Euthyphro in the News

In response to some criticism of his new book Ross Doubthat, addresses the ancient question of whether moral goodness is good, because God commands it, or God commands it because it is good in itself. Since it isn’t stated very clearly in the article, some help from Mark Timmons will get things clear. The so-called Euthyphro dilemma has three premises:

  1. G1: Creator: God is creator of everything (other than himself).
  2. G2: Full Rationality: There is a sufficient reason for all of God’s actions –everything he does he does for a reason with complete wisdom.
  3. G3: Perfect Moral Goodness: God, as a being, is morally good in the fullest sense: He possesses every moral perfection to the highest possible degree. If we were to make a list of these perfections, we could begin by saying that he is all-just, all-loving, all-merciful, and so forth.

The dilemma:

  1. What is right and wrong depends on God’s commands such that his commands alone are what make actions right or wrong. There is no reason for what is right and wrong (denies G2) and morality is arbitrary.
  2. God commands us to perform certain actions and refrain from others because certain actions are right and others are wrong and being fully rational he knows what is right and wrong and being completely good he issues commands to humanity that conform to his moral knowledge. Yet morality is autonomous from God’s commands and is something to which God must conform. Thus God is not omnipotent over morality (a denial of G1).
Or consider Bertrand Russell’s popular treatment of it:

If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, 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.

If you are going to say . . . that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not good independently of the mere fact that he made them.

If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.

Justin Taylor provides a response from John Frame on the matter:

God’s Word and God’s goodness are equally ultimate aspects of his character. . . [C]ontrary to Euthyphro, neither Word nor goodness comes before the other; the two are correlative. There is nothing in God’s nature which His Word does not express; and there is nothing in His Word which lacks truth. So: God’s goodness determines God’s revelation, and God’s revelation determines His goodness.

I do not find this response to be all that helpful. If God’s word is an expression of his character and it infallibly expresses the truth, then why claim that it also determines his moral properties? That does not follow at all. Most philosophers of religion think the contents of God’s character are logically prior to the contents of his word. If it weren’t, then the contents of God’s word would be arbitrary. Besides, claiming that both God’s word and God’s character determine his goodness seems to be a case of overdetermination: why posit two answers when only one will do?

Also I am not sure what to make of Taylor’s tu toque reply to Russell:

If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: Is that difference due to your fiat or is it not?

If it is due to your fiat, then for you yourself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that you are good.

If you are going to say . . . that you are good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of your fiat, because your fiats are good and not good independently of the mere fact that you made them.

If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through you that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to yourself.

I think this is assumed from the beginning. Socrates, who famously deployed the dilemma, most certainly believed morality was logically independent of his moral beliefs, so a Platonist will not be troubled by this response. Russell is another story, because he found it very difficult to find a place for objective moral properties in a physical world, but he was no a relativist. Perhaps this is the apologetic import. It leads us to the following question: Where do moral properties get their ground? What is it grounds moral obligation?

Divine command theory is a popular response for the theist, or at least one that is modified to avoid the problems posed by Timmons. Following Robert Adams, one can modify it like so:

  1. An action A is obligatory if and only if  a loving God commands that we A.
  2. An action A is wrong if and only if  a loving God forbids that we A.
  3. An action A is optional if and only if a loving God does not command or forbid that we A.

The upshot is that all moral obligations are generated by God’s commands. That is, there are no moral obligations without God’s commands.

But there is a problem with this. Nicholas Wolterstorff thinks we have a good reason to believe that a moral obligation exists apart from God’s commands. Since God has a standing right to our obedience by virtue of the power and authority that inheres in the worth of his (loving) being, we have a standing correlative obligation to obey God regardless of whether he commands us to do something or not (Justice, 2008: 274). Yet this standing obligation is not itself generated by the God’s commands. Therefore, God’s inherent rights, not his commands, are the ultimate grounds for moral obligation.

This response is better than Frame’s because God’s nature and character are prior to his self-expression; his commands, which flow from a loving an authoritative source, cannot be arbitrary (though, I assume we would have to first argue that nothing would exist without God’s existence).

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2 Responses to Euthyphro in the News

  1. Nate Shannon says:

    Thanks for this. I am reading some Wolterstorff these days, and I’m tempted to qualify your presentation of him in the following way. Essentially, my take is that W is a platonist in the sense that he believes moral values (or predicates) exist independently of God. First, he rejects the necessity of God’s existence (On Universals, 292). Second, he affirms that many predicables exist independently of God (Ibid., 290ff), and (third) he even takes this to be the teaching of the Bible (Ibid., 293). In the same work he says explicitly that, according to the OT authors, God is worthy of worship etc. not on account of who/what he essentially is, but on account of what he does, on account of his mighty acts the foremost of which is creation. The same is detectable in Justice: Rights and Wrongs where he anchors God’s worth in his “excellence,” by which he appears to mean God’s moral excellence as proven or established to acting in accordance with a moral value external to himself.

    So I would be in full agreement with the way you phrase things there at the end–that God’s commands flow from his character–but I don’t think Wolterstorff would say that God is essentially good. (which is a [biblical] way between the horns of Euthyphro, isn’t it?) I think, were he consistent, he would concede that there is a possible world in which God errs morally.

    Thanks

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