The Euthyphro Dilemma

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The Euthyphro Dilemma is a little, somewhat not well-known question in ethics and theology. The name comes from the question posed by a character named Euthyphro in Plato’s work of the same name.

The basic question is this: “Is morality right because God has declared it so, or did he declare it because it was morally right?” If God wholly decided everything that was right or wrong, then morality is arbitrary. If God only upholds what was always, eternally moral, then morality has an origin independent from Him (and His will).

Socrates sided with the second option: the gods loved what is holy because it was always holy. For him this was not a problem: the ancient Greco-Roman deities were neither omnipotent, nor even morally perfect half the time: they were subjected to the power of Fate more or less.

But the Christian, Jew, and Muslim have a problem. How can God be omnipotent if He didn’t make morality in its entirety? What does it imply if morality has a different origin from Him? From where did it come and what is the significance of this origin: is it another Euthyphro Dilemma? Or is it just an indiscriminate, supernatural law (which must be obeyed?)? Could God deviate from this? Could He make His own morality in addition, or is it identical?

The second option is unacceptable if we suppose an omnipotent, holy deity. So does that make morality arbitrary and how do we escape this conclusion if not? But, if we think about the definition and nature of morality, we will understand why this question is somewhat “illogically” stated and ultimately the objection falls apart because of this.

The Origin of Morality as Non-Arbitrary under Absolutism

As usual, St. Anselm has an opinion in these types of questions. He considers the issue to be resolved similarly to Kant’s idea that attributes (such as existence) are relationships and not predicates (e.g. the act of “sitting” vs a chair upon which this is done). Basically morality is created by God, but this isn’t a meaningful way to describe it because it is a reflection of God and His holiness. Therefore it’s not something relevantly arbitrary because it’s like saying God Himself is arbitrary, which has no meaning, or is irrelevant: it’s like asking why does the Sun rise in the East and not the West – what difference is there if it rose in the West instead? This is similar to my thoughts, though I don’t think this resolves the issue fully, or perhaps clearly (at least to me), because the question of arbitrary morality still seems to loom a bit – moral actions are not God or His actions, and they do exist, even they aren’t objects.

The simple answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma as I see it is that God created morality in that He made it with respect to us and Himself: love. This means that morality is arbitrary, but only its technical existence: not in its relationship, to which this question never applies (nor can it, as it deals with predicates, not relationships).

If a man has brown or blond hair, does God love him? Yes. If we had three legs instead of two, would He loves us all the same? Yes. So the creation of the objects to which morality applies are indeed arbitrary, but this does not in any way apply to the relationship between those objects. Think of it this way: pain is subjective, both by experience and definition. An animal’s pain is relative only to its own self, but it’s a real experience even if it has a different brain. But this is not an objective description when deprived of meaning as the Euthyphro Dilemma does – the purpose is the same as that of an anti-virus program telling you of malware on your computer, even though we don’t recognize the computer to be feeling pain.

And this is exactly the subtlety the Euthyphro Dilemma hides behind. It doesn’t deal with the moral nature of ethics: it only discusses the technical aspect of its existence. This might seem like it’s the same thing, but it’s the difference between a man who sells a car and the person who drives it recklessly. It’s like saying that sarcasm is agreement with the entity it satirizes because it repeats the same words: it’s mere legalism.

In summary, God creates arbitrary objects, and imposes the one and only Law, there since the beginning (1 John 2:7-11), upon them: love. This law is arbitrary in the sense that it could’ve been anything else. In that sense nothing can be “non-arbitrary” since it must have some kind of origin, whether from a deity or not. But one cannot complain about this law, nor can one find a better “arbitrary” command.


One thought on “The Euthyphro Dilemma

  1. Pingback: Anthropomorphic Features of God in the Old Testament | Ruminations

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