The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again

The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again

Dr. Craig answers questions on this ancient problem that continues to stir debate!

Transcript The Euthyphro Dilemma Yet Again

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, the Euthyphro Dilemma has captured the imagination not only of philosophers but of laypeople as well. Even though it is very old – it goes all the way back to Plato – it has come roaring back. A lot of that is because – well, for one, Reasonable Faith and yourself – you've found yourself in a position to address this dilemma many times. It is something that you call a false dilemma. Give us a quick sketch.

Dr. Craig: For those that aren't familiar with it, the question is: does God will something because it is good, or is something good because God wills it? If the theist says that God wills something because it is good then the good is independent of God and, in fact then, moral values are not based in God. They are independent of him. On the other hand, if you say something is good because God wills it then that would seem to make what is good and evil arbitrary. God could have willed that hatred is good; then we would be morally obligated to hate one another, which seems crazy. Some moral values seem to be necessary, and therefore there would be no possible world in which hatred is good. So the claim is that this shows that morality cannot be based in God.

I think it is clearly a false dilemma because the alternatives are not of the form “A or not-A” which would be an inescapable dilemma. The alternatives are like “A or B.” In that case you can always add a third one, C, and escape the horns of the dilemma. I think in this case there is a third alternative which is to say that God wills something because he is good. That is to say, God himself is the paradigm of goodness, and his will reflects his character. God is by nature loving, kind, fair, impartial, generous, and so forth. Therefore, he could not have willed that, for example, hatred be good. That would be to contradict his very own nature.

So God's commands to us are not arbitrary, but neither are they based upon something independent of God. Rather, God himself is the paradigm of goodness.

Kevin Harris: Where divine command theory comes in on this is that God expresses this moral will to us through various commands and so on.

Dr. Craig: These constitute our moral obligations and prohibitions.

Kevin Harris: Jeremy Koons of Georgetown University has written a paper in a philosophical journal on the Euthyphro Dilemma.[1] He claims that there is not a third option. He critiques Adams and Alston and yourself as well on the Euthyphro Dilemma – that it cannot escape the dilemma. He says, “The Euthyphro dilemma is often thought to present a fatal problem for the divine command theory (aka theological voluntarism).” I've not heard it called “theological voluntarism.”

Dr. Craig: No. I think that is definitely a mislabeling. There are voluntaristic versions of divine command theory. William Ockham would be a proponent of such a version. That version is to say that moral values and duties are rooted sheerly in God's will. That God simply made up what is good and evil so that indeed he could have willed that hatred be good. But most divine command theorists today do not defend voluntarism. They would defend what I just expressed a moment ago – a non-voluntaristic view – that God's will expresses his essential properties such as generosity, kindness, impartiality, fairness, and so forth. So the moral good is not something that is based in God's will but in his nature. So to call all divine command theories voluntaristic is misleading and I think inaccurate.

Kevin Harris: You've read this paper. It seems to me that the Euthyphro has been answered sufficiently. Just perusing this paper, what are his objections that stand out to you?

Dr. Craig: Let me say first that it is a very interesting paper, and I enjoyed reading it. I thought it was a responsible piece of philosophical work. I think he accurately represents by and large those whom he criticizes, particularly William Alston's view. He draws out some of the implications of Alston's divine command theory.[2] In fact, my general impression of the article is that it is not so much a refutation of Alston's theory as it is just an expression of incredulity about it. He draws out the implications of the theory and then just seems to say, This is unbelievable and I just can't accept this, and rejects it. Whereas, for someone like myself, I think those implications are just fine and unproblematic. To a certain degree, it seems to me that the paper is just an expression of incredulity on the part of a person who just can't imagine that moral values would be grounded in God.

Now, going beyond that general impression, the argument that he advances is that there is an additional dilemma that arises if you say that the solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma is that God wills something because he is good. What he will ask now is: are these properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, generosity good because God possesses them or does God possess them because they are good? He imagines this as a dilemma. It seems to me there is no dilemma there at all. The divine command theorist, and Alston in particular, is very clear. These properties are good because God possesses them. They are descriptions of the way God is and therefore these are goods. It would just be a subterfuge of the theory to say that God has these properties because they are good. So it is not really a dilemma. It is simply, as I say, drawing out the implications of Alston's view that the reason impartiality, loving-kindness, love, generosity are goods is because these are properties of God. But Koons finds that unacceptable. He thinks that this makes the affirmation of God's goodness meaningless. He will often use the word “meaning” - it has no meaning - or that it is unintelligible. He makes these meaning claims about God's goodness on Alston's view.

What is the problem with saying that these qualities are good because God possesses them? Alston is quoted in the article as having said this:

Note that on this view we are not debarred from saying what is supremely good about God. God is not good, qua bare particular or undifferentiated thisness. God is good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful, and so on.

Koons thinks that Alston is there contradicting himself; that Alston is claiming that God is good because he possesses these properties. I think that is misinterpreting Alston. Alston is very clear that these properties are good because they are properties of God. What Alston is simply saying is that we can give some descriptive content of wherein God's goodness consists. These properties are good because God has them, so what properties does he have? We can give a description. Koons himself, I think, undermines his argument later in the article when he distinguishes between what he calls “explanations-why” and “explanations-what.” I found this to be a very helpful distinction, and I think it clarifies Alston's view. He says this:

We must distinguish between explanations-why and explanations-what. Even if explanations-why come to an end [you reach some explanatory ultimate; in the theist's case God. You can't get any higher than God. That is your explanatory ultimate], and no further reasons can be given at this point, it does not follow that at this point there can be no further explanation-what. For we should still be able to explain what something is even if we can give no further explanation for why it is the way that it is.

I am amazed that he doesn't apply this to Alston's view of God! That seems to me perfectly correct. When you get to God you have reached the moral stopping point – the moral ultimate. There is no further reason why something is good.[3] When you get to God you've reached the metaphysical and moral ultimate, the explanatory stopping point. But that doesn't mean you can't explain what goodness is or wherein the goodness of God consists. As Alston says, you can still explain to people that God is loving, kind, merciful, generous, and so forth. That would be an explanation-what, but not an explanation-why.

It seems to me that that just completely evacuates his objection of any significance. It is not true that God's goodness is unintelligible or meaningless on Alston's view. You can give content to God's goodness by explaining what it is even if you can't explain why these things are good beyond the fact that they are properties of God.

Listen to what Koons himself says,

The particularist [by that he means someone who doesn't ground moral values in some abstract principle but in a concrete entity like God] says, in explaining why certain things are good, that at some point these why-explanations run out when we arrive at the exemplar of God's character. But this does not entail the absence of any what-explanations, and we should still be able to say what God's moral goodness consists in.

That is exactly what Alston does. It is not a further why-explanation, but you can give an explanation what God's goodness consists in. I don't think that it is true that on Alston's view God's goodness is a featureless property, or completely unintelligible, or without content. It seems to me that the difference between explanations-why and explanations-what solves the problem completely.

But there is one last thing that one should also say. When he makes charges of meaninglessness and unintelligibility, he is talking about semantics. Semantics is the study of meaning. But divine command theory is not a semantical theory about the meaning of the English word “good.” It is an ontological or metaphysical theory about the grounding of moral values, and it identifies the good with God himself. God is the ultimate source and paradigm of moral values. But that is not a semantic claim. That is not saying that the English word “good” means “applied to the character of God” or “commanded by God” or something of that sort. Rather, the divine command theorist semantically uses the word “good” in the same way that other ethicists who speak English use the word. He is not giving any different semantic content to that. So the claim that to speak of goodness in this case is unintelligible or meaningless is just a category mistake. He is talking semantics here instead of ontology.

The difficulty is – and I think he plays on this – is that goodness is one of these primitives that really ultimately can't be defined. It is a sort of primitive property or quality that can't be reductively defined in terms of anything else. There are many other notions like that that philosophers would say are primitive or fundamental or foundational concepts. So in that sense semantically you can't get beyond just affirming that something is good. For example, you can't say that to be good means to be conducive to human flourishing or to be good means to be in accord with God's nature or something of that sort. Those are failures of semantic theories. Goodness is a primitive, foundational, ultimately undefinable property in terms of non-value terms. But that doesn't mean to say that God is good on divine command theory where God is the good is therefore somehow meaningless. It is a meaningful claim. The theist is not offering a different definition of the word “good.”

So I think, although the article is interesting and helps to draw out some of the significant implications of Alston's particularism (namely, that these properties are good because they are possessed by God), ultimately there is no problem with saying that.[4] That is a perfectly coherent view, not meaningless or unintelligible, and the distinction between explanations-why and explanations-what helps us to see that.

Kevin Harris: Bill, as we wrap up this podcast today, it seems that Koons and other people who study this issue are looking for an appropriate stopping point for the good and to justify or ground moral values and duties. They are just trying to get it past God quite often. They don't want an infinite regress, but they just say . . .

Dr. Craig: None of us want an infinite regress. That is the irony of it. Everybody is going to have his explanatory ultimate in his moral theory, whatever that might be. I think the theist has a very plausible explanatory ultimate because the concept of God is the concept of a greatest conceivable being. A being which is worthy of worship. Any being that is worthy of worship – that is maximally great – is a very plausible stopping point for these why-explanations and for being one's explanatory ultimate in the moral sense.

Kevin Harris: Is there an illustration that you can demonstrate?

Dr. Craig: Yes, one in fact that Koons talks about is the famous meter bar in Paris. The meter, as a length, was or can be taken to be defined in terms of the length of this bar. It is not that the bar approximated some abstract measure called a meter. The meter was just defined as being the length of that bar in the Office of Weights and Measures in Paris. That would be a very good example or illustration. God is like the meter bar with respect to the good.

Another example that I find interesting is the sound of a live orchestra serves as the paradigm for what counts as high-fidelity in recording. A high-fidelity recording means it approximates to the sound of the live music. But the live music itself doesn't approximate to anything else. It just is the paradigm for what counts as high-fidelity.

Kevin Harris: That is a great illustration.

Dr. Craig: Similarly, God just is the good. He is not only metaphysically ultimate, but he is morally ultimate as well.[5]

[1]Jeremy Koons, “Can God's Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro?” See (accessed January 4, 2015).

[2] 5:03

[3] 10:04

[4] 15:05

[5] Total Running Time: 17:40 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)