The Euthyphro dilemma

EuthyphroI recently tackled again the always fascinating Euthyphro dilemma, first proposed by Plato in the short dialogue by the same name. I have written about it in depth in my Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life, but it now seemed as good a time as ever to revisit the issue.

I did so in two essays for The Philosophers’ Magazine Online, and I welcome further discussion here at Plato’s Footnote. I begin by mentioning an excellent paper by my City University of New York colleague Michael Levin, which summarizes what the dilemma is all about, as well as a number of (unsuccessful) attempts to wiggle out of it (including the ever favorite one: accusing Plato of setting up a false dilemma — but it should be obvious that just because there are some false dilemmas out there, it doesn’t mean that all dichotomous choices are false. For instance: 2+2 is either =4 or it isn’t.)

The first thing to understand about the Euthyphro is that it is not an argument against the existence of God. Socrates — despite being on his way, at the beginning of the dialogue, to defend himself from the charge of impiety, for which he was later sentenced to death by the Athenian state — was no atheist. Rather, the question being posed concerns, as Socrates himself puts it about one third into the dialogue, the source of morality itself: “And what is piety, and what is impiety?”

The rest of the first essay is a detailed presentation of the dilemma, leading into the beginning of a discussion of various theological attempts to respond to it. One of the first was by none other than Thomas Aquinas. He conceded that something is good because God says so, but this is simply because it is in God’s nature to be good, which guarantees that his commands will in fact be moral. I discuss why the “it’s in God’s nature” defense doesn’t actually do the trick (e.g., to even claim that God’s nature is good you need some concept of good, and where are you getting that, if not by impaling yourself again in one of the two horns of the dilemma?).

The above mentioned paper by Levin does make a novel contribution to the debate, and is worth reading in full for a fresh perspective. Michael analyzes the concept of God’s “dependence” on a given standard of value, and provides reasons to “dissolve,” so to speak, the dilemma. I refer you to the second half of my first essay for a full discussion of his approach.

The second essay moves on to consider what modern theologians have been up to, when it comes to answering Plato, and they haven’t fared much better than Aquinas, in my opinion.

A sophisticated attempt at avoiding being impaled by the Euthyphro, for instance, has been made by Richard Swinburne. It takes the form of a compromise, suggesting that moral values come in two flavors: necessary and contingent. In other words, some moral rules are universal and absolute, while others depend on circumstances. Absolute values, according to Swinburne, hold in all conceivable worlds, examples being the prohibitions against rape or murder. Contingent values, on the other hand, are not applicable everywhere and at every time — let’s say the prohibition on eating certain kinds of foods at particular times of the year.

Swinburne’s stratagem has a serious drawback: if absolute values are independent of specific circumstances, then they can be arrived at by reason (which is of course the project of most ethical philosophers), and one falls yet again on the horn of the dilemma that says we don’t need gods to tell us what to do. In this scenario, God at best gets to tell us his personal preferences in terms of minor actions, like whether or not to eat pork on which days, which hardly seems the stuff of serious moral discourse.

The final section of the second essay discusses what I think is the most sophisticated attempt to date, by Robert Merrihew Adams, and I refer you to my summary of it over at TMP Online.

Incidentally, you may want to check out this little test based on the Euthyphro, courtesy of Jeremy Stangroom, and see how you fare against other readers of The Philosophers’ Magazine.

126 thoughts on “The Euthyphro dilemma

  1. Robin Herbert

    Hi Massimo,

    I apologise for my earlier tone, again I got carried away. I appreciate and I know the others here appreciate your willingness to engage on this and many other subjects.


  2. Robin Herbert

    As for DCT, as none of us here is a proponent of DCT, I have serious doubts that we can be talking about a version of it that anyone would actually agree to and are therefore in danger of promoting a straw man.

    Maybe you should call it Revised DCT, or DCTII or something like that as people are entitled to be the experts on their own theory.


  3. Massimo Post author

    Robin, apologies accepted. You say:

    “Again, if “B implies D” is true then “B and not D” is inconsistent.
    So, if you have a reason to believe that “B implies D” is true then you have a method to demonstrate the “B and not D” is inconsistent (which demonstration is not just a restatement of “B implies D”).
    So, again, I am asking a very specific question, how are you demonstrating that “B and not D” is inconsistent?”

    I’m not sure whether you are asking for a truth table, or what you would count as a proof. But since C and D are mutually exclusive, B implying D cannot also leave room for ~D, if B is true. And if B is not true, then A is, which implies C, which is mutually exclusive with D.

    The problem is that you don’t believe that C and D are the only two possible alternatives, and yet in that case it should be easy to produce at the least a third one, which, however, you (or anyone else, really) haven’t done.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Massimo Post author


    Obviously, it is your prerogative to quit this forum. And I hope it is equally obvious that I would be said to see you go.

    However, I must say that Coel’s quip was well within the bounds of acceptability, and that the article he linked to is something to deal with, analyze and discuss, not simply ignore.

    As I’m sure you know, I find both Coel’s scientism and your apologism not to my taste. But this is a forum for open discussion, where we presumably welcome intellectual challenges, if not because they may change our mind at the least because they help us sharpen our own views. Quitting without an actual insult having been uttered seems very strange to me.


  5. Haulianlal Guite

    On the article itself:

    Playing the devil’s (or god’s?) advocate here, I must side with Aquinas. I think he has a point; perhaps an analogy may help.

    Does it make sense to ask, “is x a triangle because x’s angles add up to 180 degrees, or do the angles add up to 180 degrees because x is a triangle?”

    Now,can one object this way:
    “if you take the first horn of the dilemma, it implies the predication of 180 degrees to ‘x’ is arbitrary, ‘might makes right’,since whatever the values of ‘x’ angles are, will always make it a triangle by default;
    whereas if you take the second horn of the dilemma,it implies that since ‘x’ is already agreed to be a triangle, the source of ‘x’s ‘triangleness’ cannot be because it adds up to 180 degrees?”

    I hope the analogy is clear.The “dilemma” seems to me a false one, since triangles are by definition understood to have angles that add up to 180 degrees.Likewise in Euthyphro’s case, if you accept God is intrinsically omnibenevolent, then the dilemma is a false one.

    Of course this is no proof that God is all-benevolent. It only shows instead that if you accept that he is, Euthyphro’s dilemma does not arise.


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