Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Euthyphro’s Dilemma Solved

In Plato’s famous dialogue we are given the classic philosophical conundrum called Euthyphro’s dilemma:

Are things good because God commands them, or does God command them because they are good?

(NB: Good here refers to a standard of good distinct from God and to which God may be subject).

Apparently we are told that philosophers, theists and atheists have debated this for centuries, continually reaching a stalemate.  When I first read Euthyphro’s dilemma in my formative years I couldn't really see why it was such a poser - it seems pretty easy to solve with a little economic analysis.

If what is meant by God is the God who is thought to be omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent and the all-loving creator of everything in nature, then it stands to reason that God does not command good things because they are good, because that would be to suggest that goodness has an existence independent of God.  I don't think a creator God that has the properties of omnipotence, omniscience, omni-benevolence and all-lovingness can be subject to a standard higher than Himself, because if such a God exisits then 'omni' properties contain the very properties from which such qualities emanate.

Given the foregoing, it must be the case, then, that things are good because God commands them. And unless we want to make the injudicious suggestion that a God with 'omni' properties commands anything arbitrarily, we must say that the goodness that emerges because God commands it is, in fact, due to God being the epitome of goodness. Hence, there’s no real problem if we say that qualities like goodness, love and grace are inherent properties of the Divine mind, and are thus inextricably attached to Divinity. 

The solution to Euthyphro’s dilemma seems quite straightforward to me. Things are good because God commands them, but God commands them because what is being commanded is an inherent part of, and inextricable from, God's own nature.

* Photo courtesy of christian.resourses


  1. That's not a solution to the problem. It is just the looping of the two views into a circle. It doesn't seem to me to change the fact that either "good" is something that human beings can discern, because it corresponds to something like empathy; or "good" is whatever God commands. Saying that God's commands are rooted in God's nature only addresses the issue if you either say that that nature, like the commands, are good precisely because they are what God is/says, which is simply divine command theory again; or you say that good has an objective meaning and we can assess God's nature in relation to it.

  2. Hi James,

    >>Saying that God's commands are rooted in God's nature only addresses the issue if you either say that that nature, like the commands, are good precisely because they are what God is/says, which is simply divine command theory again<<

    No I was careful not to fall into repetition of the theory that morally good is equivalent to whether God commands it. You may like to note, I didn't state that "God's commands are rooted in God's nature", I stated that "God's goodness is inhered in God's nature". The key that I identified is in the nature of what it means to be a mind with 'Omni' properties. Divine goodness is inextricably linked to the Omni properties - and all talk of goodness, morality, and right and wrong from the human perspective is our attempts to decipher God's goodness. The only way we can do that is by what we are told about God in scripture and what we see in the person of Jesus (aided by the Holy Spirit of course).

    Understanding this rests on the key point of how 'Omni' properties inhere a goodness that's part of the Divine mind. Don't be too worried about feedback loops - they are necessary in interpreting God, as it is always the case of humans interpreting human conceptions of God.



    1. Thank you for the reply. Perhaps a follow-up question will help you understand why I do not think this is in fact a solution to the Euthyphro dilemma. What does "good" mean in your original post? If it is identical to the divine nature or some aspect thereof, then you have indeed run aground on the divine command theory - simply defining "good" as "what God is" does not avoid the problems raised by defining "good" as "what God says." It is a variation on the same. If, on the other hand, "good" has a clear objective meaning, then there is no reason to flinch at that. Jesus' own teaching is that the good is not something ethereal but is treating others as we would want to be treated - in other words, empathy. I suspect the only reason some try to avoid that latter option is because they consider some stories in which God is depicted as distinctly lacking in empathy are divinely-revealed inerrant truths. But I would much prefer to stick with the teaching of Jesus on this one than a dogma that must be forcibly imposed on the Bible to make it even seem to fit.

    2. Hi James,

      My definition of good is, like all definitions, an approximation, such that its qualities may be similar to how the sun's qualities give us an earthly light and heat, much less potent than would be the case in close proximity to the sun itself. God's goodness to our conception of goodness may be said to be similar to the sun's light and warmth to the earthly light and warmth.

      I do not think 'empathy' is sufficient to explain goodness, even at a human level. Perpetrators of wickedness often draw on empathy to understand the pain and torment they are inflicting on their victims.



    3. If your definition of good is that it is defined by God's nature, then it isn't clear what your statement means. Of course God's nature is closer to God's nature than anything else. But that does not explain what "good" means.

    4. I'm responding to Plato's original dialogue in which his 'good' has a sun-like quality. I've defined it as well as it can be defined in terms of God's radiating personality imprinted our on minds.