A Solution to the So-Called Euthyphro Dilemma
by John Shaheen—
Many traditional theistic philosophers find the implications of the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma to be distasteful or incoherent. Either morality is arbitrary, or God is not relevant to moral ontology. In response, they have proposed that a better explanation would be that God’s nature is the locus of moral values. For example, kindness is good because God is kind. As for moral duties, they are found in God’s commands. While kindness is good because it is essential to God, we ought to be kind because God commanded us to be kind. At first glance, this appears to avoid the arbitrariness of the first horn, and still keeps God relevant to moral ontology. However, some have objected that this option has problems of its own. Walter Sinott-Armstrong poses a number of substantial objections (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2009). Of his first objections, he argues that even if the theistic model is correct, it tells us nothing that is relevant to human actions and morality. We would need to accept the further claim that God’s nature is the standard by which all are judged, and we have no reason to believe this. I would contest that this misunderstands the project of the moral argument. Like all ethicists, proponents of the moral argument are looking for the best explanation of our moral experience. What is proposed is a theory of morality that does just that. While it is possible that God is completely morally disconnected from us, this is not explanatorily useful. If we have successfully argued, independently of God, that objective moral values and duties exist, we have the options laid out before us of different moral theories. The proponent of the moral argument will defend that their theistic theory offers the best explanation of our moral data. God being the locus of moral values, and his commands providing moral duties, best explains morality. The evidence for the position is simply that it is the best explanation. The mere possibility that God’s morality is different from ours is not an objection to any arguments put forth.
Sinnott-Armstrong goes on to pose an epistemic challenge. Even if, God is the locus of all moral values, how could we ever know what God’s morality is? God is mysterious, and epistemically distant from us. However, it does not seem at all implausible that a being who is the locus of good, would share this goodness with his creation. In fact, that we all have intuitions of right and wrong seems to be best explained by this idea. Again, we are looking for an explanation of our moral experience. God being the locus of all goodness and keeping it completely hidden from everyone is not a useful theory in the search for an explanation. While possible, I have more reason to believe its antithesis. Mainly, that it is the best explanation of my moral experience.
Sinnott-Armstrong goes on to attack Divine Command Theory (DCT), the proposed theistic explanation of moral duties. He muses that it seems absurd to think that moral duty is derived merely from Gods commands. He argues that the implication of this would be that if God commanded rape, we would all be morally obliged to rape. He anticipates Craig’s response that God cannot command us to rape. He first asks how Craig could know this, followed by wondering how an all-powerful God could be limited in this way. For the first question, again, this is just part of the model proposed as an explanation for our moral experience. We are proposing a God who is necessarily loving, generous, and selfless, etc. as an explanation for the ontology of these objective moral values. Considering that Gods commands would necessarily exemplify how to best embody these traits, God could not command people to horrendously violate their neighbors as objects of their own pleasure. As for the question of whether this would be a limitation or impotence on Gods part, it seems not to be. A being who necessarily embodies these traits as we propose, could not act in contradiction with His own nature, it would be logically incoherent. Sinnott-Armstrong argues that DCT would entail the counterfactual: If God was to command rape, we would be morally obliged to rape. Under the proposed framework, this counterfactual is broadly logically impossible. While perhaps not an explicit contradiction of terms, there is no possible world in which the antecedent is true.
Finally, Sinnott-Armstrong reposes the Euthyphro dilemma in a new way to address Craig’s version of DCT. He first recognizes Craig’s argument that, far from being arbitrary, Gods commands are expressions of the attributes that he necessarily possesses. He initially experiments with the idea that perhaps this just pushes the dilemma back. Arbitrariness is not avoided if there is no reason why God has his current nature and not another. He anticipates Craig’s response that God has his nature essentially and that the commands flow necessarily from it, and says that this also doesn’t solve the problem. He says that even if the command is not contingent, this does not mean there is a reason for it. He gives the example of Bacchus, the Greek God of wine. It is essentially part of the nature of Bacchus to love wine, but even if he commanded us to drink wine, and this command flowed necessarily from his nature, it would still be arbitrary. I would agree that the command would be arbitrary, but not because there is no reason for Bacchus command. The reason would be that he is commanding it because it is in accordance with his nature. In the case of Bacchus, however, while his nature may be essential to him, he himself is not essentially existent. He could not be any proper foundation for truly objective morality if his existence and present nature are non-essential. It is the arbitrariness of his nature that is problematic. This is not a problem for traditional monotheism.
Furthermore, I wonder what sort of reason Sinnott-Armstrong is prodding for. If he simply means an explanation for why God commanded what he did, this is obviously readily available. He gives commandments that embody the moral attributes he necessarily possesses. For example, he commands us to give to the poor because it embodies the traits of generosity and selflessness which he necessarily possesses. This, however, does not seem to be what Sinott-Armstrong is looking for. His objection seems suspiciously question-begging. He says there must be a reason for Gods commands, but it seems the type of reason he is looking for would only be acceptable if it originated from outside of God. I see no need for this type of reason. In the proposed framework, God is necessarily existent, and his nature is also necessary. In all possible worlds he is the same. There can be no other nature; there can be no other being. The reasons for his commands are that they embody his necessary character. This is not arbitrary. The question that seemingly underlies Sinnott-Armstrong’s objection is: Why are these attributes good? There has to be a reason why they are good. Quite simply, all ethicists face the problem of a regress of explanations in the attempt to identify what good is. At some point, the explanatory chain must end. For Sinnott-Armstrong, it ends at his claim that it is wrong to harm people because it just is. No further justification needed. Likewise, for what the theists are proposing, Gods nature is the end of the explanatory regress.
In short, the Euthyphro dilemma and the slew of new objections that have followed the solutions proposed by Craig and other philosophers are unsuccessful. They do not constitute any sound reasons to reject the modified DCT or grounding of moral values in Gods nature. As for the proponents of the moral argument, the job is not over. While the view may be internally consistent and free from the problems proposed by Sinnott-Armstrong, it still must be argued that it is the best explanation for our moral experience and that secular accounts fail. Despite this, defense of the proposed theory is a massive step towards defending the moral argument for Gods existence.
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Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2009) “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality.” Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics, edited by N. L. King and R. K. Garcia, Rownan & Littlewfield, pp. 101–15.