Many freshman philosophy students find themselves confronted with the Euthyphro dilemma, a question often posed to convince us that God's existence is superfluous for our moral lives. The dilemma gets its name from the fact that it first appears in Plato's dialogue titled The Euthyphro and has popped up frequently in the philosophical literature ever since.
I'd like to share some thoughts on it over the course of two posts with the caveat that much of what I say is not original with me and that whatever might be original I offer with the humble recognition that it could well be nonsense.
With that caution in mind let's look at the dilemma. It's often put in the form of the following question:
Is something morally good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?
The question seeks to offer theists, at least those who hold to a divine command theory of ethics, two unpalatable choices. If the theist chooses the first option then presumably had God commanded us to be cruel, cruelty would be morally good, a state of affairs which seems at the very least counterintuitive.
If the second alternative is chosen then good seems to be independent of God, existing apart from God, and rendering God unnecessary for the existence of good or "right."
I think, though, that the choices with which the dilemma confronts us are unable to carry the weight placed upon their shoulders. To see why let's start with a definition for "moral good."
Let's stipulate that moral good is that which conduces to human happiness and well-being.
It may be argued that we don't need God to know what conduces to human well-being and thus we can know what is good without having to believe in God. This may be true, but it misses the point.
First, our problem is not with recognizing good so much as it is explaining why God is still necessary for good to exist. Just because we can recognize good without believing in God doesn't mean that God is not necessary for there to be good. What is good is contingent upon the kind of beings we are, and the way we are is contingent upon God. We have the nature we do because God created us this way. Thus, what conduces to our well-being is a function of God's design.
We can no more say that God is irrelevant to our well-being than we could say that just because we know that clean oil is conducive to our car's well-being that therefore the engineers who designed the car are irrelevant to our knowing that we should change the oil periodically. Oil is "good" for the car because that's how the engineers made the car.
Secondly, even if belief in God is not necessary for one to know or recognize what conduces to well-being it is nevertheless necessary that there be a God in order for us to think we have a non-arbitrary duty to care about the well-being of others. If there is no God there is no moral obligation to concern ourselves with the good of others or to do anything else, for that matter. We may want to help others flourish, of course, but the belief that we should is completely arbitrary. If we didn't care about others, or even if we worked against the good of others, we wouldn't be committing some grievous moral offense. Just because something is good doesn't mean we ought to do it, at least not unless we are assuming that we ought always to do what conduces to other people's happiness and well-being. But why should we assume such a thing? Where does this premise come from? Why should I not just promote my own well-being and let others fend for themselves? Without God there's no real answer to these questions.
Thus, God's existence is crucial, not so that we can recognize good, perhaps, but rather as a ground for both the existence of good and for our duty to do good to others.
So, let's return to the dilemma. Consider again the second horn. Does God command, say, kindness because kindness is good? Is the good of kindness independent of God? Does it exist apart from God?
I don't think so. Goodness is an essential element of God's being. Goodness is no more separable from God than a triangle is separable from the property of having just three angles. Goodness is ontologically dependent upon God's existence much as sunlight is ontologically dependent upon the sun. If there were no sun, sunlight would not exist. If there were no God then moral goodness as a quality of our actions would not exist. Actions which lead to human well-being would have no moral value any more than a cat nursing her young has moral value even though her act conduces to their well-being. We would not consider the cat evil if it refused to nurse its young, nor, if there is no God, would we be able to judge a man objectively evil if he practiced cruelty.
God commands love because he has made us to be the sort of beings which flourish, generally, when nurtured in love, and he has made us this way because it is his essential nature to be loving. Love is not one thing and God another. God is love.
But what of the first horn of the dilemma? What if instead of loving God were hateful and cruel? Would hate and cruelty then be good? We'll consider those questions next time.RLC