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Euthyphro's Dilemma

One of the most commonly held views by Christians on the nature of morality is the Divine Command Theory. In this view, something is good because God commands it. Thus things are morally obligatory, morally permitted or morally forbidden because these have been laid down by God's commands. In other words, one cannot know what is good or bad if one does not have the theological knowledge of God's commands. This theory have been advocated by many influential theistic - Jewish and Christian - philosophers throughout history. These include the Augustine (354-430), William-Earl of Ockham (c1285-1349) and John Calvin (1509-1564) and more recently Martin Buber (1878-1965), Emil Brunner (1889-1966), Karl Barth (1886-1968), Reinhold Niebuhr (1982-1971) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). [1]

As Brunner puts it in his book The Divine Imperative (1947):

The believer alone clearly perceives that the Good, as it is recognized in faith, is the sole Good, and all that is otherwise good cannot lay claim to this title, at least in the ultimate sense of the word...The Good consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment." [2]

The problem which such a view had already been noted by pre-Christian philosophers such as Plato (c427-c348 BCE) and Socrates (c470-399 BCE) more than two thousand years ago. This was clearly adumbrated in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates was on his way to the courts in Athens to defend charges of corrupting the youths of that city (of which he was later forced to commit suicide) when he came across Euthyphro. Euthyphro was also heading to the courts, but as a plaintiff, for he had accused his own father of murdering one of the hired help. Later we are told of the circumstance of this "murder" and found that it is not as morally clear cut as Euthyphro had made it to be. For the hired hand had, in a drunken rage, murdered one of his father's slaves. The father then had the man bound while sending a messenger to Athens to consult religious authorities as to the right action to take against the hired help. It was while waiting for the messenger to come back that the servant, exposed to the cold and deprived of food, died. Socrates asked Euthyphro how he knew his action, bringing charges against his own father, was the right one to take. Euthyphro replied that it is right because the gods want it-it is the holy thing to do, even if it is against one's own father. It was here that Socrates asked a question which to this day has not been satisfactorily answered by any theistic philosopher who holds to the Divine Command Theory:

Is the holy loved by gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved by the gods? [3]

The devastating implications of this for theistic morality becomes clear the moment one starts to think about the question. For the theist is now locked between the horns of a dilemma - Euthyphro's Dilemma.

If he says that the "good" (or holy) is good because God commands it, "good" is then reduced to the arbitrary whims and commands of a God. For it is then possible for God to command us to rape little children and for all to call such actions "good". That this is not a far fetched possibility can be seen from the fact that in the Bible God did command acts that we ordinary humans would normally label heinous. As examples, he demanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 20:1-19), he inspired the Psalmist to praise the dashing of the children of the Babylonians against the rock (Psalms 137:8-9) and he commanded Moses to commit genocide by telling him that he "shall save alive nothing that breathes but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Jebusites" (Deuteronomy 20:17). These examples can be multiplied but the point is made here: if "good" is simply defined as what God commands, then it is possible for rape, murder and pillage to be "good." This is the first horn of the dilemma. [a]

One can of course get out of this particular difficulty by stating that God could not possibly command what is bad. This is normally done in one of two ways. The liberal Christian would simply discount the historicity of many of these stories and attribute the rest to what the ancient Hebrews thought God commanded . The fundamentalist or evangelical, not having this course open to him or her, would normally try to explain these difficulties by coming up with rationales for such actions. For instance, he or she could say that God wanted to test Abraham's faith (which supposedly is a higher moral good than the unwillingness to commit murder on your own son) or that the Hittites, Amorites and the rest of those "ites" were debased people who deserved their fate. Whatever one feels about such explanatory strategies, the implication for us is clear: the Christian claims that even in the light of express commands of God, he is still able to decipher what is good and what is not. In other words he can tell which commands of God are "good" and to be followed always and which are "bad" or are only given due to extenuating circumstances and not be followed all of the time (such as sacrificing your only [begotten?] son, dashing children against the rock or killing all those "ites" people).

But this attempt to save God's commands from the charge of arbitrariness comes at a price. For the Christian is now saying that there is a yardstick outside of God's commands by which he could evaluate rightness and wrongness. In other words the theist is claiming to be able to evaluate God's commands [i.e. which is good and which is bad] on this basis! Thus to escape from the first horn, the Christian has now to admit that a moral yardstick has to exist outside of God's commands-the second horn. However if there is such a yardstick then the main objection against the possibility of atheistic ethics - that there can be no yardstick outside of God's commands - fails. [4]

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a.Believe it or not, I have received e-mails from some fundamentalists and evangelicals who insist such actions are good because God commands it. Of course this leaves open the possibility that these very same Christians, like their Muslim "brothers", will commit genocide or heinous crimes in the future if some religious leader can convince them God commands it. After all there are precedents in the Bible.

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1.Martin, Atheism, Morality and Meaning: p122
2.quoted in, Kai Nelson, Morality and the Will of God, Angeles (ed), Critiques of God: p242
3.Segal, Dialogues of Plato: p53
4.Krueger, What is Atheism?: p27-30
Massimo Pigliucci, "Socrates and Religious Morality", Free Inquiry Vol 24. No.4 June/July 2004 p18-19
Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil: p16-17
Smith, Why Atheism?: p227-235

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