I’m going to discuss the Euthyphro dilemma by comparing and contrasting two different atheists on morality. Let’s begin by outlining the nature of the so-called dilemma.
If, on the one hand, God commands or forbids something because it’s right or wrong, then it’s right and wrong apart God. God is not the ultimate source of morality. Rather, God himself is subject to a more ultimate standard.
If, on the other hand, God’s bare command or prohibition is what makes something right or wrong, then good and evil are arbitrary and vacuous. Arbitrary because there’s no underlying rationale for the command or prohibition. And that, in turn, renders good and evil meaningless, for they are consistent with any command or opposing command.
Here is how a prominent atheist states the alleged dilemma, with special emphasis on one horn of the alleged dilemma:
Translated into contemporary terms, the question Socrates is asking is this: Are morally good actions morally good simply in virtue of God’s favoring them? Or does God favor them because they are–independently of his favoring them–morally good?Divine command theory says that what is good is good only because God has commanded it; there is nothing more to an act’s being good than that God command it.[According to] divine independence theory, the goodness of an action is a feature that is independent of, and antecedent to God’s willing it.The two theories differ on what accounts for this congruence. DCT says that it is God’s command that explains why the good acts are good, while DIT says that it is the goodness of the acts that explains why God commanded them.The way to bring out the difference is to consider a case of an act that we’d all antecedently agree is morally wrong–say, torturing an innocent child. If DCT is correct, then the following counterfactual is true: If God had commanded us to torture innocent children, then it would have been morally right to do so. DIT, however, entails the following: If God had commanded us to torture innocent children, then God would not have been perfectly good.Only the theorist who believes that right and wrong are independent of God’s commands could have any basis for thinking she or he knows in advance what God would or would not command. If, as DCT says, an act’s being good just consists in its being chosen by God, then there’s nothing about the action in advance of its being chosen or rejected that would enable us to determine what attitude God would take toward it in some other possible world. “Good” for the divine command theorist is synonymous with “commanded by God.” …there is nothing that is inherently good or bad, and thus nothing that explains God’s choosing which acts to endorse and which acts to prohibit.I doubt that there are many people who really believe DCT. If there were, then there would be fewer interpretive difficulties surrounding those stores in the Bible that depict God commanding actions that we would ordinarily take to be moral atrocities.The Bible is full of accounts of God’s killing, displacing, or otherwise seriously smiting presumably innocent people who had the misfortune of belonging to a tribe whose leaders had threatened to impede his ambitions for the Israelites…Sometimes, there’s not even a pretext that the doomed people are morally at fault: The only “crime” committed by the Canaanites was living in a land God wanted for his people.The question can be asked, then, Why ought one to obey God? The fact that this question can be asked, that it’s comprehensible, that it makes sense, is sufficient proof that the mere existence of an all-powerful Creator is not enough to generate a realm of moral fact.
Louise Antony, “Atheist as Perfect Piety,” R. Garcia & N. King, Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield 2009), 71,72,73,79,80.
Before introducing the second atheist, I’m going to comment on these excerpts:
i) She says torturing an innocent child is something “we’d all antecedently agree is morally wrong.” But as an atheist, she’s in no position to posit that claim. For one thing, it seems to be empirically false. After all, there are people who torture innocent children. Do they think what they are doing is morally wrong?
ii) Furthermore, even if we think it’s morally wrong, that doesn’t make it morally wrong. From an atheistic standpoint, we might say natural selection brainwashed us into cherishing children because that sentiment promotes the survival of the species. But once you become aware of the fact that you were brainwashed, you no longer feel obliged to comply with your conditioning.
iii) In addition, there are secular utilitarians who could propose a scenario in which it’s morally permissible or even obligatory to torture a child. Take a variation on the ticking timebomb scenario. A terrorist won’t divulge the information needed to prevent nuking Chicago unless we torture, or threaten to torture, his child. The harm done to one child is offset by the harm done to thousands of children unless we torture his child.
iv) She also cites biblical commands which she classifies as “moral atrocities.” But Bible writers didn’t think those were moral atrocities.
v) Furthermore, many cultures, both ancient and modern, commit similar “atrocities.” Do the perpetrators think they are committing “moral atrocities?
So it’s hard for her to come up with any cases “we’d all antecedently agree is morally wrong.”
I’m not being pedantic, here. She’s not entitled to systematically beg the question when illustrating her thesis. She needs to discharge her burden of proof.
vi) She says no pretext for executing the Canaanites is even given. But that’s willfully ignorant. The divine command is not a bare command. It supplies a rationale, implicating the Canaanites in idolatry and immorality.
vii) She also says “there’s nothing about the action in advance of its being chosen or rejected that would enable us to determine what attitude God would take toward it in some other possible world.”
But that confuses the epistemology of ethics with the ontology of ethics. Whether something is good or bad, and whether we know ahead of time whether it’s good or bad are separate issues.
viii) Finally, she makes the eccentric claim the mere ability to ask why we ought to obey God is sufficient proof that the mere existence of an all-powerful Creator is not enough to generate a realm of moral fact.
But that’s confused. At one level we can simply accept the morality of a divine command on the authority of a wise and benevolent God. That’s sufficient reason for us to accept it.
But that doesn’t make the command itself groundless. God can have good reason for what he commands. And knowing that God has a good reason is distinct from knowing what reason he has.
ix) There’s also a difference between moral imperatives and a moral obligation to obey a divine command. We can have a moral obligation to obey a divine command even if the command itself is not a moral imperative.
For instance, God commanding Abraham to leave Ur is not, itself a moral absolute. Rather, God commanded Abraham to leave Ur because Abraham leaving Ur is part of God’s long-range plan to redeem the world. His command is purposeful.
Abraham has a duty to obey God’s command, but not because leaving Ur is intrinsically obligatory. Rather, God has a good reason for command Abraham to leave Ur. And Abraham ought to trust God’s wisdom, even if God didn’t reveal his reason to Abraham.
x) Apropos (ix), that type of obligation sidesteps the Euthyphro dilemma. God’s command to Abraham isn’t arbitrary. Rather, God’s command is explicable in reference to God’s overarching plan (whether or not that explanation is available to Abraham). By the same token, it’s not independent of God.
Let’s now quote another atheist:
If value is tied to life, its content will depend on particular forms of life, and the most salient reasons it gives us will depend, even in a realist conception, on our own form of life. This is how a realist account can accommodate one of the things that make subjectivism seem most plausible, namely the fact that what we find self-evidently valuable is overwhelmingly contingent on the biological specifics of our form of life. Human good and bad depend in the first instance on our natural appetites, emotions, capacities, and interpersonal bonds, If we were more like bees or lions, what seems good to us would be very different, a point that Street emphasizes.[Quoting Street]: “Imagine, for instance, that we had evolved more along the lines of lions, so that males in relatively frequent circumstances had a strong unreflective evaluative tendency to experience the killing of offspring that were not his own as “demanded” by the circumstances, and so that females, in turn, experienced no strong unreflective tendency to “hold it against” a male when he killed her offspring in such circumstances, on the contrary becoming receptive to his advances soon afterwards.”
T. Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012), 119.
i) Now what’s striking about this argument is that it could easily be retrofitted to account for many Biblical commands and prohibitions. Instead of blind evolution, we have a Creator God who designed different types of creatures with corresponding appetites, emotions, capacities, and interpersonal bonds. Human obligations would be keyed to human nature–the nature with which God endowed us. Our duties would be engineered into us.
That sidesteps the Euthyphro dilemma, for commands and prohibitions of this kind aren’t good “only” because they are commanded. There is “more to it” than the bare command. Rather, you have an inherent obligation that’s inherent in the nature of the agent. Good for the creature because that’s how the creature was made.
Conversely, this isn’t good apart from God. Rather, it’s contingent on how God designed us.
ii) I’d add that this doesn’t exhaust all types of divine commands. For example, Scripture commands us to be holy because God is holy. What grounds that command is the nested relationship between the divine exemplar and its human exemplification. If God is good–indeed, the summum bonum–then it’s good to be an instance of God’s goodness.
That, too, sidesteps the Euthyphro dilemma. On the one hand this isn’t arbitrary or vacuous. It’s grounded in God’s own nature. But by the same token, it’s not something over and above God himself.
iii) Likewise, we have a standing obligation to worship God–because God is intrinsically worthy of our worship. That also sidesteps the Euthyphro dilemma. It’s not a good command for the command’s sake. Rather, it’s imbedded in something ultimately greater. We should love the good because it’s good. And God’s goodness is exemplary goodness. There is no higher good, be it possible or actual.