The Euthyphro Dilemma of Plato
We start by replacing “love” with “made.”
Plato asks, “Is it good because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is good?” If God says things are good because they are good, this suggests “goodness” is greater than God and something God must acknowledge. If God makes things good by claiming they are good, this suggests everything good is arbitrarily good, suggesting that belief in God does not escape “moral relativism,” as many believers in God might think.
To the famous dilemma, believers might reply that God has “Ultimate Authority,” which is missing from moral relativism, in which no one has any more or less authority over anyone else. In this way, when God makes “x good,” then x really is good (ontologically), whereas when humans believe “x is good,” then x is such on the realm of preference, taste, and subjectivity. Even if God’s decision to say, “X is good,” is ultimately grounded on nothing more than God’s raw statement, this decision is still authoritative even if arbitrary. “Unauthoritative” and “arbitrary” are not similes.
Still, a problem with this line of argument might be that it suggests something authoritarian about God, and so we will here explore a different line of thought. Also, please note that this dilemma will be addressed within a Christian metaphysical schema, so I will discuss “God” versus “gods” (please note that the overall theological schema of a religion will impact how severely Euthyphro undermines it). I will also here avoid obsessive capitalizations that might suggest Platonic dimensions, even if that capitalization might be useful in other theological inquiries.
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1. In my opinion, if we keep “Euthyphro’s Dilemma” as originally worded, there doesn’t seem to be a good answer that solves it. This is because entities are discussed as things God relates to versus things God made, and this causes confusion, for the things seem to exist “like God” themselves, independent in their existence.
2. However, let’s phrase the dilemma differently: “Is it good because God made it, or did God make it because it was good?” I think this is a fair rewording, because ultimately everything that exists is made by God, and ultimately that dilemma is getting at the question, “Why did God make the universe like God did?”
3. Following 1 Timothy 4:4, Christians would claim that “everything that God created is good” (if received with the right orientation), seeing as evil is a privation and/or “lack of substance.” But this still begs the questions: Did God create everything because it was good or is everything good, because God created it?
4. Well, the answer becomes both: existence itself is good, so the act of creating a thing is to create a “thing/good.” God cannot create a good without creating a thing, as God cannot create a thing without creating a good. Similarly, returning to the original wording of the dilemma, we can say that “God loves goods/things because they are goods/things, as goods/things are good/things which God loves.” (By virtue of creating something, God seemingly must have felt a kind of love for it; otherwise, God wouldn’t have made it.)
5. Alright, but why did God choose to make “this universe of goods/things” and not a different universe of different goods/things? What was God’s standard for choosing to create x universe instead of y universe, since whatever God created would automatically have been a “good/thing?” How do we avoid circular reasoning?
6. To start, we should note that things are good because they are “toward” God, and things are bad insomuch as they aren’t “toward God.” Everything God created in Eden was “toward” God, and thus everything God created was good; however, after sin, not everything must be “toward” God, and so not everything is necessary “fully a thing/good” like all the universe was originally. Things changed according to their free choices, and this had a “network effect” on the whole universe that changed it ontologically. As a result, we cannot say that everything is still a “good/thing” in the same way everything was a “good/thing” in Eden (this gets us into questions of “the image and likeness of God” still maintained by the universe, alluding to Genesis 1:26, but that is not a debate we need to dive into here). This means there are certain “ways the universe can be” that are better or worse, for the “goodness/thingness” of an entity is relative to the degree it is “toward” God. God is goodness/substance.
7. God created everything originally as goods/things which then had the choice to stay “toward” God or not. Those who chose to remain “toward” God are more so “goods/things” than entities which aren’t “toward” God. In other words, relative to choice, things are either “moving” toward or away from fullers states of “good/thing”-ness. Alright, fine, a fair clarification, but this just moves the question: Did God create everything originally because it was good, or was everything created originally good because God created it?
8. A question opens up: Is marriage intrinsically good? This is a random example, but sticking to it will help us get to the point. If two people who don’t believe in God get married, is marriage good even though they don’t believe in God? Well, if God said, “Marriage is good,” God would be doing so because there was something about marriage in its practical unfolding (which occurs relative to its ontological “good/thing-ness”) that makes people “more toward” God even if they don’t believe in God. If my eyes are closed and I don’t believe you are standing in front of me, I can still bump into you.
If God in the Bible said something is good, that means the thing “in its very practical unfolding makes people more ‘toward’ God than they would be if they didn’t do the thing, even if they don’t believe in God.” Since God is good, that means the commanded thing makes people more good than they would be if they didn’t do it, because regardless what they believe, the very “doing of the thing” entails certain actions, challenges, and choices that make one “more ‘toward’ God” than they otherwise would be. If an Atheist resists the urge to lie, the Atheist is “more ‘toward’ God” than the Atheist would be if the Atheist lied.
Our movement toward or away from God and goodness is not contingent upon our belief in God but upon our actions. However, since actions ultimately must be guided by beliefs, beliefs will “practically” play an important role: they are like a map that we might not need the whole journey, but there could come a point where further progress becomes impossible without consulting it.
Does this all mean that marriage is “intrinsically valuable” and/or “intrinsically good?” The word “intrinsic” is always tricky, because it suggests things are “valuable in themselves,” when really, for Christians, it’s more like “things are valuable because there is something ‘like God’ in them that makes them ‘toward’ God (to some degree),” even if they’re “practically” not “toward” God at all. It’s almost like we need to say that “things are valuable in themselves because God is in them,” but that sounds like things aren’t “in themselves” valuable. The problem is that “the value God adds” to things is them — the value is integrated with “being” itself — so when we say “intrinsic,” that causes confusion, because that makes it dualistically sound like value is “in” things, when really value is a thing. The value is found on the surface, below the surface, along the edges — it is found everywhere. Where there is being, there is value, though that doesn’t mean “equally,” for it varies based on the use of free will to be “toward” God.
Likewise, the critical idea here is that the potential for a given thing to be “a full good/thing” is part of its being: it does not come from the thing’s “belief” in God, but from its “being.” Yes, belief in God might ultimately help the thing realize “full good/thing-ness,” but it is critical to understand that “the belief is not the source, but a guide of the source/us.” A map helps us navigate a territory, yes, but the belief in God isn’t necessary. Now, perhaps eventually the way and territory we must traverse to reach “ultimate thing/good-ness” is so complex and difficult that it becomes “practically impossible” for us to traverse it without a map (without belief in God, which becomes a source of guidance), but that wouldn’t change the fact that it is primarily the practical movement across the terrain which is the source of thing/good-ness (because that was how God designed it). If this is all the case, it makes sense what is meant by the phrase “faith without works is dead”: it basically means that “a map without travel is just paper.”
(Considering this, though perhaps Christians cannot be Saved without faith, this would suggest that we cannot be Saved “because the territory is too difficult to traverse successfully without a guide.” However, do note that the source of the Salvation is actually “the traversing,” not the faith. “We cannot please God without faith” thus means “we cannot reach God without a map.” On this point, we can start to see how “works” and “faith” to work together.)
9. God created our universe like God did because God considered every possible configuration for how the universe could be made and decided that the configuration we are currently living in is “the best of all possible configurations” that makes things “toward” God (and thus “full goods/thing-ness”). This would mean that freedom is somehow a key component in making things “fully goods/things,” and that New Jerusalem, the “chosen Eden,” which relative to God was made at the start of time, is “the best of all possible worlds.” Of all possible creations, the creation realized in New Jerusalem must be “the fullest good/thing” possible relative to every possible universe.
10. Please note that, ultimately, when we talk about “configurations,” we are mostly discussing ontological configurations, not merely “things,” for I could exist in this universe with x ontological configuration (say, which includes free will), or I could exist in a different universe with y ontological configuration (which doesn’t include free will). The things which arise in a given ontological configuration is secondary in our line of inquiry versus the particular ontological configuration that God chose, because the “things/goods” which “arise” are relative to that configuration. Thus, we can restate Euthyphro Dilemma’s yet again: Did God create the universe’s ontological configuration because it is good, or is the ontological configuration of the universe good because God made it?
11. Now, we can divide the “both”-answer and claim God created the universe’s ontological configuration because it was the best of all possible configurations for arising to entities which were “toward” God. In other words, the practical result of this configuration is the best for giving rise to things which are “toward” God to thus receive “being” to become “things/goods.” To the degree a given entity “receives” God’s love is relative to the degree the entity is “a full thing/good,” which is relative to the “towardness” that entity has chosen.
12. It isn’t so much that God says, “This is good” or “This isn’t good,” but rather things are either “toward” God or not, and it is that “towardness” which God says is good. It is not so much “food” that God says is good, for example, but food when used “toward” helping creatures participate in God’s design, which is an extension of God’s will and self. Critically, this suggests a way to address Euthyphro, for it means that God is “good” and that God basically says, “I am good,” and thus things are good “by extension” to the degree they participate in God and/or are “toward” God. In this way, God doesn’t so much say, “That is good,” as much as God says, “That is (participating in) Me.”
Alright, but why does God say what is “toward” God is good? Because God is good, and so God really doesn’t even have to choose to make things good. God exists, by definition (and axiomatically), and so “goodness” just exists as well. God doesn’t make goodness, but rather God makes things which are either “toward” God or not (freely). It is this relation which is good or not, which God necessarily makes in creating things, for God can only create networks and because God can only create things which somehow relate to God, because God “is” and must be or else nothing will exist. Considering this, if there is going to be a creation at all, that creation must “relate” to God one way versus the other, and since God is “goodness,” this means things are either “toward” God, neutral, or not. Nothing can avoid relating to God, and “goodness” is a product of that relation.
Everything has the potential to be “good” (evil is a privation), for everything does relate to God, so God doesn’t choose things to be good or not; rather, God identifies relations as good or bad, and the things in those relations as good or bad secondarily. Ethics is located in that relation, and that relation “to God” must come after God’s existence (thus meaning goodness isn’t prior to and “over” God) and isn’t arbitrarily created, for relations are not directly created but secondary to the creation of things. What God created were things (which can relate x or y way according to their freedom), and indeed we could argue that Creation itself was an arbitrary act, for God didn’t have to create anything. And indeed, many Christian theologians argue just that: Creation is a result of God’s grace and abundance. The reason for Creation is that God is generous and giving: nothing compelled God at all.
Thus, in Christian theology, morality isn’t arbitrary, though Creation can be seen as arbitrary. God didn’t have to create us (though some theologians might debate that point), but even if so, by locating potential “arbitrariness” in the creative act versus moral designation, Euthyphro’s Dilemma is avoided. Once so located, the “arbitrariness” becomes a matter of axioms (as does the issue of “free will”).
13. Thus, we can overcome Euthyphro Dilemma by arguing that God created the universe God created because it entailed “the best ontological configuration” for making entities “toward” God, and thus it was “the best of all possible ways” for things to be “things/goods.” God is the source of all goodness and substance, so entities are goods/things” to the degree they are “toward” God, which is to say to the degree entities relate to God. This brings us to another key rephrasing of Euthyphro’s Dilemma: Did God create Godself because God was good, or is God good because God created Godself? Well, obviously God didn’t create Godself, and that would mean God is good because God is God. If we ask, “Why did God make a universe that could only achieve “full good/thing-ness” by being “toward” God?” the answer is that “God had no choice: God is goodness.” Why is God goodness? Because God is the source of all being, and at this point the question becomes axiomatic: we either believe in God or not. However, we’ve at least established that the Euthyphro Dilemma doesn’t cause “an internal and essential contradiction” in theology.
14. In closing, perhaps God chose to be good, which would perhaps be the choice for God to “choose” to create. If God chose to be good, the question that opens up, “Why?” Ultimately, I think the Euthyphro Dilemma brings us to a question that’s answer must be axiomatic. “Why did God create?” is the question, and the answer is “It was best.” Why is creation best? Well, only God can know, so the question is if we believe God exists — an axiom.
It is good for boats to be in water, because boats are made for water and because the design of boats makes them capable of things which they can only do in water, missing out on which can be “irrational” and “not best.” We could say that we disagree, but what would be the grounding of our disagreement? The physical reality depicts an inability of boats to “function well” on a road versus in water; also, boats lose their distinctness “as boats” when they are on the road: now, they are “practically” dysfunctional cars/objects that serve no unique purpose. The claim that “boats are best in water” is not an arbitrary expression but based on the raw facticity and reality of what boats “are” and for what they are made. The “thingness” and assessment are one.
This line of argument is teleological, yes, but I agree with Dr. Michael Sandel that it is very difficult to do ethics without getting into questions of what things are “for” (considering his famous Justice Seminar and points he makes on “the ethics of golf”). Does this suggest that the reason an Objective Ethics is only possible with God is because only with God can we have an Objective Design? Perhaps, and this would suggest a profound connection between “design” and “ethics,” which is to say ethics emerges with the creative act, not after it. This point is argued by Austin Farrer, a thinker who I was introduced to by Dr. William Wilson. In his article “Farrer’s Theodicy,” coauthored with Julian N. Hartt, Dr. Wilson writes:
‘No part of a house is present for its own purpose. Studs form the walls and the walls hold the roof. There is no ‘natural setting’ for a wall or a stud. We can see that they have been fabricated and arranged because we can comprehend the overall design of the house. But in a creation, the constituent parts behave naturally and do not seem to have been fabricated and arranged. We can see that they are constituent parts because they give rise to a total structure, but unlike a wall, we cannot see the ‘fit’; we cannot see how a natural activity and a constituent part can be the same thing.’¹
There is “no design” or “whole” in parts: the designs and wholes are mental and things “we see” in things that are not in the things themselves. This in mind, Farrer basically makes the point that we can tell the difference between a weed and a flower relative to what we intend and the design of the garden (the garden itself will give us no such insight). Where there is no garden, there is “practically” no meaningful distinction between “a weed” and “a flower”: all distinctions are ultimately “arbitrary.” In a garden though, the distinction between “weed” and “flower” is based on a tangible reality, mainly the garden itself. Sure, we could argue the choice to make a garden is ultimately arbitrary, but within (the design of) the garden, the difference between “weed” and “flower” isn’t arbitrary at all (the distinction is “rooted” in the design).
Ethics is connected to “flourishing,” and what constitutes “flourishing” for an entity is relative to what it “is,” suggesting a deep connection between “creation,” “design,” and “ethics.” The indivisibility of “design” and “ethics” is suggested by the very fact that ethical considerations require “moral frameworks” in which we can determine right from wrong. Yes, those frameworks disagree and contradict, but the very existence of a framework or model at all suggests the indivisible connection between ontology and ethics (“truth organizes values,” to allude to The Conflict of Mind, which also brings the “suchness” of Hume to mind). In my opinion, “Euthyphro’s Dilemma” results from a separation of “establishing ethics” from “the creative act,” when relative to God the creative act is the act of establishing ethics, for that is the act which arises to a design relative to which right and wrong, intended and unintended, etc. can be established.
Austin Farrer had more to say on the topic, say on how God can only create “networks of entities” versus individual entities in a vacuum, which is to say God cannot create a universe where things don’t “bump into one another”: if God creates birds and houses, then God must also create the possibility of a bird flying into a house (“a network” and/or “relation”), and though we might say God should make a universe where that cannot happen, there would ultimately prove to be trillions of examples of such interaction, so ultimately we must say that God should have created “a robotic and determined universe” (as suggested by Ivan Karamazov in “The Grand Inquisitor”). And that is a fair argument: “Euthyphro’s Dilemma” can be addressed by understanding how ethics must ultimately be tied with creation, but then we will still have to ask, “Why did God create a world with free will?” Indeed, that is ultimately the question.
At this point, “Euthyphro’s Dilemma” dissolves into an axiomatic disagreement: Christians generally believe that God considered “all possible worlds” and decided that a universe with free will was better than one without freedom. Christians could reply that only God is “all knowing,” and so only God is in a position to say what constitutes “the best of all possible worlds”: we have no grounds by which to disagree. And so we arrive at an axiom we either accept or don’t, but this is significantly different from a “moral paradox” which suggests logical contradiction. Now, we would have to address next, “What is free will?” and epistemology as a whole to adequately describe axioms (let alone arguments for why we should think there might be a God), but all that must wait for elaboration elsewhere. Also, I personally don’t mean to suggest that belief in God readily fits into say “Divine Command Ethics” or the like: I believe “moral reasoning” indeed must be much more complex than we often realize, and I have attempted to portray my arguments in “(Im)morality,” “Absolute More Conditionality,” “Dialectical Ethics,” and “Aesthetics Before Ethics.” I do not think that “belief in God” leads us into “straight forward” moral thinking, for even if we agree that the Bible describes “murder as sin,” we still have to determine what actions fall under the category of “murder.” This requires interpretation and judgment, which is to say that even if “thou shall not murder” is a Divine Command, it would not follow that it is thus self-evident what constitutes murder (more work must be done).
My hope in this paper was to address “Euthyphro’s Dilemma” by combining “the creative act” with “ethical determination,” which eventually leads us into an axiomatic disagreement, but this is very different from a “moral paradox” that undermines theological ethics. Now, I stress, salvaging “theological ethics” is not the same as justifying “Divine Command Ethics,” and I think that hermeneutics and interpretation are unavoidable in Ethics, which more Conservative people may view as “relativistic” and Postmodern. In one way, I can be seen as defending Conservative thought, but I would not be so sure: even if I ascribe to a belief in a God who says, “Do not steal,” it is not always clear what falls under the category of “theft” — but this is a point I will elaborate on in “Absolute Moral Conditionality.”
¹Captured by the Crucified. Edited by David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson. “Farrer’s Theodicy” by William McF. Wilson and Julian N. Hartt. T & T Clark International. New York, NY: