Why the Euthyphro Dilemma Fails




One of the common arguments put forward for theism is the moral argument: that theism provides basis for objective morality, whereas atheism doesn’t. This is commonly misunderstood as something like, “you can’t be good without God”, but the moral argument actually makes no such claim. Rather, the moral argument is concerned with who or what determines what is good and evil in the first place. As Arthur Leff (a secular legal professor from Yale) points out:

“In the presumed absence of God... we are really forced to see ourselves as lawmakers rather than law finders, and we are immediately led into a regress that is, fatally, not infinite. We can say that a valid legal system must have some minimum process for rational determination and operation. We can say that the majority cannot consistently disadvantage any minority. We can say that, whatever else a majority can do, it cannot systematically prevent a minority from seeking to become a majority. We can say all sorts of things, but what we cannot say is why one say is better than any other, unless we state some standard by which it definedly is. To put it as bluntly as possible, if we go to find what law ought to govern us, and if what we find is not an authoritative Holy Writ but just ourselves, just people, making that law, how can we be governed by what we have found?” (Arthur Leff, ‘Unspeakable Ethics Unnatural Law’, Duke Law Journal 6 (December 1979): 1247)

By contrast, if there is an authoritative Holy Writ from the one who created the universe as a moral universe in which there is objective good and evil, then we can say with Martin Luther King: “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” (Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail)

Perhaps the most common counter-argument to the moral argument, is the Euthyphro dilemma. The story goes that when Euthyphro argued that we can know what’s good and what’s evil when we’re told by the gods, Socrates asked him: “Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?”

A common response to the Euthyphro Dilemma is to argue that it’s not God’s commands but God’s nature that determines what is good. According to Christianity, God’s nature is loving, gracious, compassionate etc, and it is argued that these attributes are the ultimate standard of good by which other standards can be measured. But the Euthyphro dilemma can be modified to ask: does God have those attributes because they are good, or are they good because they are God’s attributes? The problem still remains.

At its heart, the Euthyphro dilemma is asking the question of moral realism (morality is real/objective) or moral relativism (morality is relative/subjective): Does God call/reveal something to be good because it is good (moral realism), or is it good because God calls/reveals it to be good (moral relativism)?

If it’s the latter (moral relativism), then there is no basis for objective morality. There would simply be no answer the question: what objective standard can we point to, to adjudicate between competing views of morality? However, few atheists seem to be willing to concede that they have no basis for objective morality. When an injustice happens to us, we don’t say “that feels wrong”, we say “that is wrong!”

If it’s the former (moral realism – a key premise of the moral argument), then atheists typically reply that good and evil can be understood independently of God. If God calls/reveals something to be good because it is good, then why do we need God to tell us what’s good and what’s evil? Surely we could, at least in theory, discover it on our own. The problem, however, is that the moral argument doesn’t actually deny that people can be good without God, in fact, it depends upon it.

When unbelievers rightly insist that they can be good without God (Romans 2:14-15), they’re not actually refuting the moral argument, but rather affirming it’s key premise – moral realism. If, as theism suggests, God made the universe as a moral universe where there is objective good and evil, then morality can’t be divorced from the God who wove it into the universe anymore than a watch’s proper use can be divorced from the one who designed the watch.

If a watch is made for the purpose of keeping accurate time, then it’s a good watch to the extent that it keeps accurate time, and a bad watch to the extent that it doesn’t. You can’t say that a watch is bad because it broke when you tried to use it as a hammer. What makes it good is its achievement of its purpose, not its achievement (or lack thereof) of something that it wasn’t made for.

Given that something is good to the extent that it achieves its purpose, how then can we answer the question of what is ‘the good life’? If people aren’t made for a purpose, then there is no objectively good life and we’re back to moral relativism. However, if we are made for a purpose, then ‘the good life’ is the one that achieves the purpose for which we’ve been made. This necessarily depends upon a creator: one cannot decide what their purpose is after they’ve been created, either we’re created for a purpose, or we’re not.

If we weren’t created for any particular purpose, then there’s no objective standard that we can point to, to adjudicate between our views on what makes a person good, and those who disagree. But if we were made for the purpose of mutual love relationships with God, and with each other, then loving God and loving your neighbour are not merely moral suggestions, but rather “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

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