Euthyphro dilemma

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Preach to the choir
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Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith
The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.
Socrates, Euthyphro[1]
The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are then in this situation: is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good.
Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian[2]

The Euthyphro dilemma, originally presented in Plato's Euthyphro dialogue, ponders how an act is determined as good in relation to a god or gods. The essence of the dilemma is this: is an omnibenevolent god capable of only commanding good acts or, is an act good because it is commanded by an omnibenevolent god? The dilemma needs to be considered by anyone who claims that there is a divine source of absolute morality. The Problem of Evil has its roots in this dilemma.

The dilemma results in what is essentially a dichotomy of options in what the causal relationship between morality and a god is:

  1. God commands acts because they are good.
  2. Acts are good because they are commanded by God.

These two positions are viewed as contradictory and mutually exclusive, resulting in a dilemma.

First horn: Independent, Objective Morality[edit]

The first option (known as the "first horn") simply denies the validity of divine command theory because it implies God is beholden to a separate, observable standard to determine what's good. If this is the case, then a god is actually not necessary for morality, and even moral absolutism is possible without a god.

Second horn: Divine Command Theory[edit]

The second option (the "second horn") effectively renders morality arbitrary; nothing is intrinsically good, and God could declare something bad one day, good the next day. We are left with a case of divine moral relativism, also known as divine command theory. If something is good purely because a god has said so, then the same act can be good or bad depending on the stance of a god at that particular time (assuming God changes, which He does in the Bible). Another problem is that there is no way to determine the will of a god — prophets may lie and some miracles can be convincingly faked.[citation needed]

It is debatable whether or not the arbitrariness of divine fiat is a "problem"; just because God could do something doesn't mean He would. Besides, seeing as moral relativists and absolutists tend to arbitrarily change their own morals to whatever is most convenient, there seems no reason why God shouldn't get in on the fun.

When God's actions seem to contradict some previous commandment, it poses a quandary for those who claim on the one hand that the definition of morality is absolute, but on the other hand that God's actions are moral. Many Christians are outspoken in opposition to moral relativism but, at the same time, will assert that God is good and just in all cases (including killing people, which should, by definition, violate "do not kill"), even if it means adopting relativism themselves.[3] God's apparent violation of his own commandment exemplifies the concern raised in the "second horn"… although any parent who has ever been chastised by their toddler for crossing the street against a light or for staying up past their bedtime can probably empathize with God.

Third horn: Special Pleading[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Special pleading

A third option is sometimes proposed: goodness is somehow inherent in god's character in such a way that whatever god commands is good, and this for some reason solves the problem. However, this also leaves us with a tautology: "God only commands good because god is good." As such, it is impossible to refute or verify, and any act at all can be justified and considered "moral".

This defense has the following problems:

  • Uniqueness proof: It has never been established that God alone possess such nature/essence. Citing things such as Original sin and redefining goodness to fit the purpose implies that all of these become meaningless unless the alleged facts lines up exactly as they want it.
  • The problem of omnipotence: Can God change his own essence/nature so that goodness becomes arbitrary?
  • Does God have to command Himself in order to observe such essence/nature?
    1. If God has to command Himself in order to observe such essence/nature, it is indistinguishable to determining goodness solely by God's fiat
    2. If God does not have to command Himself in order to observe His nature, then no proof has ever been presented[note 1] that it is impossible for human beings to observe such nature without God's command.
  • The problem that "how do we know God is good without going through God" is not solved. Suggesting that God made the human mind able to determine what is good still suffers the same problem in an indirect way.

Metaphysical response[edit]

The concerns surrounding the supposed arbitrariness of a morality which is dependent on the whims of an omnipotent God should equally apply to the arbitrariness of the laws of physics and the arbitrariness of our continued existence, itself; oddly enough, Socrates and Euthyphro (well, Plato, actually) did not seem troubled at all by this point. Plato's view that "goodness" is some qualitative attribute, rather than a concrete, quantitative attribute akin to temperature, leads him to voice his concerns. Supporters of Plato's argument worry about the possible arbitrariness of what is defined as good because they do not view goodness' definition as etched into the very design of the universe. On the other hand, nobody bothers worrying about the possible arbitrariness of physics because we all understand that redefining physics would result in the creation of a completely different universe.

The trouble is that proponents of Euthyphro's dilemma are projecting our limitations onto a hypothetical, all-powerful Deity. As bounded beings, we feel that morality is largely (or, at least, effectively) relative; we regularly change our opinions of what is good and what is bad. An unbounded, omnipotent being, however, could have created the metaphysical laws of morality as robustly as He created the physical laws. Proponents of Euthyphro's dilemma are considering morality to be a different class of law (and of greater concern) than a law that they can more easily quantify.

So, a possible response, which was not considered by Plato's Socrates and Euthyphro, combines the two traditional horns. Rather than arguing if something is intrinsically good, or, instead, is good due to divine commandment, perhaps something is good because God (or "the gods") "commanded" that the thing be "intrinsically" good. ie. The pious are holy because the universe was designed in a way that such things are holy, just as masses attract each other in inverse proportion to the distance between them because the universe was designed in such a way.

For example, without a thermometer, we might argue amongst ourselves whether a given day is cold or warm, but a hypothetical "God" would always know exactly how warm or cold it is. Analogously, although we might consider the morality of a situation to be debatable, "God" would know exactly how good or bad it is. Sure, that is technically a choice by God, but so are the rules that determine the rate of radioactive decay.

The modern phrasing of Euthyphro's dilemma then becomes akin to saying:

"Is this ice cube cold because it must be cold, or is it cold because God designed the universe in such a way that this ice cube would be cold. If it must be cold, then God is not all powerful. If God designed the universe in such a way that this ice cube is cold, then the coldness of this ice cube is arbitrary!" (Using the arbitrariness of the strong or the weak nuclear forces, instead of the coldness of an ice cube, might be of a greater concern to us, but the resulting phrasing would not be as catchy.)

However, unlike temperature, we do not yet have any quantitative way of measuring morality. Even though we can have subjective opinions about properties like temperature, color, mass, and force, these attributes are still objectively measurable by us. Therefore, since we cannot prove it by measuring it, there might not be a structural, metaphysical, universal law underpinning our existence which defines "good" and "bad".


On top of these problems comes the one of how theists can claim to know what their god would and would not want to do (after all, He works in mysterious ways, doesn't He?). The outcome of the biblical deity demanding Abraham to sacrifice his own son wasn't exactly predictable, just as these same scriptures showed that genocide isn't something this deity disdains either, trying to "reason on your own" what this god would see as good or evil is futile. This seems to indicate that the believer already has some personal moral code separate from religion, and is able to formulate an opinion of what actions would be "good" or "bad."

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Then comes the argument that everything is contingent on God such that no action can be performed without God as an ultimate cause.


  1. Euthyphro By Plato The Internet Classics Archive
  2. Why I Am Not a Christian (1927) By Bertrand Russell
  3. How Could God Command Genocide in the Old Testament? The Gospel Coalition 25 September 2009