Up ]

The Euthyphro Dilemma:

Explanation and Reply

Some of us who use ethical reflection as an aid to finding the will of God are unreasonably deterred from embracing what is called “divine command” ethics (or an ethics of the will of God).  An ideal “theory,” in analytic ethics, shows how to fill in the blank to complete the following proposition:


An action X is right if and only if X is _____________________. 


Religious ethics, as I propose it here, fills in this blank with the phrase, “in accord with the will of God.”  It is customary to dismiss this theory, alleging problems about the concept of God, or the fact that so many people do not believe in God, or have differing conceptions of the impossibility of proving the existence of God, or the difficulty of discerning the will of God, or—most often—some version of the following dilemma:



(a) religious ethics conflicts with moral reason, in which case we don’t want it,


(b) religious ethics agrees with moral reason, in which case we don’t need it.


Versions of this argument appear in Plato’s Euthyphro (10a-11b), Kant’s Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals (Ak 443), and Mill’s Utilitarianism (chapter 2, paragraph 22).  I begin with the Euthyphro, and, for present purposes, I will deal with the Euthyphro dilemma in its most common modern form:


Is an action right because God wills it, or does God will it because it is right?


The question has been easy to raise, difficult to answer.  For this to be a dilemma, each horn must be unacceptable to someone who construes ethics in terms of the will of God.  There is a standard objection to the first horn of the dilemma.  What if God wills an atrocity?  Would that make it right?

            A religionist can protest.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”  God is good, perfectly good.  Whatever he wills expresses eternal love and divine mercy.  It is all too easy for a critic to bandy around the word God without really knowing the one to whom the term refers.  The critic’s cavalier challenge implicitly confesses ignorance of God.  Sometimes the will of God is hard to discern; sometimes it is misunderstood; and sometimes it leads the obedient believer into a course of action that causes suffering, where short-range human vision does not grasp the farseeing kindness of the divine will.  Nevertheless, the more we know God, the more we know God as good.

            The critic may respond that in a reply the religionist has abandoned an ethics hinging on the will of God ethics by stipulating the goodness of God.  In other words, the right-making characteristic of actions is not merely that they proceed in accord with the divine will.  By having to stipulate the goodness of God, the theist has, it is claimed, conceded the critic’s point.

            The religionist can reply that the critic’s point depends on a narrow reading of the first horn: An action is right merely because God wills it.  This interpretation unrealistically requires the religionist to abstract from (a) the thick experience of relating with God and (b) the enhanced insights into truth, beauty, and goodness that come in response to prayer (to be addressed in response to the second horn).  On a broad reading, the alternatives presented in the “dilemma” are neither unwelcome nor mutually exclusive. 

Adequately to address the objection to the first horn of the dilemma, however, requires more clarification.  Religious believers often regard God as having goodness and wisdom beyond human comprehension, as in the following thought from the prophet Isaiah: "The power of the Lord is great and his understanding infinite. Says the Lord: `As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.'"  This very acknowledgment of the limitations of the human mind, however, raises a problem.  If one lets go of moral reason as the criterion for measuring divine goodness, how does one avoid opening the door for the Aztec sun-god who allegedly willed that the cosmic order be sustained by the sacrifice of virgins who would cut out their heart and offer it to the god?  Cannot a defender of Aztec tradition equally claim that the wisdom and goodness of this practice transcends what humans can appreciate, and that we must embrace the mystery?

One possible answer is that the will of God may transcend but cannot violate the constraints of human moral reason, constraints which the Creator has made implicit in the mind of the creature and has taught through the prophets and otherwise.  The will of God may reveal goodness beyond what would naturally occur to the creature, but the will of God never requires us to betray our best understanding of what is right.  We are in a position to set aside the requirement of the Aztec sun god because our grasp of moral reason is an evolving affair, sharpened by experience and revelation and reflection as the ages go forward.  Philosophy performs a critical service, pruning religion of certain errors.  Thus we are simply in a better position today to evaluate what can be the divine will.  Kierkegaard is famous for claiming that there are cases (as in the command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac) where religion requires a suspension of the ethical mode of thinking and acting.  But if—and this move is crucial to the argument—we understand ethics as a discipline of reason integrating inputs from all sources, psychology and history as well as philosophy and religion, then, we must, I believe, reject the legend that Abraham correctly identified the will of God.  Kierkegaard’s proposal must be pruned to yield its useful point: acting merely on the basis of moral reason lacks the essential fullness of religious living.

            The critic may well object that the trend of our reply in fact leads us to embrace the second horn.  God wills an action because it is right.  What is there in this to embarrass the religionist?  The worry is that what makes the action right is independent of God’s will, so the person who accepts this alternative has in effect abandoned an ethics of the will of God.  Why not by-pass religious inquiry altogether and just go about evaluating actions in accord with the immediately relevant criteria?  R. M Hare showed how a religious believer can develop a non-religious ethics by taking, for example, the golden rule (philosophically reinterpreted) as sufficient instruction from God as to how we are supposed to go about using our reason to determine the rightness of actions.

            In other words, if we say that God sees the goodness potential in a situation and wills an action just because he knows that would be good to act in this way, then we may seem to make God follow what is right and good, thus subordinating God to the right and the good.  Then we might ask if there is a criterion we can use to determine the right and the good.  Presumably God has a criterion, however complex it may be or however hard it may be to apply.  Perhaps God seeks the greatest happiness of the greatest number of his creatures over the greatest length of time.  If something like this answer is correct, then perhaps someone desiring to know what to do does not need to spend time inquiring about the will of God.  In ethics, then, we could just straightforwardly operate as intelligently as possible with the best criterion that we can discern.  If so, then the religious dimension of ethics seems to become irrelevant.

The second alternative of the alleged dilemma is unacceptable, of course, only to someone who cherishes the concept of the will of God as the ultimate criterion of what's right.  Is there any reply to the second objection?  Maybe something has been missed in the attachment to an easily understandable criterion.  Maybe the commandment to love one's neighbor and the golden rule and so on not only direct us to right relationships as ends in themselves.  Perhaps such principles also direct us into the way of progressive participation in the universal family of God.  If we regard ourselves as the infinitely loved sons and daughters of a true, beautiful, and good Father, whose will can be progressively known by persisting in every available method of sharpening our moral intuition (including science, philosophy, and spiritual experience), then the religious dimension of relationships remains of ethical interest.  If our destiny is to grow in goodness, to become like God, and to help others to do the same, then there is no shortcut to fulfillment that omits God.

In sum, we have the following response to the “dilemma.”  To the first horn, that an action is right merely because God (who might will an atrocity) wills it, we respond that such an abstraction falsifies the experience of someone who knows God as good and supremely desires to do his will.  To the second horn, that God wills an action because it’s right (even if this seems to imply that we can figure out what’s right without having to seek the divine will), we reply that our good involves God.

            Plato’s dialogues weave different kinds of discourse, including (a) the quest for, and articulation of, epistemologically and metaphysically satisfying knowledge of the “forms” alongside (b) evocative religious visions and “likely stories” that both appeal to sub-rational dimensions of the human psyche and also go beyond what reason alone can affirm.  In Plato’s Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Republic, for example, we find ethics with a rational core framed by some religious motives and religious comments on reason’s conclusions.  Answering the Euthyphro dilemma sustains the continuing vitality of the religious side of Plato’s ethics—and our own.