Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mailbag Monday: The Euthyphro Dilemma

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.


John writes,
I'll be honest with you bro, I have a pretty strong antitheist bias. The Euthyphro dilemma seems a decent case for not basing your moral code on divine revelation but I'm sure smarter and more religiously minded bros than me have given it a lot of thought. Can you tell me where it all goes wrong?
Oh man, the fucking Euthyphro dilemma. Fucking classic piece of philosophy, and maybe reason enough on its own to study Plato. The ED (heh. Heh heh. C'mon guys. Grow up.) is a thought experiment about God's relationship to morality, and it runs a little something like this:
God commands us to do good things, right? Okay - are they good because He commands them, or does He command them because they are good?

Mind. fucking. blown. Thanks, Plato. And by that I mean, fuck you. It's such a simple question, right? Does God make shit good, or does He command it because He is good? In Genesis, He says that Creation is good after every day - was that because He commanded it to be good, or because He judged it good according to some other standard?

Here's the problem, really: if you think that God commands things because they're good, then you have to provide some other way to judge what's good. What the fuck could that possibly be? If before God, there was nothing, and then he created the Universe, how the fuck could suddenly there just be some other way to know that shit is bad? I mean, picture God, pre-creation, shopping around among the possible universes, trying to select a model with all the features He wanted - friendly to the existence of life, expansive and glorious, central air conditioning and heating, power windows and locks. He looks at a Universe where everyone's got the herp and we're on fire all the time for no reason whatsoever and goes, "Oh, man, that's bad." How... what? Why is that bad? According to whom, if not God? I mean, yeah, maybe we agree that being arbitrarily, perpetually roasted on Planet Herpes is in fact bad; I'm not challenging that. But isn't it only bad because he says so? In this scenario, there is nothing but God and His thoughts - (and maybe properties if you're not a nominalist; not the time and place, though) if God is supposed to be omnipotent, why can't he just make that world good? There's no inherent logical contradiction here, so it's not like we're asking God to make a square circle.

Plus, if God is supposed to be omnibenevolent, doesn't that contradict his whole omnipotence deal? Even if we could find a way to ground the idea of goodness in something other than God, why can't He do bad things? Scumbag God: "I, uh, I can absolutely anything I want. I AM ALL-POWERFUL. Except... except things that are bad." I'm... I'm going to be honest, God, the bad stuff is really fun. So, it's hard to see what could make shit good, if not God. If He doesn't decide what's good, then He's subject to some higher power, same as us. Lame.

So maybe you're like, "No way, bro, my God isn't subject to shit. He calls the shots, and what He says, goes!" You... you wouldn't be the first theist on a skateboard to get in my face and tell me that. Kickflip for Jesus! Yeah, whatever, real rad. Look, here's your problem: why does that make your God benevolent at all? It's not that fucking impressive that God is perfectly good if He defines that concept no matter what. Seems like all you've done is taken some really, really strong dude - we'll call him Josh -  and said, "Whatever he does, that's the cool thing to do." And sure, when that dude spends his weekends volunteering at a homeless shelter you're like, "Oh man, Josh is the fucking coolest. He cares about less fortunate people!" But then when he goes on a murderous rampage the next night you're like, "Hey guys, did you hear? Josh stabbed like, twenty bros! Isn't he awesome?!" And if I was like, "uh, why is stabbing people cool?" you'd have to say something like, "Uh, because Josh does it." It's like that, except you've made God that bro. God never does evil because He couldn't if he tried. If tomorrow God was like, "ABORT ALL THE BABIES" you couldn't be like, "Uh, but God, that's... that's not cool, is it?" because then He'd be like, "Sure the fuck is."  And it would be. It's not that Great that God is Good if he gets to set that bar as low as He wants and still clear it. Meh. That's like saying, "Wow! Josh is Josh!" ...so? Tautologies aren't impressive, kid.

Now, Johnny, you and plenty of other antitheists (and even the friendlier atheists and agnostics) like to think the ED is a reductio of the idea of God - that is, it demonstrates some inherent absurdity in the idea of God. It has to be one or the other, and it looks like they're both incompatible with some assumptions about God. So, you know, fuck 'im. But it's not really that simple. Of course, you could just bite the bullets one way or the other - it's not like God created the integers by hand, fashioning the numbers one by one; He just makes things, and sometimes He happens to make three of them. Maybe He didn't create 'good' - He just makes things, and they all happen to be good, whatever that means, however we judge. "But what does it mean for there to be three of something? What declares threeness, if not God?" What? Nothing... nothing declares threeness. He declares that there should be three of something, and there are three. But that's not a metaphysical statement about what threeness is. Threeness is just a way things are. It's a ground-level property - stop overthinking it. Good, same thing - God knows good when He sees it, he can't be wrong about goodness, and everything he makes just is good. God doesn't declare goodness; He just declares that good things ought to be. What is the grounding of goodness? The same as the grounding of threeness. Sometimes we look at things and go, "Oh, there are three of those. Oh, no, wait. There are four. My bad, I didn't see that one." Sometimes we see events and go, "That was awesome! Oh, no, wait. It kind of sucked. My bad." We can make mistakes about goodness, way more which is why it seems like such a intractable problem to us. Maybe God is just like, "Yeah, good, it looks something like this. So?" (But... what the fuck is good then?? Look, I don't know, either. But it's something, okay?!)

Or maybe yes, He does just get to pick and choose what's good, and because of His power they just are Good. Is that so hard to believe? People seem comfortable biting that bullet; you hear people say shit like, "There's a reason for everything." It would certainly make the Old Testament genocides easy to explain if God can just make shit good. And if you're an antitheist, that probably makes your blood fucking boil. You mean God gets to slaughter entire peoples and He gets off scot-free? That's fucking bullshit!! But, yeah. He does. And it is good. If you think it's terrible, Divine Command Theorists might say, that's just your error-prone moral judgment. You think you know that killing people is bad, by why is that? Just because God commanded it to be bad in most cases, and He made you with a moral faculty for judging things. So usually, that looks real bad. He also made you with a faculty for knowing and trusting Him, and that faculty is what's supposed to let you know when moral exceptions should be made. But as an antitheist, you don't use that one, so you get upset when God bends the rules. Not His problem, bro. (But doesn't that still make God seem like kind of a dick? Yes. Yes it does.)  

Look, John, it's a big question. This rabbit-hole is deep as shit. The idea of omnipotence and omnibenevolence - there's the real tension point. But the point is, the Euthyphro dilemma isn't so much a reductio as it is an illustration of the bullets one has to bite to believe. But all told, maybe they're not hard bullets to bite. Granted, there are likely issues with the suggestions I've raised;  it sure as hell is at least an inconvenient question for theists. They don't get off the hook easily, so don't think I'm siding with them. Maybe the costs are just too high. But the dilemma demands careful consideration for theists and non-theists alike.

You can read the original text of the Euthyphro online at Wikisource. The Stanford Encyclopedia also has a short treatment of it here.

If you're looking for a smart theist to school you on where your anti-theism might go wrong, check out Peter van Inwagen's The Problem of Evil, which is both incredibly challenging and as accessible a work of philosophy as has ever existed. 

Sam Harris suggests a foundation for right and wrong that exists independently of God, and he has said elsewhere that even if God exists he thinks this theory still holds. Check it out: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

I'm genuinely hard-pressed to come up with a book that defends Divine Command Theory that isn't a theology book based in some revealed text, rather than a strictly natural philosophy standpoint like van Inwagen's book; maybe one of the Gifford Lectures tackled the question. If any of my readers know a good, accessible piece of philosophy on DCT, would you email the title to me so I can look at it?


  1. Carlos (Venezuela)July 12, 2011 at 1:53 AM

    I find this post hard to masturbate... is this bad? (troll face). Just Kidding. Excelent post!.

  2. Robert Adams gives getting around the Euthyphro problem for the theists a decent shot in "Finite and Infinite Goods". The move to switch Divine Command Theory into Divine Motivation Theory is especially clever, as it starts to look like a standard Platonist (or even Aristotelian) account of value, while ticking all the relevant theological boxes. Definitely the most sophisticated treatment of this particular problem that I've found.

  3. Adams's attempt might be successful, it's certainly interesting, but that's because it allows the theist a way to avoid the 'whatever God says is good' horn of the dilemma, through putting constraints on what God would say is good in a way where it looks like far less of a restriction.

    An indication of how deep and interesting the issues around the ED are is the fact that it's possible to study it from a different angle (Bro here concentrates on choices between different ways God might have created the world, I'm more interested in how to evaluate the putative word of God in this world) and come up with different but equally illuminating issues. The ED is one of the very best bits of ancient philosophy, if you ask me, and stands unashamedly next to the very best of any era.

  4. I heard some bro say that God's goodness was in his nature, then another bro asked if God could choose his nature or not.

  5. There can NEVER be one single truth. Whoever thinks from such a narrow perpective is condemned to struggle with these kind of questions about good or bad, black or white etcetera from a very limited angle.
    Thinking this way is part of our limited dualistic mindmap, and as such, gives us a very limited understaning of the world.

    It is a matter of perspectives.
    One always have to ask is:
    Good for whom? Bad for whom? And from whoms point of view? Can absolut goodness or evil really exist?
    I´ve never quit understood why mankind has embraced the in many senses inmature theistic religions to such an extent.


  6. The symbology of threeness is, in my opinion, all about balance.


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  8. Brah, how does this dilemma not work against ANY moral theory?

    Is Well Being good because it is Well Being, or is Well Being good because of something besides Well Being? If Well Being is good because it is Well Being, then it is a tautology. If Well Being is good besides being Well Being, then there is something else that makes it Good. If there is something else that makes it Good, then what is this other thing?

    It seems that we are stuck either with a tautology or an infinite regress. It seems like this could work with just about any moral system, and puts all moral systems into a similar dilemma. They are either tautologies, infinite regresses, or foundational stances that having nothing else to rely on.

  9. The problem here is that no one is realy starting from a universaly accepted definition of goodness. Without an agreed upon definition of good, any argument about the subject is going to be as much equivocation as argumentation.

    Is desirability an essential component of goodness, or a contingent one? In other words (or at least the same words, arranged differently,) we mostly agree that not murdering people is good. Do we agree on that because we don't want people to be murdered, or do we not want people to be murdered because not murdering people is good? (Setting aside the fact that most of us can come up with at least one person we think, on balance, the world might be better off without.)

    As soon as you actualy define goodness, these problems largely disapear. True, they're replaced with people who disagree with your definition and want to substitute their own, but at least you have answers you're happy with, even if no one else likes them.

  10. "....we mostly agree that not murdering people is good. Do we agree on that because we don't want people to be murdered, or do we not want people to be murdered because not murdering people is good? "

    hm, maybe we can agree on this: at the core of this argument seems to be, that anything that is life-affirming is good. Life is good, thus godness is anything that embraces life, our own and others living beings.


  11. Some of these comments smell like sophistry...

  12. Miles, thats a BAD and excluding thing of you to say! Explain what you mean, instead of walking around with clumsy subtilities


  13. For a philosophical look at a divine-command theist's look at this, check out Glenn Peoples' publication "A New Euthyphro" in "Think: Philosophy for Everyone (a journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy) volume 9, issue 25." (Citation stolen from his website.)

    Episode 4 of his podcast, "Say Hello To My Little Friend", presents his argument without having to subscribe to that journal :-). That and other articles on the subject are at: http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/tag/divine-command-theory/ (the episode is at the very end of the page).

    I really enjoyed listening to that episode.


  14. Mamita, that's not the core of the argument; that's merely the incidental example he used. He might have just as easily used the idea that one should not default on a term of a contract, or should not bear false witness. In either case he's not attempting to reduce ethics to a maximally simple principle; he's simply giving an example.
    This conversation is about why ethical principles exist at all, NOT about what the simplest possible description of ethics is. Also note that there's a question about whether ethical principles are a different type of thing than simple indicatives -- if some types of divine command theory are correct, it's not sufficient to say "X is good" to prove that we must do X; rather, we would have to show (something like) "some legitimate authority commands X".

  15. Bro, it ain't that hard. The idea of 'omnibenevolence' is not from the Bible. The idea that God can 'only do good' is not from the Bible. God only does good not 'cause He can't do otherwise, but 'cause He is such a friggin' nice fella, just like that.

    You got the answers on your own post. What's the big deal?

  16. In philosophy, there's ED problems all over the place (heh), even if we leave religion aside. It's basically the subjectivism-objectivism debate. In metaethics, we can ask does 'X is good' just mean 'Homeboy approves of X' or is there some standard independent of Homeboy's will that makes X good? If it's the former, goodness looks subjective and largely arbitrary. If it's the latter, goodness starts to look really queer. (No, asshole, read: weird).

    Questions of law and sovereignty are similar: What makes a law binding for us regular-ass people? Simply because some hoity-toity government bros decreed it? Or are those bros subject to some higher (read: natural or divine) law - and *that's* what makes the law binding for us plebes?

    In fact, pretty much every time there's a subjectivism-objectivism debate (even in other areas of philosophy, like epistemology), we can erect (heh) a version of the ED. That's what makes it so fucking brilliant. So non-theists ought to be just as concerned about it as theists. It just sucks more for the theist, since whichever bullet you bite, you're in for some divine trouble. Either way, Plato roolz.

  17. Yo, girl, or is it a dude. I'm gonna say it again 'cause you didn't heard it first time. Clean yer ears this time, 'kay?

    This be no problem for Christians. That idea of omnibenevolence is not on the Bible, 'kay? It was just some dude that was on weed, and he got the charms, and convinced people, and people got convinced and told the children, and the children told their children, till it got to us.

    And there ain't any ED without omnibenevolence.

  18. ED's never seemed that hard to me, bro. Moral laws to value and do things seem necessarily authoritative and prescriptive, so the idea of authoritative prescriber makes lots of sense of that. Why can't there be necessary, authoritative, prescriptive intents by God? Sort of necessary standing orders, which are issued because God is necessarily the kind of being that he is? That seems to tidy up the problem of arbitrariness (it's fixed by necessity!) and praiseworthiness (It's praiseworthy because, like everything else that's praiseworthy, God authoritatively commands that you praise it)

  19. "Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality" by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls deals with the Euthyphro Dilemma and Divine Command Theory. It also happens to be a very recent book.

  20. Great post. Fascinating style of prose too!

    Taking a intuitive stab at this, I would wager to say that initial aspects of God's creation were completely subjective, arbitrary and free. For example, all the matter in existence condensed into the size of a pinhead or all matter exploding outward-God could have chosen any one of those and subjectively called it 'good'. However, the more God created the more he put constraints on himself (this assumes God would not contradict himself). So by the time gets around to evolving sentient beings that have some modicum of free will (God could have made us robots and that might have been equally fine and dandy), enough subjective choices by God about what is 'good' have been decreed to provide us sentient beings some coherent framework for even understanding what good is in the first place. Enough so at least for Euthyphro to try walking the question back to a single definitive starting point. But the starting point doesn't exist in the simple, single slice. Rather, it's successive steps of arbitrary selections of goodness which compound on another to form a logically connected web of understanding on goodness-and one full of tension at that.