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Theodicy

God and Moral Obligation, or Euthyphro, rethought

Euthyphro’s dilemma is so frequently discussed in philosophy that I don’t see a need to thoroughly present it. The horns, however, are going to be the topic of this post, so I’ll outline them below:

It seems that if God makes commands which create moral duties for humans (and others), then there may only be two options for the theist:

1) We ought to do what God commands because God commands it (and thus he could have commanded any random thing to be dutiful–i.e. torturing cute rabbits)

or

2) God commands us to do things because they are what we ought to do (and therefore there is some standard to which even God answers–see Richard Swinburne’s Revelation for an interesting description of a potential way around this problem)

If these are the only two options, it seems as though theists are in an uncomfortable position indeed! Normally, most theists would attack one of the horns of the dilemma or hit between the horns and find a way out. The late William Alston, however, ingeniously argues in Divine Nature and Human Language that the theist can accept both horns of the dilemma, albeit with some interpretation (DNHL 255).

The most important part of Alston’s solution is to assume that God is perfectly good essentially, that is, necessarily, God is perfectly good (257). In other words, God cannot perform a morally imperfect action. Alston makes no argument for this position, though I think that Stephen Parrish argues this rather well in God and Necessity. Regardless, I’m going to follow Alston’s assumption for the presentation of his argument, for now ignoring the potential problems with removing libertarian free will from God.

If it is the case that God is essentially perfectly good, then moral “oughtness” words such as “required”, “forbidden”, “duty”, etc. do not apply to God. This is because these terms “apply to a being only if that being has a choice between doing or failing to do what it ought to do” (257). But if God cannot fail to do good, then  His own nature “prevents him from acting freely in a way that is required for moral obligation… it is metaphysically impossible that God should do anything that is less than supremely good” (257). But then this means that horn 1 of the dilemma serves as no problem–God can not order things which would be arbitrarily evil, but it also means horn 2 is no problem either–God is not restricted by any “ought” statements.

Further, implicit in the dilemma is the idea that some form of Platonism is correct, that is, there are some objective morals as ideas somewhere. But again the theist can adapt this to theism and say that instead of some morals that just exist of necessity on their own (though again see Swinburne, Revelation for a defense of this very idea of theistic morality), God Himself is the “supreme standard of goodness. God plays the role in evaluation that is… assigned… to Platonic Ideas or principles” (268). Moral obligations are what we ought to do (horn 2 of the dilemma) because they are features of God (269).

Therefore, by accepting that God is essentially perfectly good, and further supposing that God Himself is the standard for goodness, the theist can accept the horns of the dilemma while arguing that they don’t really serve as objections to theism as classically supposed. God, having no “ought” statements apply to him, cannot be the subject of 2), while his very existence as essentially perfectly good means that 1) cannot apply to him either.

Sources:

Alston, William P. Divine Nature and Human Language. Cornell University Press. 1989.

Parrish, Stephen. God and Necessity. University Press of America. 2001.

Swinburne, Richard. Revelation. Oxford University Press. 2007.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “God and Moral Obligation, or Euthyphro, rethought


  1. The most important part of Alston’s solution is to assume that God is perfectly good essentially, that is, necessarily, God is perfectly good (257). In other words, God cannot perform a morally imperfect action.

    That’s the second horn of the dilemma again: There is a standard of goodness which God conforms to.

    Your subsequent wringling about whether oughts apply to God do not change this. I would also argue that you are mistaken in saying God has no moral duties. The fact that he may be incapable of doing wrong because he is essentially (and therefore perfectly and infallibly) good does not mean he has no moral obligations. It simply means he is infallible in fulfilling those moral obligations.


    Further, implicit in the dilemma is the idea that some form of Platonism is correct, that is, there are some objective morals as ideas somewhere.

    One probably ought not to simply assume without argument as if it were obviously true what philosophers have spent hundreds of years and gallons of ink debating.

    And you probably shouldn’t cite Swinburne as supporting your position. In fact, he endorses a position far closer to mine. He thinks moral truths are, like mathematical truths, truths that hold in all logically possible worlds and would hold even if there was no God.

    Posted by DAVID E | June 12, 2010, 10:09 AM
    • “That’s the second horn of the dilemma again: There is a standard of goodness which God conforms to.”

      But that’s just it, as Alston (and countless others) claims, God simply is the standard.

      I’d be interested to see an argument for holding a being incapable of acting in other than an “essentially good” manner can be held responsible for actions. If God is essentially perfectly good, then he is not free in the sense of moral duty. A being that is not free cannot be held responsible for its choices. I think this is quite clear.

      I’m not sure what you’re saying I’m assuming without argument. I suppose you may be referring to the bolded quotation, but I can only guess as to what fault you are finding in it.

      And I believe I cited Swinburne to defend the very claim that you just said (hence the “though” at the beginning of my quotation, qualifying it as he is the opposing view). I was not citing him to defend the view I was putting forward. Thanks for your comment, though.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 13, 2010, 4:10 PM
  2. That’s an interesting response, particularly an unusual one. However, I could see a number objections from those who hold to God’s libertarian freedom. If God is obligated to do good, is he morally praiseworthy? And if moral oughtness truly exists for us, then do we have free will? If so, would free will be greater than being obligated to do what one ought to do? If not, then God could’ve created a world with beings who must do what’s right. If it is greater, then God has a problem because we possess something that He cannot have.

    Those are just some of the questions that pop into my mind. On the other hand, perhaps it’s indeed impossible for God to do evil but nevertheless He has a set of goods to choose from, thus giving Him some kind of free will. In any case, great post there!

    Posted by Gil | June 13, 2010, 3:24 AM
    • Indeed, Gil. I believe your proposed solution may indeed have some merit–that is, that God has some kind of set of good options from which He can choose. But then the Euthyphro dilemma can strike again, unless all of these goods are equally good, which seems possible. In any case, I’m not particularly in love with this response, though I think it has some values. It’s all part of a formative process for my own thought. Hence there will be some errors in my spelling it out along the way. Such is life. Thanks for your response!

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 13, 2010, 4:13 PM

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