Thursday, March 12, 2015


The following is, once more, my personal opinion and not necessarily that of my employer, colleagues, friends, family or pot plants. Also, I do not claim to be an expert on moral philosophy or theology.

Continuing my readings of Thomist theologian-philosopher Edward Feser suggested by commenter Cale, I have decided to tackle the Euthyphro dilemma next, out of genuine personal interest. (I will probably rue leaving the posts I find least interesting for last...)

Admittedly, Feser's real topic in the linked post is whether god has, as he puts it, obligations to us, which he answers with no. But I find that much less interesting than the religious replies to Euthyphro. For what it is worth, I see two possible answers to his question. From an intuitive, human perspective it seems fairly obvious that somebody has a responsibility for what they cause and create, and thus a hypothetical creator-god would have responsibility for us. Stepping outside of everyday moral intuition and trying to justify that responsibility from first principles, however, I come up empty-handed because I personally do not see any way to bridge the is-ought gap. But that means merely that ethics and moral imperatives are made up by humans, leaving us again with the human intuition that says that you have a responsibility for your creations.

Anyway, Euthyphro - what is it again? It was Plato's (or supposedly Socrates') response to divine command theory, the idea that our moral compass can only be derived from the gods. I understand that in the original text, which I admittedly have not read, the discussion was rather more complicated, but it boils down to the question whether something is good because the gods command it or whether something is good independently of whether they command it or not.

The problem for the believer, and in particular for the adherent of divine command theory, is that in the first case the gods could just as well have commanded something vile, e.g. thou shalt harm innocent people without good reason. There is no true grounding of morals, just the arbitrary preferences of the gods. In the second case, however, the morals do not actually come from the gods, and thus divine command theory is false. Another way of putting it is that in that case we could cut out the middleman and be moral without gods, religion or holy texts.

Now I'd say, so what? I don't believe that morals are objective facts anyway. But of course many theists believe that morals come from their gods but don't see them as arbitrary divine fiat either. Although I wouldn't be able to find the link again, I have seen the typical theist response to Euthyphro before. Basically it is a complicated way of saying: it isn't either-or, it is both! And Feser argues the same. He affirms that the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is the right one, and that god is bound by an external standard of goodness:
What is good or bad for us is determined by the ends set for us by our nature, and given the essentialist metaphysics Aquinas is committed to, that means that there are certain things that are good or bad for us absolutely, which even God could not change (since God’s power does not extend to doing what is self-contradictory).
(Note, by the way, the style of argumentation that I am starting to find typical of Edward Feser's writing: Aquinas said X, therefore X.)

At the same time, he affirms that the first horn of the dilemma is also the right one, and that goodness is decided by god:
But the essences that determine the ends of things – our ends, and for that matter the end of reason too as inherently directed toward the true and the good – do not exist independently of God. Rather, given the Scholastic realist understanding of universals, they pre-exist in the divine intellect as the ideas or archetypes by reference to which God creates.
 (The Scholastics said X, therefore X. But we had that already.)

To me this looks like another case of trying to have it both ways, and I must say I personally find this reply remarkably unconvincing. Imagine it had been established that Joe Average ran over his neighbour and killed him, and now the judge asks: Did you murder your neighbour on purpose, or was it a traffic accident? Mr Average is now faced with a dilemma, because if he says yes to the first option, he is a murderer, and if he says yes to the second, he is a reckless driver. He doesn't like either option. But would it help him if he took a leaf out of the Thomist book and replied: "both, your honour"?

I think not. The thing is, the question that the judge is asking is not really, if you come right down to it, a dilemma that can be solved by assuming both options to be true. The question is simply: Murder? Yes or no. Either he murdered, or he didn't. If he replies "both" to the original question posed by the judge, he isn't making a lot of sense, but he has also just as much confirmed that he is a murderer as if he had only said yes to the first option.

The same would appear to apply to Euthyphro. The dilemma can be reduced to the question: Does god decide what is good? Yes or no. Feser is trying to have it both ways but to me the second quote above shows that he has answered with yes, and that is that. To him, what is good comes from the nature of his god; if god were different, he would give different commands, and then we'd have a problem.

Lucky he isn't different, one could say. Or at least one could say so if the commands that some Christians believe he gives were not already plenty problematic to some of us, such as banning medically assisted suicide for example, or letting foetuses and pregnant women die through inaction in cases where one could at least save the women if one followed a more consequentialist moral philosophy. And one could mention the crusades. In other words, if one were to assume that the Christian god existed and that the moral law promoted by some Christians were an accurate representation of that god's will, then some of us would probably already perceive god as commanding us to harm innocent people for no good reason. The pitfalls of divine command theory are thus not a pure hypothetical.

But I appreciate that many Christians see it differently, and conversely that many other Christians actually share my moral philosophy all the while believing in a god. Stuff is complicated.


  1. Nice deconstruction of the argument.
    I wrote about this topic a little while ago.

    I totally agree with your article here. My additional thoughts are:
    1. As you rightly point out, arguing for "both" is really just arguing divine command theory. A clever theist can avoid cognitive dissonance by saying "Yes, God defines what is good, but God also created everything so that this morality is hard-coded into the universe, unchangeable." That's what I would have argued, back when I was a Christian, and it would have satisfied my own curiosity.
    2. The whole conversation is very wishy-washy since it relies on some unfounded assumptions. Why bring "God" into the morality discussion at all? You must already start with a traditional position, and then try to break it down, rather than build it up from the ground empirically or logically. The Euthyphro dilemma feels as vapid as:

    Do leprechauns create gold as a result of people being morally good, or are people morally good because leprechauns are secretly creating gold?

    After pondering this topic for too long, I feel like saying "come back when you have something non-imaginary to talk about". Actually, that sort of sums up a lot of theological philosophy for me.

  2. I agree - from my perspective the question whether there is any evidence for the assumptions underlying the discussion would also be the more important one. But in all fairness, this was started by Cale's reaction to a post that deliberately set that question aside, where I argued that even if several core claims of the Abrahamic religions could be demonstrated to be true they wouldn't seem as comforting to me as it is often claimed by their proponents.