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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 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


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


, 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


.” 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


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.

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?

Mailbag Monday: Platonic Forms

Mailbag Monday: Morality and the Law