Friday, 24 April 2009

God and Euthyphro


We discussed the basic challenge that Socrates was making to Euthyphro yesterday, the challenge to provide a meaningful definition, in our terms, of moral good. Socrates formulated a dilemma to show Euthyphro that his purported definition, in our terms, of moral good is that which God commands, is not actually a definition of moral good. Granted this, issues of whether it is correct or not, do not yet come into play. The modern standard definition here suffers from another problem, the repugnant conclusion, that God can arbitrary and capriciously command anything and it is, by definition, good whatever we think. Today we are looking at theists who do not unabashedly accept this repugnant conclusion and wish to avoid this.

The Rhetoric Gambit

Granted that Divine Command Theory with its repugnant conclusion has fallen into disrepute, some theists propose and alternative called Divine Nature Theory, one that supposedly does not suffer from the defects of Divine Command Theory.

They take the less problematic first horn and say, yes God commands what is good. They then say that what is good is in God's nature!

The critics response is to quite reasonably formulate the dilemma around this new definition of moral good and ask “Is the good in god’s nature because it is good or is it good because it is in god’s nature?”.

Their response is to say something along the lines of "You can't do that, that is not Euthyphro's dilemma, which only applies to Divine Command Theories not our Divine Nature Theory."

Well as far as ethics is concerned is still is a Divine Command Theory and is offering a purported definition of moral good in terms of God. This is a rhetorical gambit since it is trading off the term "command" in Divine Command Theory. The term "command" is used metonymically to stand for all types of claims that Good comes from God.

What if it had been called, following Euthphro, Divine Love Theory and the riposte had been this is,say, Divine Decree Theory and moral good is what God decrees and Euthyphro does not apply to this since it is not Divine Love Theory. This a very poor rhetorical gambit that is just an evasion of the challenge.

The Static Argument

The above brings forward two useful points. Theists may be concerned over stereotypical Divine Command Theory and seek some modification to overcome the repugnant conclusion. That is quite legitimate,as long as they do not employ a rhetorical gambit as noted above. Secondly they are offering another definition of moral good usually along the lines of "moral good is an eternal attribute of an eternal God" or equivalents to "eternal" here such as "perfect", "necessary", "immutable", "non-contingent" and so on. The purpose here is to defeat the repugnant conclusion. The claim is that God has no choice but the command the moral good, it is a fixed or static feature of God's nature and so is not arbitrary or capricious.

Unfortunately this only attempts to address and avoid the repugnant conclusion on the assumption that the repugnant conclusion only follows if God can change his mind or decide what is good on a whim. With their new definition God cannot do but this is, at best, only addressing the caricature of the dilemma, not the dilemma itself. The dilemma can still be applied and one can still seek to see whether it is a definition or not.

The issue of such an attribute being fixed in God is a red herring it has no bearing at all on resolving the dilemma.

The Non-Causal Argument

Another argument attempting to resolve this is to assume that the because clause expresses a causal relationship, whereas, in fact, it is just used to express a relation, the type of relation being open. If the relationship is opaque the definition fails. It does correctly identify that if there is an identity being shown, it should not matter which way round it is stated, that the two horns are one, however saying that one has provided an non-causal relationship fails to address whether the definition is transparent or opaque, which is the issue the dilemma seeks to illustrate.

The Identity Argument

An extension of this is to claim the God is identical with Moral Good. This is an absurd claim, as it is a radical redefinition of God since if this is true then God can be nothing else! All one is saying that good is good and providing no definition at all!

The Third Horn Argument

All this boils down to is the provision of a new definition that is claimed to be an alternative to those two horns, and this third horn is unproblematic and benign. However the dilemma can still be applied to all these variants, and although this does not mean they all suffer from the same defects, whether the defects do apply still needs to be addressed. That is there is no third horn, either there are two distinct horns (whether benign or repugnant), or the horns collapse (as they would for a transparent definition, upon which is correctness still needs to be decided).

Having cleared all these obstacles out the way we can now address the underlying trick used here.

The Vagueness Argument

There are three variants of this:

1.“Is the good in god’s nature because it is good or is it good because it is in god’s nature?”

2.“Is the good an eternal attribute of god’s eternal nature because it is good or is it good because it is an eternal attribute of god’s eternal nature?”

3.“Is the good a 'fundamental ought' in god’s nature because it is good or is it good because it is 'fundamental ought' in god’s nature?”

The first is completely vague and opaque -w hat in God's nature is good. The second is less vague and might be an answer to my question just asked, but then we are entitled to ask okay it is an attribute but what attribute. The third appears less vague again, and could be an answer to the challenge of definition 2, it has specified a specific attribute but what does 'fundamental ought' mean? This is still opaque and leads to defining good in terms of oughts but oughts are just as much part of the question as good.

In each case where is the reason that something is moral good and no answer has provided it. Either there is no reason as in the second horn variants, it just is, or there is some viciously circular argument - it is not in God's nature not to be good - either way it is still an arbitrary definition, a definition by fiat and one that provides no transparency and so is not a real definition anyway.


Ultimately it seems the main strategy employed by theists who wish to avoid the repugnant conclusion of stereotypical divine command theory, is to purportedly solve Socrates challenge to Euthyphro of creating a transparent non-circular definition of moral good by creating a more opaque and circular definition! Maybe there are better answers from theologians but this bizarre tactic, which blatantly fails, seems to be the most popular one on forums and blogs. Anyone who does, this has failed to make a case and resolve the challenge of the dilemma. They have certainly not demonstrated any necessary nor any other type of connection between God and the good.