The Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro Dilemma is designed to explore the relationship between God and morality. The dilemma is found in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. It consists of an exchange between Socrates and a young man called Euthyphro, from whom the dilemma gets its name. When applied to an Abrahamic conception of God it asks “Is something good because God commands it? Or does God command something because it is good?”  I will explore the different positions that one can take on this question and will attempt to explore a few of their strengths and weaknesses.

If we take the first option where something is good because God orders it, then we find ourselves adopting a position called ‘voluntarism’. This view has been adopted by some theologians and philosophers in the past and there is nothing logically contradictory about it. However, it does have some problems with it. First of all it seems to be very arbitrary. It seems that God could have picked commandment ‘A’ or commandment ‘B’ and he just so happened to have chosen commandment ‘A’. This does not match our intuitions about the nature of morality. Further, it also would mean that if God had commanded something that we consider morally reprehensible then we would have to consider it a moral duty. Again this does not match our intuitions about morality.

The second option suggests that there is a moral standard that exists independently of God. Again, there is nothing logically difficult about this position and some thinker have adopted in the past. However, it does have some philosophical and theological problems. First, this position still does not explain what morality is. We are still left asking what is the nature of the moral law? Where is it situated? What is its nature? Is it eternal or was it created? And so on. As such, it fails to answer any meta-ethical questions about morality. A second problem is that if God is perfectly good then surely he can do no evil. As such, he would seem to be bound by a moral law external to himself and this seems to be a limit upon his freewill and omnipotence. Further, it suggests that there is something in the universe over which God is not sovereign and this poses some difficult theological questions.

There is, however, a third option available to us. We could take the position that God’s moral commandments flow from his nature. For example, God is loving (Psalm 86.15) and as such he orders us to love others (Luke 10.27), lying is wrong because God does not lie (Titus 1:2) and so on. This means that God’s perfect nature is the standard for value. This position has been adopted by various thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas. This position avoids the philosophical and theological complications of believing in a moral standard that exists independently of God and it avoids the arbitrariness of the first position where something is good just because God orders it. This makes it an appealing and powerful solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma.