Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma and the Birth of Humanistic Ethics

While the case can be made that Plato essentially invented the discipline of philosophy as we know it today, one idea in particular stands out, in my mind, as one of the most powerful and enduring philosophical finds in the history of the subject, one that would redefine how we think about morality itself—the Euthyphro Dilemma.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

In the Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro encounter each other outside of court, where Euthyphro plans to press murder charges against his own father on the grounds that it is the pious thing to do. Socrates, surprised by this, engages Euthyphro in a discussion on the nature of piety, to which Euthyphro proposes a definition: he says that the pious is simply that which is loved by the gods. Socrates then advances the following question, which has come to be known as the Euthyphro Dilemma:

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

Or, we can rephrase the question using the monotheistic formulation:

“Does God command this particular action because it is morally right, or is it morally right because God commands it?”

Let’s see how we might be able to answer this. We’ll use the monotheistic version of the question for the sake of modern relevance. 

Option 1: God commands an action because it is morally right

The first thing to recognize is that the question contains the hidden assumption that God does in fact exist. If God does not exist, there is simply no dilemma. Since we won’t be arguing for or against the existence of God in this post, we will simply accept the assumption that God does exist and see what the dilemma implies.

The question, again, is:

Does God command this particular action (1) because it is morally right, or (2) is it morally right because God commands it?

Notice that you can’t accept both (1) and (2) without arguing in a circle. To say that God commands an action because it is moral and it is moral because God commands it is a blatant instance of circular reasoning. Logic demands that you choose either option (1) or (2). 

If option (1) is selected, and God issues commands because they are moral, then God is not the highest authority on moral behavior. God’s actions can be judged according to their adherence to this higher moral standard. So, for instance, if God commands you to torture your children, we can legitimately and rightfully claim that this is an immoral command. And remember, the point is not whether or not God would issue an immoral command; the logical possibility alone demonstrates the idea that morality is independent of God.  

If morality is independent of God, then God cannot be all-powerful in the sense that he can’t change or circumvent the rules of morality. God no longer has complete sovereignty but rather a limited freedom of will. (If He could change the rules of morality, then we must select option (2) of the dilemma, which we’ll explore in the next section.)

The implications of this are fairly clear: if an independent and objective moral standard exists, then it has higher authority than God and would retain its authority even if God doesn’t exist. God is not necessary for moral deliberation if we can judge his actions in terms of this standard, which we’ve admitted must exist if we choose option (1). Otherwise, we must choose option (2).

Option 2: An action is morally right because God commands it 

If we want to maintain God’s sovereignty, omnipotence, and highest authority, we must reject option (1) and claim that an action is morally right because God commands it. But this has some serious problems that even most theists are not willing to concede.

First, it claims that any act commanded by God is just. If God commands you to torture your children, you had better do it under the assumption that morality is equivalent with God’s commands. You must also admit that morality is arbitrary and is subject to change whenever God deems fit. Otherwise, you’re admitting to be able to judge God’s commandments, in which case you would be implying your support for option (1). 

Further, you must take the position that morality is nothing more than obedience. Living the moral life under such an idea is little better than living as a dog; the good life is the obedient life whereby one simply does whatever they are told without the burden of independent moral deliberation or the reflection on the consequences of one’s actions on others. 

This raises the further problem of why—if living morally is simply a matter of obedience—God would furnish humanity with rationality at all, if we are not expected to use it or to use it in only a limited capacity.

Theistic responses  

The Euthyphro Dilemma shows—to my mind, fairly conclusively—that if God exists, morality is simply a matter of uncritical obedience or else is dependent on moral standards independent of God that can be discovered on our own. This suggests, among other things, that unless you are willing to fully equate morality with blind obedience, any moral arguments for the necessity of God are specious. 

But not all theists are convinced. Throughout history, from St. Augustine to Thomas Aquinas up to the present day, theists have attacked the Euthyphro Dilemma as a false dilemma. The arguments are varied, but all more or less present the question as a false dilemma that fails to take into account a third option: the nature of God. (Note how even most theists will not accept option (2))

The arguments go something like this: God neither conforms to nor invents the moral rules; goodness is simply part of God’s nature and his commands could not be anything other than morally right. 

A slick response, no doubt, but here’s the problem: if you want to locate morality within the nature of God and not in his actions, you’ve just changed the nature of the dilemma without resolving it. Now we can ask:

“Does God have His nature because that nature is good, or is that nature good because God has it?”

And we’re right back to the same dilemma. Whether we frame the dilemma in terms of actions, natures, or properties, we can’t escape the question of whether or not those actions, natures, or properties are good because they belong to God or are good because they are good in themselves. Either way, blind obedience to God’s actions or God’s nature amounts to the same thing. 

Freedom from the constraints of objective morality

This line of reasoning does more than call into question the legitimacy of theistic morality; it acts as a universal acid—to use Daniel Dennett’s term—dissolving all claims to objective morality. In response to any universal, objective moral rule—whether inspired by God or anything else—we can always ask on what authority it should be accepted, and, if none, we can question its universal applicability to all situations.

But here’s why this is welcome news. Plato has killed the idea that morality is nothing more than strict obedience to either God or to any universal rule. This gives us the freedom and flexibility to decide vexing moral issues more effectively. For example, we can respect the general rule that killing is wrong while at the same time recognizing that it is sometimes necessary in self-defense, for instance. By denying the existence of objective moral standards, we can recognize reasonable exceptions to general rules that are both more humane and consistent with the reduction of unnecessary harm.

The Euthyphro Dilemma is not just destructive of objective morality; it is liberating in the deepest sense of attaining our own intellectual freedom. It is the opposite of nihilistic; it grounds morality in our common human capacity for reason and sympathy—the only possible, albeit imprecise, grounds for morality. As Aristotle wrote, “for it is the mark of an educated mind to seek only so much exactness in each type of inquiry as may be allowed by the nature of the subject-matter.” In regard to morality, we are forced to live with a certain degree of inexactness.

But from this inexactness arises what is perhaps Plato’s most important lesson: that the moral conclusions you reach are less important than how you reach them. If your morality—no matter how appealing—is dependent on a philosophy of divine command theory, it fails on the grounds that morality is not the same as obedience. But if your morality is grounded in reasons that everyone—using the same rational faculties—can accept, it’s on much more solid footing. This idea of reciprocal justification, whereby each person can appeal to the common faculty of reason that we all possess, is the only workable solution to addressing the questions of morality (and is probably why Plato wrote primarily in dialogue format).

There will always be disagreements, gray areas, and general imprecision—reflecting the nature of the subject—but pretending that morality is more exact than the subject allows has always done far more harm than good. 

Further reading

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