Friday, January 17, 2014

The Euthyphro Dilemma. A Primer

Too many words coming into my brain and not enough coming out. So I'm writing a short little primer on my take with the Euthyphro Dilemma.



The Euthyphro Dilemma is an ancient conundrum told by Plato concerning morality and divinity. In essence, Plato’s mentor Socrates asks Euthyphro whether or not morality (what is pious or good) is caused by God’s will or does God will goodness because He recognizes that it is moral.

If one assumes that God wills goodness, the dilemma faced by that person is that morality becomes the sole purview of God and God, therefore, decides what is moral by fiat. In this case, if God were to will that torturing children was the moral standard, we would be required to torture children in order to be good. This makes morality arbitrary.

The second “horn” of the dilemma is that morality exists outside of God, and that God requires humanity to be moral for the sake of morality itself. In this case morality stands on its own and God is relegated to the figurative “moral police.”  God is also held to a standard that is above Himself. In this case Platonian concept of The Good.

The Euthyphro Dilemma challenges our notions about God because it is very easy to over-look the dilemma and not see the contradiction it poses. If we believe that God is absolute, then we must admit that He either could do something we deem immoral, or that He would not do something immoral because there is a higher standard than Himself. But I challenge that notion as a false dichotomy.

First of all, because my theological understanding of God is that He is sovereign, even if He were to will child abuse, as an illustration from Baggett and Walls suggests, we being finite creatures would never know that child abuse was wrong, because He made it good. There would be no dilemma here, because our perception (in this argument) that child abuse is wrong would never factor into a world where God said it was right. While I am no Liebniz fan, I can appreciate the ontological ramifications of “the best possible world” scenario. If God ontologically (with in His being) made child abuse good, it would be good. I say all of this with respect to the fact that I believe that God IS good in His very nature, and would not create such a universe. Ergo my Leibnizesque rationale.

But, more cogent to the discussion at hand, is what William Lane Craig  would call a matter of character; not of command. Craig writes “God’s commands are not arbitrary, and so we need not trouble ourselves about counterfactuals with impossible antecedents like, ‘If God were to command child abuse…’” (Reasonable Faith, Crossway, 2008, 182) In other words, there is no dilemma, because there is more than two choices (horns) upon which we can hang our proverbial hats. Horn one, God is arbitrary. Horn two, The Good is the highest ideal. Horn three, God is good. As Craig points out, with more than two horns, the dilemma disappears.

I am also fond of John Frame’s treatment of the Euthyphro Dilemma. Frame points out the circularity of the fact that we might say “God is both supremely good and the ultimate standard of goodness.” (The Doctrine Of God, P&R, 2008, 407) In other words, God is good, and we know He is good because He told us He is good. But I love the fact that Frame does not shy away from the circular logic here, but embraces it. Frame writes that “there is always a kind of circularity when dealing with an ultimate standard.” (pg 407) The same problem existed for Plato in his Forms. If goodness must be defined by an abstract form, the goodness of that form must have an abstract to be compared to. And so must that form. This could go on ad infinitum. Yet Frame surmises the issue for the Believer when he writes that “We don’t merely know the bare fact that God is good; we know Him.” (409)

So then, according to Frame, the Euthyphro Dilemma is laid bare for the Believer because of our personal relationship with God.