary and the contingent. God can decide to create the world in many different ways, each of which grounds a particular set of contingent values; with regard to these, then, the divine command theory is the correct explanation. Certain values, however, such as the immorality of rape, murder, and torture, hold in all possible worlds, so it makes no sense to say that God could have created them differently; with regard to these values, the first horn of the dilemma is the best explanation.

Different meanings of "moral"

In developing what he calls a "modified divine-command theory", R.M. Adams distinguishes between two meanings of ethical terms like "right" and "wrong":
#the meaning that atheists conceive (which in fact Adams explains in roughly emotivist terms)
#the meaning that has its place in religious discourse (that is, commanded or forbidden by God). Because God is claimed benevolent, the two meanings could coincide; God is, however, free to command other than he has done, and if he had chosen to command, for example, that murder was morally right, then the two meanings would break apart, effectively choosing the second horn of the dilemma: God just happens to command what would be good in any case ("eutheism"), but allowing for a hypothetical scenario where God decides to become malevolent ("dystheism").

Sources and references

*Robert Merrihew Adams "Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics" (2002: New York, Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-515371-5
*Jan Aertsen "Medieval philosophy and the transcendentals: the case of Thomas Aquinas" (2004: New York, Brill) ISBN 90-04-10585-9
*John M. Frame "Euthyphro, Hume, and the Biblical God" retrieved February 13, 2007 from
*Plato "Euthyphro" (any edition; the Penguin version can be found in "The Last Days of Socrates" ISBN 0-14-044037-2) or
* [ Euthyphro by Plato from Project Gutenberg]
*Paul Helm [ed.] "Divine Commands and Morality" (1981: Oxford, Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-875049-8
*Peter J. King, [ Morality & religion I] (PDF file)
*Greg Koukl, [ Euthyphro's Dilemma] , "Stand to Reason" commentary, 2002
*Norman Kretzmann “Abraham, Isaac, and Euthyphro: God and the basis of morality” (in Eleonore Stump & Michael J. Murray [edd] "Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions" (1999: Oxford: Blackwell) ISBN 0-631-20604-3
*Steve Lovell, [ C.S. Lewis and the Euthyphro Dilemma] , 2002.
* [ God and Morality] - An analysis of the Euthyphro dilemma
* [ A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma] - by Pastor Bob Enyart, Denver Bible Church, 2008

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