Ancient Problems: Euthyphro and the Problem of Goodness

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (Plato, Euthyphro)

The Euthyphro dilemma seems to the in the utility belt of every non-theist who has anything of any rational substance to say about religion and morality and how the two relate. It has been a matter of defense and attack for nearly two millennia and is considered by many to be unavoidable.

I plan here, not to give a knockdown defense of the Euthyphro Dilemma, but instead to survey a few of the many possible defenses that have been run for it. This can be a useful exercise for both the Theist and the Non-Theist, who wishes to engage the other. The Theist should know the defenses that have been done, and some of the weaknesses with them. And the non-theist should as well, so as to be prepared for rebuttal. (or with rebuttal.)

First, I suppose we should restate the argument in a way that would affect the classical Theist.

“Is something Good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is Good?”

Given this revision, we no longer have multiple gods, we are no longer dealing with ‘piety’, and we set up the dilemma to attack not only duties(such as piety) but also moral and aesthetic value judgments. In short, this restatement of the dilemma broadens it and gives it more power against the Theist.

Second, we should discuss the underlying assumptions of the dilemma.

  1. Objective Goodness exists.
    This may seem obvious, but it is one of the reasons why it is commonly used against Theists. Theists almost by necessity have to assert objective morality. The problem arises however, when the assumption also spreads to God, as if God either has to conform to objective goodness, or inflict arbitrary subjective goodness on us.
  2. Goodness is a property.
    In order to talk reasonably about ‘goodness’ in the common sense, we need to assume it as a property. ‘X is good’ could easily be restated as ‘X has the property of goodness’.

Now that we have spoken at least briefly about the underlying assumptions of the dilemma, let us begin to look at a few ways this dilemma has been defended against in the past two millennia.(1)

A) Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm: The three A’s of Classical Christianity often give the defense that God simply is the standard for goodness. He’s like a great divine meterstick against which all things are measured. It does not make sense to ask why a meterstick is a meter, it simply is. This is by far the most common defense against the Euthyphro dilemma and it comes in various shapes and sizes. In classical theology it tended to depend upon one’s ontology of evil. If one had properly come to understand goodness, then you could easily show how God is the meterstick for it.

The three A’s base their understanding of goodness as “that which all things aim for.” (Aristotle, NE 1.1. 1094a2-3) Goodness has a certain positive ontology that shows that it exists in a real and substantive way. It is “being” if you will. This leaves evil or ‘badness’ as a lack of something. Aquinas for example, builds upon this idea stating, “When we say that good is what all desire, it is not to be understood that every kind of good thing is desired by all; but that whatever is desired has the nature of good.” (Aquinas, ST 1 6, 2) This again returns to the idea of goodness as a property of objects. We do not want riches because they are riches but because they have the property of goodness. Our aims are often misguided because we do not know this perfect standard in a perfect way. If we did, we would never miss with our aims and our judgments of the Good. “Only God would have perfect knowledge of Himself, and thus can always will in ways that are perfect. His will is the ‘rule’ by which created wills find their measure, but God’s will has no rule above which it finds measure.” (ST 1 63, 1) And thus we find that “Anselm, like Augustine before him and Aquinas later, rejects both horns of the Euthyphro dilemma. God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather his very nature is the standard for value.” (Rogers, Katherine. Anselm and Free Will, 2008)

The problem with this is that it raises questions about God’s ontology and allows for what many consider to be a clever riposte, namely, “Is God’s nature good because God chooses it, or is his nature good due to some outside factor?” This is due to the fact that the Euthyphro dilemma assumes that goodness is a property, and if we say that God has a property that allows us to derive other properties, we open ourselves up to the Third Man argument of Plato’s Parmenides.

There have been several semantic attempts to get around this. Aquinas thought that our language was analogical, and so we were not saying God is ‘good’ in the same sense as we would use the term Good. But more recently philosophers like Robert Adams, and William Alston have attempted semantic solutions to the problem.

For example, in Alston’s “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.”(2) Alston builds on a distinction that was made by philosopher Robert Adams, in that the property of ethical wrongness “is (i.e. Identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God.”(3) In this way technically God is exempt from the property of being ethical or moral or ‘good’.(God is not subject to his own commands) But Alston continues to build on this idea and goes to try and show that despite this exception to his own commands, God is nonetheless still able to be the root of objective and necessary morality.

He does this by attempting to show that God has a nature that is loving, good, and caring and then tries to show how it would be impossible for God to give a command that is ethically binding that is opposed to his nature. He says that the only reason a divine command is ‘good’ is because the nature of God’s attributes supervenes upon that command, and makes it so. However, it is not that these things are good just because that is what God ‘happens’ to do, rather God does them because he is the standard which determines goodness.

“I want to suggest, by contrast, that we can think of God himself, the individual being, as the supreme standard of goodness. God plays the role in evaluation that is more usually assigned, by objectivists about value, to Platonic Ideas or principles. Lovingness is good (a good-making feature, that on which goodness is supervenient) not because of the Platonic existence of a general principle or fact to the effect that lovingness is good, but because God, the supreme standard of goodness, is loving. Goodness supervenes on every feature of God, not because some general principles are true but just because they are features of God. Of course, we can have general principles, for example, lovingness is good. Or this principle is not ultimate it, or the general fact that makes it true, does not enjoy some Platonic ontological status; rather is it true, just because the property it specifies as sufficient for goodness is a property of God.” (Alston)

The problem I think arises if we think that God is identical with his properties. Surely he can have properties, but he cannot be identical with them. Because as Alvin Plantinga points out, “If God is identical with each of his properties, then, since each of his properties is a property, he is a property – a self-exemplifying property. Accordingly God has just one property: himself. This view is subject to a difficulty both obvious and overwhelming. No property could have created the world; no property could be omniscient, or, indeed, now anything at all. If God is a property, then he isn’t a person but a mere abstract object; he has no knowledge, awareness, power, love, or life. So taken, the simplicity doctrine seems an utter mistake.” (Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature?) We could simply deny that God is identical with his properties, he is the possessor of, rather than product of, his properties. And I feel like this makes sense. A book is not the result of it’s properties, nor is it identical with it. If I said that a book is nothing except, “Hard, page-filled, word filled” and go on to list it’s properties ad absurdum then we would have a bunch of disjointed properties and not a coherent unity.(4)

So this solution seems to be difficult, but could be coherently defended I believe. I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide.

B) The Both/And approach. TJ Mawson in his paper “The Euthyphro Dilemma” (5) presents an argument that I have only found in him, but may be extant in other places. (I have not read every book ever.)

“I suggest that the theist is best advised to reject Socrates’ ‘Either . . . Or’ way of framing the question, saying instead that some things God wills because they are good and other things are good because God wills them. For this solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma to give the theist the best of both worlds rather than the worst, he or she then needs a way of explaining how the things that God wills because they are good are things that do not set up a standard of behaviour independent of God, a standard that could correctly be thought to constrain God in His actions, and also a way of explaining how the things that get to be good solely as a result of God’s will are things that it’s not, after all, counterintuitive to suggest could have been bad.” (Mawson)

Mawson takes the approach that instead of splitting the horns of the dilemma, we try and grab on to both at once and say that they are both aspects of the whole. Certain things out of logical necessity are good and others out of necessity are bad, and other things are contingently bad. Since most Theists are happy to claim that God cannot do the logically impossible(6) then we can see that this would not be a limitation on God, as God can still do all logically possible things. Mawson argues that some things we pick out with certain concepts that are by logical necessity ‘bad’. (Or some things are necessarily bad due to the fact that they apply to people.) Agonizing pain for instance is logically bad by definition, in the sense that all bachelors are unmarried. God could not ever, due to his logical limitations, bring about a state of affairs where ‘agonizing pain’ was a good thing, just as he could not bring about a bachelor that was unmarried. This would be the sort of thing that accepts the second horn of the dilemma. “God does them because they are good.” Presumably, if certain things are bad by necessity, it’s inverse is true as well. There are things that are good by necessity, and there’s nothing anyone, not even God, can do about that. But that is not a limit to his omnipotence.

For the first horn though, “Things are good because God wills them.” Mawson argues that though certain concepts are logically necessary to be bad, the types of situations that they might be applied to is different. For example, he says:

Some concepts pick out things that are bad for people via contingent features that
people happen – universally but not essentially – to have. As it happens, all people in this world have the property of suffering agonizing pain if a large amount of electricity is passed through their bodies; this being so, it is a universal truth that it’s bad to pass this amount of electricity through people. But the universal badness of passing large amounts of electricity through people is obviously the result of
contingent features of the natural world, features that on theism God has freely chosen to create and that consequently it is not at all counterintuitive to suggest could have been different. Thus the theist is free to say that all substantive moral truths (as opposed to conceptual necessities) depend on God’s will in creation, but this does not, after all, have the counterintuitive consequence that we must say that God could make torture, for example, good.

He argues that torture is bad by logical necessity, as it inflicts agonizing pain upon people for no good end. (Even if there were a good end, it would still be bad, even though the result of it would be good.) However, his specific example which is ‘passing a large amount of electricity through someone’ he argues that God could have made good, if he had chosen our contingent properties and physiological makeup differently so that this action is good. But then it’s not torture anymore, because torture is ‘inflicting agonizing pain on someone…’ and so this is not counter-intuitive in the sense that most people raising the Euthyphro dilemma would have you believe.

He thus argues that this sort of solution does not limit God in any way unacceptable to the Theist, nor does it remove the possibility of objectively knowable morality. Here is his conclusion to his paper:

“In conclusion then, we have seen that the theist may say that God creates all value in the sense that prior to God’s creation, there were no substantive principles to constrain Him in the choices He made. However, this does not mean that He could have chosen to create a world in which torture was good, for such a world is a logical impossibility and not even God should be expected to be able to do the logically impossible. The goodness of refraining from torturing people is something that is logically necessary. God wills that we refrain from torturing people because of the necessary badness of torture. It is not that torture gets the badness that it does because of God’s will. But what acts count as torture and what not is something entirely a result of God’s free will in creation. So we may say that of anything which can be picked out using a term that does not itself of logical necessity entail anything about the goodness or badness of the thing so picked out, the answer to the question of why that thing has the goodness or badness that it has is that it does so because God has willed it to do so. And thus the Euthyphro Dilemma is solved.”

This seems like a decent solution to the problem. It neither tries to evade the dilemma by splitting it and opening up discussions about the properties of God’s and so forth, nor does it accept one of the two arms with unacceptable consequences. It does however, seem like an attack could be run against it by asking how we interpret God’s commands in particular passages of the Hebrew Scripture. His commands to kill all the people or wipe out groups. That is a tricky situation for any Theist, but doesn’t much deal with the Euthyphro problem proper, but gets more into a discussion about textual epistemology and hermeneutics, but these objections still might be raised.(7)

C) Islamic solutions to the Euthyphro problem:

Up until now I have dealt primarily with answers stemming from the Judeo-Christian tradition, more specifically the Christian tradition. Judaism rarely addresses the issue because as Jonathan Sacks has written, “In Judaism, the Euthyphro dilemma does not exist.” (8)(9)

In Islam however, the solution is very different. The Mutazila thought that since Allah is perfect unity and perfectly eternal, then the Qur’an could not have been co-eternal with God and thus is accessible to rational inquiry (as opposed to accessible only by tradition and literal interpretation.) The Mutazila (such as Averroës) argue that God wills things because they are right. They give in to the second horn of the argument and yield that God does what is right. That there is a moral logic that exists that God conforms to, but God is necessary for us to know it perfectly. Averroës says that God’s aim is “to preserve the health and cure the diseases of all the people, by prescribing for them rules which can be commonly accepted… He is unable to make them all doctors, because a doctor is one who knows by de­monstrative methods the things which preserve health and cure disease.”(10) This aligns with Averroës’ emphasis that truth does not contradict truth, and shows that even though we can come to understand moral law through our reason, it does not mean that revelation is not a valid way to arrive there as well. Since God is trying to help us, he gives it to us without our need to understand it, but it is possible for us to arrive there as well. Truth does not contradict truth.

The Asharites on the other hand embrace the first horn of this dilemma and take the voluntarist position. That whatever God commands is acceptable. The voluntarist position says that whatever God wills is what is Good, and there are no restraints on what he could will. ““Then lying is evil only because Allah declared it to be evil? Certainly. And if He declared it to be good, it would be good; and if He commanded it, no one could gainsay Him.” (Al-Ashari) (11) and further, “We confess that the decision concerning good and evil wholly depends on Allah. For whoever should say that the decision regarding good and evil depends upon another than Allah would thereby be guilty of unbelief regarding Allah, and his confession of the unity of Allah would become invalid.” (Al-Ghazali) (12) This option also subtly rejects the first underlying assumption of the Euthyphro dilemma, but also goes to show that the objector is making a silly claim. If there are no objective moral values except what God decrees, then trying to reason about it is pointless.(13)

These two version of the defense are actually fairly powerful as they do undermine the dilemma. I am not particularly happy with the consequences of the second one, as they ascribe a sort of circularity to the argument, dismiss objective right and wrong, and also seem to endanger God’s standing as an all wise being. Though I suppose we could simply say that God’s wisdom is far beyond us and we can’t actually get at it anyways, but that to me always seems like a cop-out. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, all agree that Man was created in God’s image. Images reflect something of their creator. Can we not gather something of God by looking at ourselves, even if it is dim and far off. We have reason and God has reason, it would seem to me. Even though ours is more finite.
Anyway, I can’t quibble with the second due to the fact that standards set without reason cannot be reasoned about or with, and so to argue is pointless. The first solution though, is nice, but almost seems to make God just a second option on our path to perfection. We can obtain the truth of reality through moral reasoning, what good is God? And how is he more wise than us? Both of these solutions seem to me to reduce God in some way, though I know many people would disagree.

Anyways, that’s a brief history of the Euthyphro dilemma and some of the defenses to be brought against it, as well as a brief review of what I think their strengths and weaknesses are. Sorry if you wanted something else, but here’s what you get.


(1) One should not assume that we are trying to present all possible defenses against the Euthyphro dilemma here. That would be long and exhaustive and defeat the purpose that the reader set out for. What I will do here is attempt to give a few major defenses.
(2) Alston, William P. “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.” Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002. 283-98. Print.
(3) Adams, “Divine Command Metaethics”, p76.
(4) Interestingly, I think Van Til makes the argument that the Christian God is precisely the reason we can have anything.  The Trinity and the reality of the Multiplicity in the Unity, is what allows us to understand the Universals and the Particulars. I can’t find a citation for this argument at the moment.
(5)  T. J. Mawson (2008). THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA. Think, 7, pp 25-33. doi:10.1017/S1477175608000171.
(6) I wrote a paper in my undergraduate studies explaining how if a Theist is to have discourse on any matters of philosophical discourse without being overpowered then God cannot do the logically impossible. The problem of evil disappears if God can do contradictory things and so on and so forth.
(7) Recently Paul Copan published a book called “Is God a Moral Monster?” which I found helpful for learning to properly interpret these Old Testament passages. A shorter version may be found here
(8) Sacks, Jonathan (2005). To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. New York: Schocken Books. ISBN 978-0-8052-1196-2.
(9) Arguably though, their solution is similar to the classical Christian solution. Presumably Classical Christian thinkers based their idea off earlier Jewish thought, like what is found in Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah.
(10) Averroës, On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, trans. George Hourani (London: Messrs. Luzac & Co., 1976) ch. 3 line 174.
(11) Cited in Beers, T. Euthyphro and Islam (2010)
(12) Cited in Faris, N. The Foundations of the Articles of Faith Sh. Muhammad Publishers, Lahore, 1999
(13) I made a similar objection to the idea of unlimited omnipotence due to the fact that logic becomes useless.


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