Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Euthyphro's dilemma

The standard of ethical and rational in the Christian worldview is God. To make ethical judgments on God, one has to propose a standard greater than God, that God would be subject to.

For those unfamiliar with the dilemma, it stems from Plato's dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, and was later rehashed by Bertrand Russell to refer to the Christian God.

It goes like this:

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?

In terms of non-believers assertions then, is something good because God says so, or is God good because He adheres to a morally good code of conduct?

At first, almost all Christians will say something is good because God says so, and be done with it. God is sovereign and His commands must be obeyed. However, the further objection will be raised to say that "good" is then completely arbitrary. And back to our non-believer, if some Christians interpret that it is God's will to murder, then it becomes moral by God's whim, and is so justified.

If we then turn around and state that God is Himself subject to a universal moral code, that has obvious implications for God's omnipotence. Where does that code come from, and who or what decides what should be in there?

I just want to interject here, and point out that the dilemma applies equally well to any alternatives too. For example, if we are to assume that the majority of society determines right from wrong, then the question becomes: Is something good because society follows it, or does society follow it because it is good?

The dilemma for the Christian is not addressed by merely pointing out that the dilemma applies equally to all positions. The dilemma, as stated, leaves a no-win position for the Christian. Either good is arbitrary, or good is something that dictates to God.

In addressing this, as always, we have to look at what premises underlie the argument. We have to look at the logical foundation of morality, on what basis does it rest? To raise the objection that Socrates and Russell (and our objector here) did, they must first establish what it is what "good" means, how they logically came to know it, how they can logically apply it, by what authority does it demand compliance, and why is there an obligation to do good? It is here where non-believers have their feet firmly in mid-air.

The Christian answer is that this is a false dilemma. There are not only two options, there are three. There is an objective standard, which is internal to God. If there is a standard, then it is not arbitrary, and if it is internal to God, then God is not subject to an external authority. Morality is rooted in God's character. Whatever a good God commands, will be good.

There are further objections to this line of reasoning. If God is good, and good is God, it becomes a tautology, claims the objector, and tautologies are useless to explain things. However, once again the assumption is false. To say that God is good is to explain more about His character, it is not to conflate God and goodness. It explains more about the qualities of God, it does not state that God and "good" have the exact same identity.

To close then, what is "good" from a Christian perspective?

God reveals (ESV):
Gen 18:25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"
Job 34:10 "Therefore, hear me, you men of understanding: far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.
Job 34:17 Shall one who hates justice govern? Will you condemn him who is righteous and mighty,
Rom 3:5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)
Rom 3:6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world?

So how did Abraham, Job and Paul know that a just God does right, and not wrong, that He judges the wicked but not the good, and God does not do what is wicked?

Everyone recognizes what is right and wrong, even non-believers. The question is how does one make sense of that?

The answer is that when humans were made in the image of God, they were given moral intuition ability, and by falling to temptation, mankind acquired knowledge of good and evil to go along with the moral intuition. God reveals to us, no, He hard-wires into us what good and evil is.

Rom 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."
Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Rom 1:19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

By faith in God can we make sense of God's righteousness, He has revealed it to us.


  1. Dagoods, I am sorry but I don't understand your questions in the context of my post.

    God's nature is righteous and therefore normative. God loves good because it is good, but He does not need to look outside Himself to define good, it is inherent in His character.

    For anyone to dispute whether God is good or not, they must establish their own standard, just as God's character is His standard and the standard for Christians, as self-expressed in His Word.

  2. Sorry, ‘bout that august. I will try to explain.

    You blog entry touched on a number of concepts, the only one upon which I had a question was the proposed third alternative to the Euthyphro Dilemma. The Dilemma: “Is it Good because God says it is, OR Does God do it because it is good?”

    As you aptly pointed out, the first alternative is problematic to Christians, as it makes determination of morality solely on God’s whim. Today He can decide murder is “moral” but lying is “immoral” and tomorrow decide that murder is “immoral” and lying is “moral.” (Worse, and a concept many do not think about, tomorrow God could decide that the day before murder really WAS “immoral” and actually change the rules for past actions! Hardly an absolute morality.)

    The second alternative is problematic to Christians because it means there is a greater concept or idea than God, that being this “good.” That God is not fully God, because there is something “higher” than Him. “Good” is more-God than God. (Curiously, whenever the oft-stupid question of “Can God make a rock he can’t lift?” is posed, Christians have no problem with God being limited by logic. Which [seems to me] is as problematic. But a discussion for another time…)

    You then propose a solution I have seen before being:

    August: The Christian answer is that this is a false dilemma. There are not only two options, there are three. There is an objective standard, which is internal to God. If there is a standard, then it is not arbitrary, and if it is internal to God, then God is not subject to an external authority. Morality is rooted in God's character. Whatever a good God commands, will be good.

    You use the term “internal objective standard” whereas most use the term “God’s Character.” (You appear to later interchange these terms.) Perhaps my use of “God’s Character” was confusing, so I will use your nomenclature of “internal objective standard.”

    My question, then, is this: Is “internal objective standard” the exact same as God? Or is it different? If different, what is within “internal objective standard” that is NOT within God, or what is within God that is not within “internal objective standard”?

    I will try to explain, so you can see where I am coming from.

    Euthyphro makes no distinction between “external” or “internal” when it comes to God, and the ability to make moral decisions. Whether the standard is external or internal makes no difference. The question is whether the decision making process is external or internal to the standard.

    Assume there is some internal objective standard within God that absolutely, positively mandates that humans cannot eat meat on Friday’s. Whether we look at this standard, God looks at it or anyone else—there it is: No meat on Friday.

    However, within the rest of God is the ability to choose whether to follow this standard or not. God can look at the standard and say, “Yes. I like that. I will make it a rule” OR God can look at it and say, “Well. I considered it. While I recognize it as a standard, even a standard that I made, I can choose to not implement it.”

    OR, is there something within God that binds Him to that internal standard? That God looks at the standard, and has no ability to choose to do anything BUT mandate no meat on Friday?

    I hope I have explained why the question is not whether the standard is internal, but rather the decision making process is.

    I guess before I go further, I would have to know how you would answer that question—Can God make a choice about the “internal objective standard”?

    More: God loves good because it is good, but He does not need to look outside Himself to define good, it is inherent in His character.

    O.K. But the question of Euthyphro is NOT where God can find the definition of Good, but rather whether God is bound to follow that definition, or God can change the definition as he goes along.

  3. Dagoods, thanks for the explanation.

    The short answer is that God's character is immutable, and that His character determines the standard He holds to. You seem to conflate the standard and the practicalities of following the standard within God, as if He can change His character as He goes along. I've already answered this in my initial post, that any standard that is not part of God's Godliness would mean that there is something bigger and greater than Him that set that standard.

    That kind of God would be very worrisome, that on His whims He could change the standard, because it means that it would be impossible for anyone to know what God expects of them. Thankfully that scenario is not true, God's character stays the same, as does the standards derived from it.

    In that way we can trust God, and be sure that both His expectations and promises are believable and eternal.

    I'm sure you want to go somewhere with this, so can you maybe get to the point?

  4. That which is perfect cannot and need not change.

  5. The problem here is that God's Omniscience and timelessness are both denied. God does not have to "check with His character" to see what it good or not. God decides what is good by simply determining it. Simple.

    God does not "wake up" for He neither sleeps nor slumbers. He doesn't "Look about" and think, “Wouldn’t it be interesting...", for He has already declared the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done, saying "My council shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure".

    Take God out of your time warp, and your delimma will be solved.

    (I'll be kind and not quote what Calvin says about these suggested delimmas).