The Argument of Morality: Pt.7, Euthyphro’s Dilemma and Other Arguments

In this seventh and possibly final entry into the argument of morality, we take a look at the theistic answer itself and examine the arguments posed against it.

We began this series by looking at the existence of an objective moral law. We followed that with an examination of 6 naturalistic answers to ground this moral law. Each failed to sufficiently provide an answer and often led to disturbing consequences. But does that mean the theistic answer is the correct one? I’ve provided a handful of reasons for each argument throughout parts 1-6, revealing how and why they falter. Critics of Christianity have done the same thing for the theistic answer, so let’s see if they ring true.

Does This Theory Fall Into a Fatal Dilemma?

When asked about the truthfulness of the theistic answer, one of the main charges against it is something called Euthyphro’s Dilemma: a conversation between Socrates and Plato attempting to understand the essence of piety and holiness. The dilemma goes as such:

Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro? Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euthyphro: Certainly.

Socrates: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

Euthyphro: No, that is the reason.

Socrates: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?

The recorded conversation is much longer than that, but that sums up its essence. Euthyphro was faced with a challenging dilemma. Is something good just because the gods say it is, or do the gods say something is good because they recognize a moral code above them? Plato’s approach has been used and is still being used to demonstrate the inconsistency of the theistic answer of morality. The dilemma is challenging as it forces us to choose between one of two options, each unfavorable. We know God’s laws are supreme and must be obeyed, but what exactly do we mean by this? Ethicist Scott Rae describes it as,

“A divine command theory of ethics is one in which the ultimate foundation for morality is the revealed will of God, or the commands of God found in Scripture.”

This is called ethical voluntarism. If this view is correct, it has a few problems. It means morality is arbitrary and based only on commands. This is a problem because, though God has declared murder, theft, etc. wrong, it could have been the case that God willed these things to be morally right. If that’s so, then morality isn’t objective, but once again subjective. Subjective morality is based on the feelings and preferences of the individual as we’ve examined in part 3, and in C.S. Lewis’ sermon, The Poison of Subjectivism. If God is a conscious being like us all, and morality is based on His own preference, morality would still be subjective and we’d once again be forced to deny objective moral values (killing for fun is wrong, cheating for fun is wrong, etc.)

This may be the position of Islam, but it is false if we’re examining the Christian view of theism. On Christianity, this theory has a third option which we must examine. This option states that morality is not arbitrary, nor is it based off of God’s commands. Rather, our moral law is established on God’s character. His commands are based on His nature alone. He is the standard of all, which is why we say, “God is good.” This now answers a few common arguments against it.

Firstly, when one says morality is evolving or getting better, we must ask, what standard are they reaching for? A standard of perfection and absolute goodness? How does one ground that standard? Secondly, arbitrary commands aren’t truly arbitrary if we have no sense of stability. Again, we must attempt to ground moral stability, which can only be based on an objective moral law. These arguments disprove ethical voluntarism but support an objective law based on God’s perfect nature. Without a standard of perfection to reach, morality is reduced to matters of survival, and the only question that can be asked then is, “How does this action aid our long-term survival?” But as seen time and time again, humanity has run amock by grounding morality in one’s own survival. The truth is, morality isn’t grounded in the Bible, or in godly prophets and commands, but in His perfect nature. But this does open up another question:

What About God’s Commandments?

This is a question proposed by youtube critic: That Atheist Guy. If God instilled in us a moral compass based on His nature, why have commandments at all? Was God insecure and unsure about His creation? This is a good question and worthy of our attention.

The main problem this question brings is that it confuses moral law with a legal law. Since the beginning, God instilled in us a reflection of His character, and that was all we could see. When man ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, something apart from God’s character entered into view. Something that offered self-gratification, and could give it out in an instant.While man knew God’s nature, the things found in its absence seemed more pleasurable and fulfilling. As we’ve all been witness to, pleasure outside of God’s life lasts only a fleeting moment before shame takes its rightful place. Even still, the flesh of man never ceases its lust for earthly pleasure.

This is the purpose of God’s commands. To set a legal law that brought order into a world ensnared in a web of lust. The purpose of a legal law is to remind us of what we know is right. If one fails to follow it, it rightly resulted in punishment. God wasn’t insecure, nor was He indecisive, it was us who desired pleasure apart from His presence. Evil itself does not exist, rather it is the absence of all that’s good, just as darkness is the absence of light, and the law purposed to bring us back to that.

This is why an objective moral law is vitally important to recognize. It can be said that anything apart from this law is wrong, and anything within this law is considered right. Without a standard, we can no longer tell if we’re right-side up or upside down. Once we recognize this law, we then need to ground it, and only the answer of God’s nature can give us the solution to this troubling question (as a side, one can argue about God’s actions as evidence to the contrary, but in the context of this series I’ll refrain from addressing them here.)

That brings this series to a close, at least for now. I want to encourage you today. If you find yourself denying an objective moral law, question why are you doing so. There are the six reasons we’ve talked about here, but there is one more I haven’t yet mentioned. That is the reluctance to live under a transcendent authority. To live for someone more than ourselves. Friend, the one who made you in His image has such a deep affection for you, more than you ever could give to yourself. He crafted you to live in communion with Him. We’ve all been led astray, we’ve all turned to our own ways, but in us lives a compass that points us back home.