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The Euthyphro Dilemna

Philosophy : Plato and Aristotle

In Euthyphro, Plato considers the nature of Hosion, knowledge and performance of religious ritual. In other words, he tackles the nature of religiousness and piety.

The central question is: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? (Euthyphro, 10)

If the former, then does piety and morality derive entirely from God, or the gods?

If the latter, how can an omnipotent God be constrained by an external and independent moral realm? Of course, to Plato the gods weren't omnipotent and they certainly would have been constrained by such a realm, but then to those who don't share this belief, what is the value of piety?

To Plato this is not a dilemna; he deals with it by rejecting Euthyphro's definition of piety in two steps:

1) He forced Euthyphro to identify piety with that which is loved by all of the gods
2) He shows that therefore the gods cannot love acts because they are pious if they are pious because they are loved by the gods. In other words, he demonstrates to Euthyphro that since piety is defined by what the gods love, vice versa cannot be true.

This still causes a dilemna for those in the Christian, Muslim, Jewish etc. traditions, where God must be seen as primary, and so cannot love some independent moral framework. The circular nature of the argument can be broken by differentiating between explanatory and definitional identities: God's commands can define what is wrong, and what is wrong can explain God's commands. This opens the door to theological voluntarism, a position that hols that God voluntarily subscribes to His own moral framework.

But if, on the other hand, we consider God's commands to be identical to morality, then there can be no room for causal explanation, and so the explanatory connection cannot be entertained. In this case, we are left solely with definitions, and so we must again assert either God or a moral framework to be primary.

What follows is my essay on this topic.

What is the relation between what God commands and what is right?

The relation between God and rightness is one that has puzzled theologists and philosophers for millennia. Is God the source of all morality, or is God understood as being moral because of his relation to an independent moral framework? Even before Christianity, Plato asked the selfsame question, albeit in a different context, and came to similar conclusions as many more contemporary thinkers. Before we ask this question, however, we must make passing reference to the fact that for many people, God is illusory, and so morality is not necessarily related to God at all. In a sense then, the question of the relation between God and morality presupposes the existence of God, and so invites a discussion on His existence, but that is outside the scope of my essay, which shall instead take the existence of God to be a possibility, and which will then look at the hypothetical relation, given what we can say about God without using purely theological arguments.

The first question that arises if we accept God's existence is: how can we interpret God's commands without first having moral knowledge? In the Euthyphro, Plato suggests that we commonly hold two conflicting assumptions; first, that that which is pious is that which is loved by the gods, and second that the gods love piety because it is pious. In the context of Christian morality, it could be asked: how can we say both that that which is right is so because God commands it, and that God loves moral actions because they are moral? In the first statement we establish that God is the source of morality, and in the second we assert that God refers to an independent moral framework to establish what is right. Plato rightly points out to Euthyphro that one must either claim that the gods are the source of piety, or there is an independent framework by which gods understand what is pious.

For Plato, the answer is simple; he forces Euthyphro to modify his first statement to say that that what is pious is that which is loved by all the gods, and then reaches agreement with Euthyphro that gods love what is pious because it is pious. Plato has now trapped Euthyphro, because these two statements are clearly contradictory for reasons already mentioned, and so Euthyphro is forced to take a position on one of them alone. Since Greek gods weren't the arbiters of morality, the creators of the Universe nor inherently moral themselves, the logical conclusion for Plato was that the gods love piety because it is pious, and that they refer to an independent moral framework.

But this creates a problem, because Plato implies that the relation between the gods and what is right is that if the gods love something then it must be right, and vice versa. But this need not necessarily be true, since the rightness of a thing and whether or not it is god-beloved can be two properties of a thing which may be co-instantiated, or which may be separable in the same way that a rose may be both red and has a distinctive smell; these two properties aren't identical, and the presence of one therefore doesn't necessitate the presence of the other. In the same way, the gods may love an action and that action may be wrong, since there is no reason, either in Greek theology or in terms of logic to suppose that the Greek gods were inherently moral.

Murray MacBeath argues that it is possible that an action's being god-beloved and it's being right may merely be coincidental. For example, I might always read dog-eared books; one might conclude from this that the books are dog-eared because I read them, or that I read them because they are dog-eared, but one couldn't prove either of these without some empirical proof, e.g. that I made books dog-eared (MacBeath, 1982). In the case of God, we have no empirical proof, and so we cannot say with any certainty whether they are coincidental or whether there is a causal relationship.

Furthermore, we cannot even say that there is a direct connection between God and morality. To return to MacBeath's example, it might be that my friend Jenny happens to make the books dog-eared, and that I always read her books once she has finished reading them (MacBeath, 1982). In this case there is an indirect relationship between myself and the dog-eared books that is neither causal nor coincidental, so it is conceivable that what God commands and what is right happen to be related in an analogous way.

This intermediate connection could be a moral framework that God follows and that makes an action right. It is not that an action is right because God commands it, nor that God commands an action because it is right, but that an action is right because it fulfils certain rules or guidelines according to a particular moral framework, and that God likewise commands an action. So if we accept, for example, the truth of utilitarianism, then we can say that God is concerned with the welfare and happiness of his creation, and that insofar as he commands to pursue his own goal, he acts according to the moral framework, hence his commands are right. This means that Plato's Euthyphro Dilemma sets up a false dichotomy, since God would not command an action because it is right, but because of the properties or features of that action that make it right.

But this poses a theological dilemma, for this indirect relationship doesn't necessitate God's inherent goodness, and in fact suggests that God is only good insofar as He continues to act in the way He does. "If one were to deny that God is good... one would call one's own competence in the use of the term 'God' into question" (Murphy, 2002, 3.1) Murphy suggests that we can get around this problem with a position called theological voluntarism, which states that God is considered good because he has met his own standards. What Murphy means by this is that God's goodness comes not from his fulfilling a moral obligation according to an independent moral framework, but from his being inherently good, and encoding and meeting his own moral framework. In other words, we state that God by nature knows good, and voluntarily upholds his own standards (Murphy, 2002, 3.1).

But is this enough to justify the claim that God is good? Does it not make morality entirely arbitrary, and suggest that those who don't believe in God are either immoral, or subscribing to God's moral framework without believing in Him? These problems can only be answered if one can explain morality in terms of God's will; a theological voluntarist must say that God's goodness is not to be understood in what we might usually regard as 'moral terms', but in terms of His being good to His creations. God commands in each of us what will be good for us, and we understand what is good for us, and what is right, by what God commands. This answers Plato's dilemma, but only insofar as we can claim that God is inherently good.

The alternative is that God might on occasion command a person to do something we would regard as wrong, such as be cruel to another. If God is inherently moral, we must either say that this is logically impossible, or that God commanding cruelty would make it right, but that it is so unlikely as to not be worth serious consideration, or that my concepts of right and wrong would break down. The argument that it is logically impossible for God to command cruelty can only be accepted as an item of faith, since we have no reason to believe it. We can support the notion that it is unbelievable that God could command cruelty based upon theological reasons, taken largely from religious texts; since all that we know about God from theology suggests that he is good, it is not entirely unreasonable to suggest that he must be inherently good. If we base our understanding of morality on this reason, and if God were to command cruelty on one occasion, our moral concepts would inexorably become unintelligible, since their basis would have changed (Adams, p.90); if X is right, it is by the command of a loving God; if God commands cruelty, He cannot be considered to be a loving God; therefore if God commands cruelty, X can no longer be considered right, nor wrong, and in fact cannot be morally judged at all.

So to maintain a direct or indirect relationship between what is right and what God commands, we must believe, without reason for absolute certainty, that God is inherently good.

There is one more step one can take to establish a more reasonable relation between what God commands and what is right. The main objection to any divine command theory is, since we have no empirical or rational evidence to suggest otherwise, it is conceivable that God might command what we would consider to be a cruel act. But this is only a problem if we say that all acts are judged by and according to God, i.e. that all acts should be judged according to a divine law. According to Locke, we can establish that we have three kinds of law, only one of which is civil, so we might break civil laws, and we might damage our reputation, without going against the commands of God (Adams); likewise, God might command us to do something that appears to be against our moral convictions, but which is in fact simply against our own laws, and not contrary to God's commands. From this we must either establish that God's will is contrary to our own convictions in such cases, or that God takes no interest in matters that can be decided according to our own laws, and that divine law only applies to questions of morality.

From this we can establish a somewhat complex but reasonably satisfactory answer to Plato's original question that appears to cohere with Christian doctrine. What God commands is right because God will only command that which coheres with his own inherently good moral framework; what we deem right may be right because God commands it, or because it coheres with a human judicial framework. It still seems to set-up a circular argument, in that God loves right actions because he makes them right, but then there is no more satisfactory answer that will accord God the inherent goodness theologists suggest he must have. Whether this means that God is not inherently good, and that He in fact obeys a higher moral framework, or that such a conclusion is correct, one cannot say - it is a matter of faith. And this suggests a conundrum that hangs over this essay: even if we know actions are right according to God's commands, does that give us a reason why they are right? This essay would suggest a similar answer to that of Plato's question: we can' be sure.


R. M. Adams, 'A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness', in P. Helm, Divine Commands and Morality (Oxford University Press: Oxford) pp.83-108.

M. MacBeath, 'The Euthyphro Dilemma', in Mind, 1982, vol. xci, 565-571

M. Murphy, 'Theological Voluntarism', 2002, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.seop.leeds.ac.uk/entries/voluntarism-theological)

Plato, Euthyphro

More References:
Euthyphro (the text)
An Introduction to Euthyphro
Supplement to Hauptli's Lectures on Plato's Euthyphro