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)
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.
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.
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