Can Socrates' Euthyphro Dilemma Be Resolved?

By Paul Herrick

Where does morality come from? Is it something we create for our own purposes? Is it an agreement we make amongst ourselves? Or do moral obligations come from a source above us? Is morality ultimately rooted in the commands of God, as claimed by the divine command theory of morality? This is the heart of the issue raised by Socrates in the famous conversation with his friend Euthyphro, as dramatized in the dialogue of the same name written by Plato, Socrates' most famous student.

In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates is seeking to know the nature of piety or moral rightness. His friend Euthyphro, being a priest, is naturally considered an expert on the subject. The stage is thus set for a classic Socratic conversation. Socrates will question Euthyphro, ostensibly to learn from him the true nature of moral rightness. Euthyphro, flattered that his opinion is sought, will engage Socrates, unaware that he is the one who is about to learn something.
The first round of questioning does not go well. Euthyphro does not understand the question being put to him. He thinks Socrates wants an example of a pious action, but this is not what Socrates is after. Socrates wants to know the "form" that all morally right things have in common, that is, the underlying essence that makes all right things right. Socrates believed that when we successfully answer a question like this we do more than merely attach a meaning to a word--our minds actually grasp the essence of the subject.

Euthyphro attempts a definition, but upon being questioned realizes his definition fails to capture the essence or form of moral rightness and does not get to the heart of the matter. Finally, Euthyphro falls back on the common view, the divine command theory of morality: Moral rightness is constituted by, or determined by, God's commands. It is at this point that Socrates asks the blockbuster question, "whether the pious or morally right thing is beloved by the gods because it is right, or right because it is beloved of the gods." Known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, this is one of the most famous questions ever asked in the history of philosophy. Why is it considered so important?

It is a great question because it opens up new issues we may never have thought of otherwise. By raising further questions, it leads us deeper and deeper into the subject. Socrates had a knack for asking questions that take us to the heart of the matter, causing us to think more deeply than we otherwise would. This is also why the Euthyphro is such a wonderful example of critical thinking, and why Socrates was a great teacher.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

According to the divine command theory of morality, the moral code is not a human creation; rather, it is composed of obligations already there in the world, obligations we find ourselves under. Now, if we find ourselves under them, then moral obligations come from somewhere above us, from some authority over us. According to the divine command theory, morality comes from God: It is God's commands written in the human heart, known by human reason, or detected through conscience. Now, Socrates' famous question has always been thought to pose a dilemma for anyone who holds the divine command theory of morality. The dilemma may be rephrased in more modern terms in the form of the following question:

Does God command (or will) that which is morally good because it is truly good, or is it good because God commands (or wills) it?

In philosophy, this question is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. This is a dilemma for an advocate of the divine command interpretation of morality because it seems there are only two ways to answer it (if one also advocates the divine command theory) but both answers appear to contradict the divine command theory of morality. Here are the two possible answers, called the two "horns" of the dilemma:

Answer 1: God commands what is good because it is truly good.

Comment: This answer grasps or accepts the first horn of the dilemma. According to Answer 1, God first recognizes that something is good, and then on that basis commands it. Something is good entirely on its own, before God commands it, and then God sees that it is good and therefore commands it.

Answer 2: Things that are good are good solely because they are commanded by God.

Comment: This answer grasps the second horn of the dilemma. According to Answer 2, God's command alone makes something good. Something is neither good nor bad in its own right, before God issues a command. However, once the divine command is issued, it becomes good or bad in virtue of the command. (Consider this analogy: A new ship has no name until someone in authority breaks a champagne bottle over it and formally christens it the good ship such and such.)

It is commonly assumed that these are the only two answers possible and that both answers contradict the divine command view of morality, thus showing that the divine command theory is self-contradictory. But if the theory is self-contradictory, then of course it is false. Actually, neither answer directly contradicts the divine command view of morality. Answer 1 contradicts the divine command theory of morality only if an additional theological doctrine is conjoined to the divine command theory. Likewise for Answer 2: it only contradicts the divine command theory if an additional theological doctrine is added to the divine command theory of morality. Let us now examine each answer in turn.

The Problem With Answer 1

Answer 1 does not stand in contradiction to the divine command theory of morality. In order to generate a self-contradiction from the divine command theory of morality and Answer 1, we must add the doctrine of divine sovereignty (sometimes also called the doctrine of absolute sovereignty) to the divine command theory of morality. According to the doctrine of divine sovereignty:


God is the ultimate authority in the universe; nothing stands above God, nothing outside God obligates God or determines the commands of God.

Most people throughout history who have believed that God is the source of the moral law have also believed that God is absolutely sovereign as well. Someone who holds both the doctrine of divine sovereignty and the divine command view of morality does indeed face a conundrum if asked the Euthyphro question. Answer 1 seems to contradict the doctrine of absolute sovereignty, for according to Answer 1, God wills what is good because it is truly good. Therefore, God commands us to do good things because those things are good. Thus, the fact that they are good is God's reason or basis for commanding them. But this seems to imply that God judges things as good or bad in relation to an independent standard--a measure above God that even God must follow. This would be an independent standard of goodness binding even on God. But if there is such an independent standard of morality, then morality is not really based in God (or in God's commands) but in something above even God, something existing independently of God, something binding even God. On this view, God, like us, is thus under the commands of morality. It would follow that God is not universally sovereign; God is not the highest authority. Even more importantly, however, it follows that God is not (according to Answer 1) really the source of the moral law, rather, the ultimate source of morality is the independent standard that binds even God, since even God judges things good or bad in terms of it. In which case morality is not ultimately based in God.

The Problem With Answer 2

Answer 2 also does not directly contradict the divine command theory of morality. In order to generate a self-contradiction from the divine command theory and Answer 2, we must add the doctrine of divine reason (or divine rationality) to the divine command theory. According to the doctrine of divine reason:

As the ultimate source of reason, God is fully reasonable and in the highest degree.

Traditionally, most people who believe that God is the source of the moral law have also held that God is indeed intrinsically and maximally reasonable. Now, suppose someone who holds both of these views chooses Answer 2: "What is good is good solely because it is commanded or willed by God." It would seem to follow that God decides what is good and bad on the basis of no independent standard whatsoever. Indeed, on the basis of nothing whatsoever. But if there is no basis on which a divine command is made, then God's judgment on matters of morality is entirely arbitrary, at least in the sense that it is based on no reasons or considerations whatsoever. But if God's commands are totally arbitrary, then they are nonrational (in the sense that they are not based on any considerations, reasons, or facts whatsoever). This "horn" of the dilemma avoids saying that God's commands are constrained by an external source or higher authority above God, but at the cost of making God's commands completely arbitrary, in other words, capricious and nonrational. This contradicts the doctrine of divine reason, the view that God is inherently and maximally reasonable.

Answer 2 seems to usher in have additional problems. If God's commands are arbitrary and thus constrained by nothing, then there are no limits on what God can command. It would seem to follow that if God were to command that we all hate each other, then hatred would be morally good. It would also seem to follow that if God were to command lying, then lying would be good, and so on. For if God's command is not based on an independent standard of goodness, or on any reason at all, or on any facts at all, then whatever God commands is automatically morally good—no matter what. Even universal hatred, lying, and murder are good if commanded by God. These consequences of Answer 2 have seemed absurd to most who have thought hard about the matter.

For example, imagine that a dictator plans to exterminate one million people merely on account of their hair  How could God's command literally make this a morally good thing? The very idea seems absurd. But this would seem to be a logical consequence of the second answer to the dilemma.

A Possible Reply: The "Love" Reply

Suppose a supporter of the divine command theory replies as follows: "But God wouldn't command us to hate each other, or to kill each other, or lie, and so on, for these actions are unloving and God wouldn't command unloving actions." Unfortunately, this response seems to presuppose an independent standard of goodness above God, namely, an objective standard (of love) that governs God and restricts what God can command. But on the second horn of the dilemma, which is the horn being grasped here, there are (by hypothesis) absolutely no external reasons or standards above God's commands binding God's commands in any way. This reply, on behalf of the proponent of the divine command theory, would therefore contradict the second horn of the dilemma. A proponent of the divine command theory therefore cannot offer the "love" defense.

For this response pictures God commanding us to do things because they are loving. But if this is why God commands certain actions, then God's commands follow a standard of love. In this case it is no longer purely God's command alone that makes something good; rather, it is the fact that something is loving that makes it good. This contradicts the second horn of the dilemma, which claims that God's unconstrained commands alone are what make something good. Someone who grasps the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma cannot take this way out.

Back to the Dilemma

The traditional defender of divine command morality seems to be caught in a dilemma, a double bind. It appears that only two answers are possible and he must choose one. But either answer contradicts his own view of God! In other words, whichever way he turns, the traditional advocate of divine command morality contradicts himself. It would seem to follow that the divine command theory of morality, combined with the two traditional views of the nature of God (that God is absolutely sovereign and fully reasonable) contradicts itself. Many interpreters of The Euthyphro have believed that this argument, or one like it, is the argument Socrates is ultimately suggesting in the dialogue. Or more exactly, that this is the reasoning he hopes Euthyphro will discover for himself. Many philosophers throughout history have also considered this argument to be a refutation of the divine command theory of morality.

Generalizing This

The conclusion of the Euthyphro argument can be generalized so as to apply to all theories of the basis of morality. The more general conclusion is that morality cannot be grounded in simply an authority or an authority's commands.  Rather, morality must ultimately be based in something else, in something that is itself inherently rational, in something that is not itself simply an arbitrary authority, not even a great authority such as God, the President, society, or your father or mother. This, many philosophers have argued, is the ultimate conclusion of the Euthyphro.

On the basis of this reasoning, or reasoning very much like it, many philosophers down through the ages have concluded that morality does not come from God, or from God's commands, or from the mere commands of any authority. On the contrary, morality is logically independent of religion, and of God's existence, and of any arbitrary authority. Morality, in other words, exists on its own terms entirely. It is autonomous. This is called the doctrine of the autonomy of morality. But is the doctrine true? Is the Euthyphro argument sound?  

 

A Counterargument Against the Euthyphro

William Alston (1921-2009), a leading 20th century philosopher who taught for many years at Syracuse University, has argued that the Euthyphro dilemma can be resolved in favor of the divine command theory of morality.[1] In other words, he has argued that there is a perfectly reasonable way that a defender of the divine command theory of morality may advocate (a) the doctrines of divine sovereignty and divine reason, and (b) both answers to the Euthyphro dilemma, without any self-contradiction. Alston resolves the dilemma by proposing a theory that is consistent and that entails the doctrines of divine sovereignty, divine reason, and both answers to the Euthyphro dilemma. Now, it is a general principle of logic that if a proposition P is consistent (i.e., not self-contradictory), and if P implies propositions Q, R, S, and T, then Q, R, S, and T must be consistent as well. It follows from this that it is at least possible that God is sovereign, fully reasonable, and that both answers to the dilemma are true. But if so, then a defender of the divine command theory of morality may hold the traditional doctrines of divine sovereignty and divine reason and may also grasp both horns of the dilemma (i.e., give both answers) without any self-contradiction.  

Alston's argument begins with a theory originated by Socrates himself—the theory of the form of the good. In a number of the Platonic dialogues, we see Socrates arguing that the only way to make sense of the truth of our true moral judgments is to hypothesize that there exists an objective standard of intrinsic moral goodness that has the following properties:

(a) it is independent of individual good things (it is not just one more good thing among many good things);

(b) it is that by which good things are properly measured as good.

Furthermore, Socrates argues, if we are to make sense of our true moral judgments, this objective standard of goodness cannot be a material object—an object made of matter existing in time and space; rather, it must be an immaterial entity existing above and beyond time and space. Finally, Socrates argues, the form of the good cannot be known by the physical senses of sight, hearing, etc. (since the senses only detect material objects existing in time and space); it therefore must be known by reason alone, i.e., by the intellect operating independently of the senses. This must be so, he argued, if the very idea of a true moral judgment makes any sense at all.  Socrates calls this independent standard of intrinsic moral goodness "The Form of the Good." (He also sometimes calls it "The Good" and "Goodness itself.")

In the Platonic dialogues Socrates gives at least four separate lines of philosophical argument in support of his theory of the form of the good.

Suppose we agree with Socrates (and many other important moral philosophers since his time) and hypothesize that when we correctly judge something to be morally good or bad, our judgment (at least implicitly) refers to an objective, immaterial, transcendent standard of moral goodness known by unaided reason. In other words, suppose we accept the basic idea of Socrates and Plato, that there is a supreme standard of goodness, itself pristinely and inherently good, existing apart from all good things in the material world, and that this standard is that by which good things are truly and objectively good.

However, suppose that we also hold that God exists. Suppose we also adopt the hypothesis that that the supreme, objective, immaterial standard of goodness is identical with the divine nature itself. In other words, suppose we hypothesize that God has an essence or nature, and that the divine essence is what Socrates and Plato called the Form of the Good or "Goodness itself."

On the basis of this hypothesis, Alston argues, the advocate of the divine command theory of morality may grasp both horns of the Euthyphro dilemma without any self-contradiction. In the first place, the divine command theorist can agree that there is an objective, ultimate standard of goodness, independent of individual good things, and that God's commands are always in conformity to it. This is to grasp the first horn of the dilemma. God commands what is good because it is good. At the same time, the divine command advocate can maintain, without any inconsistency, that God is absolutely sovereign, that is, that God is not bound by an external or higher standard, for according to the hypothesis, the supreme standard of goodness is internal to God and not above God since it is (by hypothesis) God's eternal nature itself. Thus, in commanding what is good, God is not succumbing to a standard above God, God is merely commanding in conformity to God's own nature.

Secondly, while still holding on to the first horn of the dilemma, the divine command theorist may also grasp (admit) the second horn without any contradiction, agreeing that something is good because it is commanded by God. For by hypothesis if God commands an action, then God's command will always be in accord with God's eternal nature, for on the traditional view God is fully rational and a fully rational being is internally consistent. But God's eternal nature simply is the Form of the Good. Thus, the second horn of the dilemma is easily accepted: God's commanding something would certainly be a logically sufficient condition for that thing being right or good.

On the basis of Socrates' own theory of the good, professor Alston thus argues, one can accept the traditional idea of God, and the divine command theory of morality, and both horns of the Euthyphro dilemma, without any contradiction. If Alston's argument is valid, then the Euthyphro dilemma has a consistent solution and the argument against the divine command theory of morality, based on the Euthyphro dilemma, fails. Which of the two opposing arguments has the best reasons behind it? That, of course, is for you to decide.

Paul HerrickShoreline
Community College