The Euthyphronic Dilemma: More Applicable to Modern Atheism Than Theism

One of Plato’s most famous dialogues is between Socrates and a guy named Euthyphro, a supposed religious expert.  Socrates questions Euthyphro on the definition of piety, and Euthyphro is forced to say that what is pious is what is pleasing to the gods while what is impious is what is displeasing to them.  Socrates further critiques him by pointing out that the gods have enmity and conflicts with one another in the stories and that they seem to simply be going after their own preferences.  If so, then clearly the gods are not aligned on what is pious or just, making their mere preferences merely arbitrary.  Euthyphro gets caught up in this contradiction and has no answer.

This argument has long been adapted to critique the idea within Judeo-Christian theism that God is needed for objective morals to exist.  The argument goes like this: Is something good because God commands it, or does he command it because it is good?  If it is the former, then “the good” seems arbitrary; it is all about God’s preferences, and he could conceivably due crazy things like designate rape to be good.  William of Ockham is famous for what is called “divine command theory,” the most simplistic of which allows for this possibility.  If God wanted to say that theft or torturing babies is good, then he could do so and we have to obey.  However, few Christians would be comfortable in saying that God could willy-nilly change the definition of what is good, as it does not seem to give any reliability to morality.

The other horn of the dilemma is to say that God commands something because it is good.  However, if so, then it seems like morality is something apart from God.  In that case, God is not needed to explain the existence of objective morality and the atheist can happily claim objective morals without believing in God.  The theist, then, is caught in a contradiction in his own beliefs: God is either just arbitrary (so he is not good), or there is a moral law apart from him (again, he himself is not the source of good).

The typical Christian response is that, quite unlike the Greek gods, God is the lone Creator and Sustainer of everything.  Also, he is eternal and so is his character, and goodness is simply a part of who he is.  Thus, when God created the world and gave commands, they simply flowed from his character.  This is not arbitrary because God, as an eternal and necessary being, has always been this way and will always be this way.  Nor does this mean that “the good” is outside of God, obviously.  The atheist, of course, can deny that God exists, but if he goes there he simply concedes the point: There is no contradiction within theism itself regarding the belief that God is needed for objective morality, so the dilemma fades away.

The irony here is that I would argue that Euthyphro’s dilemma takes on considerable force when applied to modern atheists who want to uphold objective morality.  First of all, even if we were to grant the argument above, all the atheist has shown is that if objective morals exist, they can possibly exist without God.  The atheist has not shown that objective morals do in fact exist, much less exist in a purely material way.  More importantly, the main reason Euthyphro could not answer Socrates was because of the multiplicity of gods who have a multiplicity of preferences and goals that often conflict.  He had no recourse as far as appealing to an unchanging, eternal Creator; it is precisely Euthyphro’s polytheism that leaves him confused.  With that in mind, one can see how this applies to many atheists: If objective morality is based on society or other human constructs, then that is simply some form of “polytheism” that collapses under the weight of different preferences.

Atheists who try to avoid moral relativism typically appeal to some sort of human definition or decision to ground morality.  Many simply say, “Society decides.”  However, Socrates’ question then comes up: Which society?  There are a lot of them, they have different preferences, and they often fight.  This would be arbitrary because not only is a particular society’s values then decided by who is strongest within that society, morality as a whole would be decided by what society is the most powerful.  That’s hardly a desirable way to ground morality given that history is filled with rather colorful dictators or totalitarian regimes.

Others try to give better ways to ground morality, such as the social contract theory.  However, the social contract theory fails due to the same considerations; it’s just a collection of agreed upon values (in theory), and in addition to there being no guarantee that more powerful members of society will ignore or seek to change that “contract,” there is no guarantee that every society will come up with the same one.  It’s still based on humanity, and there is no avoiding that there are a lot of humans who have different preferences and goals and who fight each other for them.

So Socrates would ask the modern atheist: What is good?  If it is simply what humans decide, then that is arbitrary.  If it is something apart from humans, then what is it based on?  Here, it is difficult to see what atheists can point to without making appeals to something immaterial, a distasteful prospect for most atheists these days.  After all, not only does that remove materialism as a viable worldview, it opens the door for that immaterial “good” to be simply called “God.”  Small wonder why many atheists now just bite the bullet and reject objective morality, but that comes with its own host of problems that other atheists find even more undesirable.

Perhaps many forms of atheism shouldn’t be called “atheism” per se; it seems like they are more like polytheism, with the “-theism” part coming from their deification of human beings.  And what lousy gods human beings are.

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24 thoughts on “The Euthyphronic Dilemma: More Applicable to Modern Atheism Than Theism

  1. “Also, he is eternal and so is his character, and goodness is simply a part of who he is. ”
    this is just an empty taulology,

    “Thus, when God created the world and gave commands, they simply flowed from his character. This is not arbitrary because God, as an eternal and necessary being, has always been this way and will always be this way. ”
    that is arbitary because its subjective,its irrelevent of how eternal and necessary god is, its still arbtiary because its contgent on god for its existence and if something is contingent its subjective and relative not absolute nor objective

    • Hi Tony:

      It seems you are merely repeating what you were commenting on Matt’s post, and I think you need to take his responses seriously. You do not seem to understand what “objectivity” means here. While we often distinguish between subjectivity and objectivity, that in no way means they are always contradictory. Any belief, action, or character trait by any personal being can be called “subjective” in the sense that they are held by a person, and these things can also be true for everyone and therefore be objective. The only way you can argue that God’s character is MERELY subjective is if you already assume that there is a higher or competing standard that he is subject to, which is just begging the question.

      You also misunderstand contingency. No philosopher, not even good atheist ones, will argue that God’s character is contingent. They understand that IF God exists, his character and being are also necessary (though they of course deny that he in fact exists). What contingency technically means is that there is a possible world in which that contingent thing doesn’t exist or contingent truth is false. However, if God is a necessary being, then he exists and has the same character in every possible world. It is nonsensical to say that it is irrelevant that God is necessary and eternal on the issue of contingency. I think you need to do some research on modal logic.

      It’s actually not terribly controversial to say that without God, you don’t get objective morals; more and more atheist philosophers are admitting this much. If you want to deny God’s existence, that’s fine, and we can talk about that. But what is abundantly clear is that no one can accuse theists of internal inconsistency between the belief in God and the belief in objective morality (morals that are true for everyone).

      • “It’s actually not terribly controversial to say that without God, you don’t get objective morals; more and more atheist philosophers are admitting this much”
        no they arent, objective means to exist mind indepdent, so if you are correct then it means that objective morality is a misnomer. Also your morality is subject and relative to god thats what makes it subjective.If morals are true for everyone then it means god must have the same morals as people and you clearly deny that! ( how can god honour his mom and dad?)

      • Tony, you’re not understanding or reading what I’m saying carefully. You are simply making assertions that are simply false. You have to understand that morality has to do with duty or obligation, and those still need to be based on some standard of goodness. For example, it is objectively moral to love your kids, but not everyone has kids. Nonetheless, since it is considered GOOD to love your kids, that standard puts a duty on those who have them. The good does not change, but the duty can apply or not apply whether or not you have kids. Of course, since God does not have parents in a human sense, he has no need to honor them, but that in no way means he is somehow not good. That was quite a bizarre example.

        That is what people mean when they say that without God, you don’t get objective morality. They mean that there is no standard on which one can say one action, belief, or feeling is “good” and another is “evil.” If good is merely defined by humans, it is easy to see how unreliable and arbitrary that is, as I state in the post. If, however, the good is grounded in a necessary being who created everything, then that good is not arbitrary because it is true for all possible worlds. One can, of course, choose to disagree with God’s goodness, but that would be much like disagreeing that 2+2=4. One speech you can read up on is from a man named Arthur Leff, an atheist lawyer, who despairingly came to the conclusion that he had no way of saying anything was really good.

      • “Any belief, action, or character trait by any personal being can be called “subjective” in the sense that they are held by a person, and these things can also be true for everyone and therefore be objective”
        i am aware of that ,this is not what i meant with “subjective” what i meant was that subjective being something that was based on personal opinion, and does not exist indepedent of perceptions or beliefs

  2. “If, however, the good is grounded in a necessary being who created everything, then that good is not arbitrary because it is true for all possible worlds”
    even it its true for all possible worlds its still arbitary because its dependent on a certian person to for those morals to exist namely god. If anything if any possible world needs your god to exist then it means all possible worlds have a subjective and arbitary foundation! Due to the fact that those worlds can only exist due to the perceptions and mind of a certain being

    • Tony, I will repeat that I think you need to do some research on modal logic. If God is a necessary being, that his character is also necessary and unchanging. Truths that are a part of him, including the truths of mathematics, are also necessary truths (and are widely considered such). No one thinks 2+2=4 is an “arbitrary” truth because they understand that it is a necessary truth. Nobody is denying that WORLDS are contingent. The idea is that the good is not because it is part of who God is, who exists whether or not there is a material world. You seem to be implying that “good” cannot exist without a world, which no theist would say. However, if atheists are correct, then any “good” absolutely could not exist without a world, in which case it IS contingent and it is arbitrary.

      • “. If God is a necessary being, that his character is also necessary and unchanging. Truths that are a part of him, including the truths of mathematics, are also necessary truths (and are widely considered such). ”
        again leesomniac if god is a necessary being then nothing can really be called “objective”. I am saying that those worlds have an arbtiary foundation if god is needed for them to exist

        ” However, if atheists are correct, then any “good” absolutely could not exist without a world, in which case it IS contingent and it is arbitrary.”
        wrong again, you really need to search up what objective means, i believe that somethings are wrong indepedent of how ANYONE including god thinks (what objective means)

      • Tony, I will just have to suggest that you read up on some modal logic, what philosophers mean by “objective” and “subjective,” and on this debate itself. I’d encourage you to read even many atheist philosophers on this topic because I think even they will clear up a lot of your confusion because you don’t really seem interested in considering what I’m saying. It is fine to believe what you do (I am actually glad that you believe that there are things that are objectively good or evil), but it’s simply inconsistent with atheism. And I will also encourage you to think about your basis for believing in objective right and wrong if you do not believe in God, because if it is merely your gut feelings, well, then that is what is truly arbitrary.

      • i did do much research on what philisophers mean by “objective” and “subjective” and even William Lane Craig agrees with me on my definitions!

      • I didn’t have a problem with your definition of objectivity per se; I was under the impression that you were trying to define subjectivity was merely “because God (or someone else) thinks so.” In that sense, anything we do or hold can be “subjective,” including the belief that 5+5=10, but but that is not what is normally meant in the objectivity/subjectivity distinction so I was suspecting equivocation on your part. If you weren’t trying to do that, I apologize, but that was my reading.

        edit: This is, by the way, what William Lane Craig says. He states that subjectivity in this context means “JUST a matter of personal opinion,” not that it can never be personal opinion. That is not the definition that I felt that you were using.

  3. “One can, of course, choose to disagree with God’s goodness, but that would be much like disagreeing that 2+2=4. ”
    god’s goodness is an empty tautology, and this statement acutally would suggest that there is a standard above god that even he must adhere to

    • No it doesn’t. That’s only if you presume that mathematics and other necessary truths are outside of God, which is just question begging against the theist. Again, the question right now is not “Does God exist?” It is, “Do we have a basis for objective morality if and only if God exists? Is it inconsistent for theists to believe that God exists and objective morals exist?” In other words, to show inconsistency, you have to start with theistic beliefs and show how they logically run into a problem here. I’ve shown that with atheism and have even used what you said against it. You are simply not understanding the difference between contingency and necessity.

  4. “So Socrates would ask the modern atheist: What is good? If it is simply what humans decide, then that is arbitrary”

    What we find to be “good” is arbitrary, see, that wasn’t so hard. Theistic morality and atheistic morality are essentially no different.

    • Hi David:

      I’m glad you see that much. Of course, I’d disagree that theistic morality is merely arbitrary, but it’s good you have that much figured out about atheism.

      • Well, first, if God is the Sustainer of everything, any form of realism, moral or otherwise would be false, but that’s unrelated. What is related are the following:

        How do you know God is “good”?
        How is God morally good?
        Is God’s Nature arbitrary?

      • “if God is the Sustainer of everything, any form of realism, moral or otherwise would be false, ”

        I’d be interested to hear why, but we can pass that by for now.

        God’s nature is not arbitrary because he is a necessary being; you cannot call something “arbitrary” if it is that way necessarily.

        As far as God being “good,” I think we need to consider what it is meant by that. If you mean “Is God good because he adheres to an outside standard,” then of course that is false and is actually question begging. If you mean, “Is God ‘good’ in the normal use of the term in moral semantics?” Yes, and not even theists would deny that atheists can UNDERSTAND what “good” means. However, theists will say more; we’d say that God is the foundation for moral values because he is goodness itself, and if there is no God there is no foundation for objective moral values. To ask “how” God is good is to simply sneak in an idea that God cannot be necessarily good by nature, which is, again, question-begging against the theist.

        As far as how I KNOW God is good, there can be several ways to know. One is simply via logic; if I understand moral semantics to have meaning (“good” and “evil”), then I know I must have justification or grounds for such values, and that can only come from God. So if the bi-conditional “Objective moral values exists if and only if God exists,” and if I’m confident that objective moral values exist (“the Holocaust was objectively evil”), then I can conclude that there is a God who sets the standard for goodness. Another way to know is, I believe, through Scripture, and yet another is through the experience of the Holy Spirit, though I of course understand atheists would not get that kind of knowledge from those sources. I hope that helps you understand where we’re coming from.

      • Being a necessary being and necessarily having a specific nature are different issues. The latter is the issue at hand. Saying “objective moral values” is liking saying “jumbo shrimp. Things that are objective are mind-independent, values are mind-dependent. I would say for the most part, what people think is being referenced and what is actually being referenced by the term “good” are different things. I would say that people refer to “good” as if it was a real property yet it seems moral realists are unable to produce said property. Upon questioning, what people refer to when saying something is “good” tends to boil down to an attitude (emotional or not it makes no difference to me). Atheists, much like the theist, are faced with a fact/value distinction. Note, I wouldn’t say the Holocaust was objectively evil as I am unaware of any property it has to make it evil. What I am aware is an emotional reaction to the Holocaust which is the basis I call it evil.

        “To ask “how” God is good is to simply sneak in an idea that God cannot be necessarily good by nature, which is, again, question-begging against the theist.”

        Theism (in the sense of a belief in a diety) is perfectly compatible with a malevolent or amoral deity. I would say an omnimalevolent deity is just as problematic as an omnibenevolent one.

        If God is the foundation for what is “good”, that sounds no different than the meter-stick in France is the foundation of what is a meter. Problem is, the meter is meter by definition, not by some property it has sans some Platonic-esque “metterness”.

      • Hi David, sorry for the late response, I went to a dinner party. I do try (often unsuccessively) to have a life ;).

        As far as the distinction between necessary being and necessary nature, there are a few ways Christians can answer this. One of them is the doctrine of divine simplicity of Aquinas and others, which states that God’s essence is his existence. However, I do not think it is necessary to go there. For starters, it is important to note that it is simply Judeo-Christian belief that God has an unchanging and necessary character. There are good philosophical reasons for that, but the most relevant thing to note is that arguments like the Euthyphronic dilemma are trying to find an internal inconsistency on the part of the Christian. In other words, one has to start with Judeo-Christian premises and then derive a problem. If you want to, independently, deny that God has a necessary character, that is fine, but then we are moving outside the argument here, and such a move would implicitly admit that the problem isn’t INTERNAL to Christian theism.

        I would also disagree that there is no such thing as objective moral values. That is, after all, what is under question to begin with.

        In any case, this point applies to your attempt to say that theism is compatible with an amoral or malevolent deity. Even if we were to grant this, that’s clearly not what is under review. What’s under review, which is clear by context, is Judeo-Christian theism. There are, for example, many atheists who would agree that something like Judeo-Christian theism can ground objective morals. They admit there is no internal problem there. They just don’t think such a God exists, which is a different discussion.

        I actually find your meter-stick example a bit puzzling. It actually admits that to really know what is a meter, you have to have a standard. A meter-stick is actually not exactly the same as a meter. In this case, of course, the standard is ultimately arbitrary because it is conceivable that people set the standard differently. However, in the case of God and morality, not only is such a standard also needed, but this standard is not merely arbitrary because it is necessary.

        edit: I do want to say, David, that while I cannot continue this conversation indefinitely, I am glad you dropped by and made me think. Thanks for the feedback, and I hope you come back.

      • thats what i was trying to tell Leesomniac, that saying god is good is just an empty tautology

        “God’s nature is not arbitrary because he is a necessary being; you cannot call something “arbitrary” if it is that way necessarily.”
        actually this suggests the properties in and of themselves that god’s nature contains is necessary, not god’s nature. careful not to equvicate the two

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