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#44 Euthyphro Dilemma

February 18, 2008

Thanks for all you do in your service to the Lord and to His Church. It is of great value to us, so I feel confident in saying it is of great value to Him as well.

I wondered if you could spare the time to help me out with some problems I’m having in dealing with the Euthyphro dilemma. As you know, the Euthyphro dilemma asks something along the lines of:

‘Is the good good because God approves it, or does God approve it because it’s good?’

Now, the theist doesn’t want to say that the Good is good simply because God happens to approve of it, since this makes morality arbitrary (call this Horn A). Nor does he want to say that God approves the Good because it is, in fact, good, since this seems to entail the existence of standards of goodness outside of God (call this Horn B).

So, the theist tries to split the horns of the dilemma by saying that God is necessarily good, and that the source and standard of the Good is God’s very nature. On the one hand, this avoids Horn B, since goodness, rather than existing outside of God, is part of God’s very nature (and in fact depends upon him for its existence). And, on the other hand, it avoids Horn A, since God’s will isn’t arbitrary but, rather, operates according to a definite moral standard (i.e. God’s necessarily good nature).

But it seems that the atheist can now reformulate the dilemma to ask:

‘Is God’s nature good because of the way God happens to be, or is it good because it matches up to some external standard of goodness?’

It seems to me that the answer to the reformulated dilemma has to involve something like the claim that God’s nature couldn’t be anything but good—i.e. that God’s nature doesn’t just ‘happen’ to be a certain way. But I’m not sure what it means to say this, since unless we have a concept of the Good outside of God, this doesn’t seem to amount to much, in the sense that it doesn’t seem to place any restrictions on God’s nature. I suspect the concept of possible worlds might be helpful here. But I’m not sure how or why. My suggestion for an argument would go something like this:

(1) God is, by definition, a maximally great being.
(2) This entails His being metaphysically necessary and morally perfect.
(3) Therefore, by (2), God exists in all possible worlds.
(4) But, if moral values are objective, moral perfection represents (or
at least tends towards) a unique, maximal set of moral values.
(5) So, by (1), (3) & (4), it follows that God has the same moral
character in every possible world.
(6) Therefore God’s nature is good neither because of the way He
happens to be nor because of His fitness with reference to an external
standard of goodness.

—which answers the reformulated dilemma.

This sounds sort of OK to me. But I’m not convinced about (4). I’m also concerned that I’ve thought too hard about this and am starting to talk rubbish at this point. I seem to be going round in circles in my head. If you could spell things out very clearly and simply for me, I’d be extremely grateful.


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Dr. craig’s response


I think your intuitions are right on target, James! The argument you give just needs some adjustment.

When the atheist says, “Is God’s nature good because of the way God happens to be, or is it good because it matches up to some external standard of goodness?”, the second horn of the dilemma represents nothing new—it’s the same as the second horn in the original dilemma, namely, that God approves something because it’s good, and we’ve already rejected that. So the question is whether we’re stuck on the first horn of the dilemma. Well, if by “happens to be” the atheist means that God’s moral character is a contingent property of God, that is to say, a property God could have lacked, then the obvious answer is, “No.” God’s moral character is essential to Him; that’s why we said it was part of His nature. To say that some property is essential to God is to say that there is no possible world in which God could have existed and lacked that property. God didn’t just happen by accident to be loving, kind, just, and so forth. He is that way essentially.

You needn’t worry about “what it means to say this, since unless we have a concept of the Good outside of God, this doesn’t seem to amount to much.” For this is to confuse moral ontology with moral semantics. Our concern is with moral ontology, that is to say, the foundation in reality of moral values. Our concern is not with moral semantics, that is to say, the meaning of moral terms. The theist is quite ready to say that we have a clear understanding of moral vocabulary like “good,” “evil,” right,” and so on, without reference to God. Thus, it is informative to learn that “God is essentially good.” Too often opponents of the moral argument launch misguided attacks upon it by confusing moral ontology with either moral semantics or, even more often, moral epistemology (how we come to know the Good).

If it be asked why God is the paradigm and standard of moral goodness, then I think premise (1) of your argument gives the answer: God is the greatest conceivable being, and it is greater to be the paradigm of goodness than to conform to it. Your premise (2) is also true, which is why God can serve as the foundation of necessary moral truths, i.e., moral truths which hold in every possible world. I’m not sure what you mean by premise (4); but I think it’s dispensable. All you need to say is that moral values (or at least many of them) are not contingent, but hold in every possible world. Then God will ground these values in every possible world. That seems to me to settle the issue. So far from talking rubbish, it seems to me that you have directed us toward the correct answer!

- William Lane Craig