The Euthyphro dilemma

In Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates queries, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" Socrates’ query can be re-phrased in this more modern way: “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” This creates an inescapable conundrum for the believer: if something is good because God commands it, then no act is intrinsically immoral. If God commands something because it is good, then God is not the source of good, but rather subject to it.

The God of the Old Testament seems to adhere to quite a different standard of morality than we value today. He explicitly condones slavery (both slave labor and sexual servitude), fosters the subjugation of women, and commands his followers to commit genocide and human sacrifice. No doubt today we find these sorts of things to be morally repugnant. But if they are objectively immoral, then how could God, who is perfectly moral, command and condone them? William Lane Craig, a well-known Christian apologist with Biola Theological Seminary, defends the genocide of the Canaanites as follows:

By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice.  The Canaanites are to be destroyed “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20.18).  God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgement upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice. [1]

Craig is arguing that God’s actions are circumstantially justifiable. But this does not avert the Euthyphro dilemma: if genocide is intrinsically wrong, then God cannot be good in commanding it. But if genocide can be circumstantially justified, then it is not an objectively immoral act.

By Craig’s logic, any act could be deemed not only as permissible, but obligatory as long as God commands it. If God is the source of moral goodness, any command he issues must by definition be good. God could – as he does in the Old Testament – command the sexual servitude of women, the slaughter of children, and the execution of rape victims, and these atrocious acts would necessarily be viewed as “good”. The acts in themselves are neither good nor evil, but become good when God commands them. This is untenable, and believers know it – morality becomes completely arbitrary. Believers center their moral argument on the notion that certain acts are intrinsically right or wrong, moral or immoral. But they can’t have it both ways – either certain atrocities are circumstantially justifiable, or they are intrinsically immoral.

Fortunately, there’s a very simple way to resolve the Euthyphro dilemma: by assuming that objective moral truths do not exist. This is because “morality” is a concept – an abstraction that is defined arbitrarily and does not exist independently of the human brain. For example, we know that horses exist. We also know that the concept of horses exists. But these are not the same thing; a horse is an objective thing that exists independently of our brains, while the concept of a horse exists only as an abstraction. Unicorns, by contrast, do not exist – there is no objectively existing entity which fits our concept of a unicorn. The concept of a unicorn, however, certainly does exist. Clearly concepts do not exist in the same capacity as objective things; the former is a mere abstraction dependent on human thought, while the latter exists regardless of whether humans are around to imagine it. There is no such thing as moral truth because “truths” are propositions – statements that must be objectively valid. But since morality only exists as an abstraction and not as an objective thing, there cannot be any such thing as a “moral truth”.

This means that we are free to define the concept of morality however we choose. If we want to follow the example of Old Testament Yahweh or modern fundamentalist Muslims, we can develop a code of morality which asserts that the subjugation of women is righteous. We could, just as validly, create a concept of morality which asserts that the equality of women is righteous. Like any abstraction, the concept of morality is defined arbitrarily.

I can already sense believers foaming at the mouth: doesn’t this imply that any definition of morality is equally valid? That we can just do whatever we want?

This does imply that any definition of morality is equally valid, since concepts are defined arbitrarily. However, not all concepts are equally useful. The concept of a horse is more useful to us than the concept of a unicorn because, unlike the concept of a unicorn, it corresponds to an objectively existing thing (an actual horse). Similarly, concepts of morality – concepts of what is good and bad for us to do – can be more or less useful depending on whether they correspond to things that are good and bad for us to do.

We might well decide, arbitrarily, that subjugating women is moral. However, we could objectively demonstrate that the subjugation of women is detrimental not only to women, but to society as a whole – because women are just as capable as men at becoming leaders, educators, thinkers, and innovators. It’s no secret that the culture of Saudi Arabia, for example, in which women have virtually no basic rights, is little more than a Bronze-Age culture with modern-age weaponry. While they are free to conceptualize the subjugation of women as a morally righteous behavior, their concept of morality is of little utility since such behavior is demonstrably harmful.

For the concept of morality to be useful to us, we must ground it not in the whims of gods whose mere existence and fundamental qualities – let alone their desires – cannot be objectively discerned, but rather on quantifiable states of human well-being. Morality, to be a useful concept, must relate to what is good for us – what is in our best interest both as individuals and as a species.


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