Euthyphro’s Dilemma

I still remember the moment when it dawned on me, as a Christian, that God could not be the source of right and wrong. I was sitting on a stool at our kitchen counter, next to the cereal cabinet (where I often found myself) when it popped into my mind, unbidden.

Do we say God is good because he conforms to an absolute standard of goodness, or must we define goodness as “how God happens to be”?

If God merely conforms to The Good, then he is not the source of it.

On the second option, the sentence “God is good” is redundant. We might as well end the sentence at “God is.” The word “good” contributes no meaning.

I later learned that this is a variation of a dilemma that Plato posed in one of his plays. He has Socrates ask Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Or, as the comic strip Jesus and Mo puts it…
Jesus and Mo - Euthyphro

This is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Various responses have been given, but none of them truly escape it.

All my adult life, I had believed that God was the source of Good. Without him, morals and ethics could not exist. Now I realized that if that were true, then right and wrong must be arbitrary — just rules God had made for no reason at all, or at least not for any reason that pertained to their intrinsic justice.

Ironically, my conviction that right, wrong and justice are real had had a lot to do with my becoming a Christian. Now that same conviction was to become an early factor in the unraveling of my faith.

I faced the choice of

  • admitting that right and wrong were just God’s caprice, or
  • admitting that God was not the ultimate source of Good, or
  • admitting that right and wrong do not exist.

Eventually (and for reasons that had nothing to do with Euthyphro’s Dilemma), I went with the second option.

How about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you believe in God.

One response to “Euthyphro’s Dilemma

  1. This is a great question, and one that I love pondering. I was a Christian of sorts when I first faced this question in a college philosophy class, and it gave me a lot to think about. I’m an agnostic now, but my answer to the question hasn’t changed. I think if you look at the way that Jewish thinkers have responded to the question, it presents it in a really cool new way in which there isn’t actually a contradiction.

    My version of their version is basically this: “Goodness”, or “Righteousness” can’t exist independent of “good” action or “right” action. I’m reminded of a Taoist writer, or maybe it was Lin Yutang (it was some advocate of chinese philosophy, IIR) who said “the only way to be, is to do. ” So God’s goodness, in this conception, is existent only through the doing of good works. And if we look at Spinoza’s conception of God, which is essentially “the natural laws of the universe, but imbued with benevolence and “personhood” of a sort” (apology to all actual readers of Spinoza, I know i’m butchering it), we can come to a view of God that isn’t bothered by Euthyphro. God is roughly equivalent to “the moral law of the universe”, and that law doesn’t exist when not enacted. There is no question of whether or not God can “approve of” or “conform to” some higher universal constant, because God is a part of that constant, or that constant is a part of God, perhaps. “God” is the name for that Universal Moral law in action.

    SAT analogy style

    “Absolute Moral Standard” : “God” :: “Mathematics” : “Arithmetic”

    God “conforms” or “follows” the absolute standard of the universe, but not in any sense that could be a choice- both are different expressions of the same thing.

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