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Euthyphro's Dilemma and C. S. Lewis

            In the dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates meets a man named Euthyphro near the courts, where Euthyphro is going to prosecute his own father for murder. Socrates notes that for someone to put his own father on trial for murder, that person must know what “Justice” is. Seeing as Socrates is himself on trial he asks Euthyphro to explain to him what Justice is, as that may help him in his own court case. The dilemma of Euthyphro can be phrased this way. Is an action just because it pleases the gods or does it please the gods because it is just?[1] Put in modern monotheistic terms, the question can be phrased, as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, “It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them.”[2]

            First of all, we need to understand the dilemma. (In the Euthyphro, Socrates and Euthyphro do not find a solution to this problem.) The problem is that, if we take the first horn, that God commands certain things because they are right, then it seems that there is a moral law that is higher than God. If there is a moral law that is higher than God, then there must be some moral being that imposes it. This moral being that imposes the higher moral law must be greater than God otherwise it could not impose it upon God.[3] God seems to be, by the description that most people accept, the most high. It is not possible for God to be, at the same time, the most high, and for there to be a higher being than God. Therefore, either there is no God, or God does not command certain things because they are right. So, we are driven into the other horn.

            The other horn states, roughly that a thing is just because it pleases God. The problem that is seen here is that this seems entirely ad hoc. In other words, if a thing is right because God says it is right, then the only foundation is God’s command. God could say that murdering one’s neighbor is always right, and because he commands it, it is right. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis says, “I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion (reached, I think, by Paley) that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it – that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right. I believe, on the contrary, that ‘they err who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason besides His will’.”[4] We don’t want to say that justice is just simply because that’s what God says it is, but that there is a foundation for justice, and so, we are pushed back into the first horn. Lewis in the Problem of Pain “emphatically” embraced the first horn. However, in 1943 he appears to have changed his mind. In the article “The Poison of Subjectivism”, he says, of both horns, “If the first, if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘righteous Lord’. If the second, then we seem to be admitting a cosmic diarchy, or even making God Himself the mere executor of a law somehow external and antecedent to His own being. Both views are intolerable.”[5]

            Now we could, at this point, give into what Socrates, in the Phaedo calls Misology.[6] Socrates says, further along, “It would be pitiable, Phaedo, he said, when there is a true and reliable argument and one that can be understood, if a man who has dealt with such arguments as appear at one time true, at another time untrue, should not blame himself or his own lack of skill but, because of his distress, in the end gladly shift the blame away from himself to the arguments, and spend the rest of his life hating and reviling reasonable discussion and so be deprived of truth and knowledge of reality.”[7]

            When we see a dilemma such as this, we should always ask if there is not another option. It is quite possible that there is not another option, and that we must draw our conclusions from the options presented to us. This is why many people simply accept on or the other of the two horns. However, in my opinion, in this so-called dilemma, there is another option. I have written about it, in French, here and here. The question we are asking is, “What is the foundation of morally objective statements?” Neither of the above options is acceptable, for the reasons given. Is there, then, no foundation? As I have argued elsewhere, the foundation for morality finds itself much closer to home than we at first think, or want to believe. I want to keep this brief, therefore, I would point the reader to some of my earlier posts. (What it means to be a Human Person, parts 3, 5, 8, 9, 10, 13. Those who can read French can also look at the blog post: La Recherche d’une Fondation pour des Décisions Morales, and Les Fins Humaines : La Base de la Moralité.)

            In the posts mentioned above I argue that the end, or purpose, of any given thing is determined by its nature. The nature of X is its essence considered according to its proper function.[8] According to Aristotle, and the great majority of philosophers, Christian and otherwise, the proper function of humankind, that which distinguishes humans from all other material beings, is the capacity to think rationally. If this is so, then the end of humankind has something to do with being rational.

            There is another point to be made about the end, or purpose, of a thing. We say that X is good insomuch as it attains its end, or purpose. We can talk about, for example, a refrigerator: the purpose of a refrigerator is to preserve food by keeping it cold. Insomuch as a refrigerator properly performs this purpose it is a good refrigerator. So, a refrigerator is a good refrigerator if it preserves food with coldness and a bad refrigerator if it does not.[9] The point that I am making here is that the end of a thing is its good. Therefore, if the end of a human is to be rational, then a human is good insomuch as it is rational.[10]

            Can we take this way of viewing goodness and apply it to humans? Edward Feser, in his book Aquinas, says this, “To be sure, the standard in question in the current example is not a standard of moral goodness. But from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, it illustrates a general notion of goodness of which moral goodness is a special case.”[11] Based upon what I have said above we can make this general claim: The end of each being is its good, and each being is good insofar as it obtains its end. Therefore, moral judgments are objective judgments based upon human nature – the ability to be rational. Therefore, a good human action is rational, and a bad human action is irrational. If I may permit myself I would like to quote Feser again, he says, “Aquinas’s position is essentially this: practical reason is directed by nature towards the pursuit of what the intellect perceives as good; what is in fact good is the realization or fulfillment of the various ends inherent in human nature; and thus a rational person will perceive this and, accordingly, direct his or her actions towards the realization or fulfillment of those ends. In this sense, good action is just that which is ‘in accord with reason’…and the moral skeptic’s question ‘Why should I do what is good?’ has an obvious answer: because to be rational just is (in part) to do what is good, to fulfill the ends set for us by nature.”[12]

            We have, therefore, a way between the two horns of the dilemma of Euthyphro. Moral absolutes are not arbitrary commands, nor are they based in a moral law that is imposed even upon God, rather, they are based upon human nature. Now, I see two questions coming.

The first was also foreseen by Lewis in his article “The Poison of Subjectivism”. He puts it this way, “So far I have been considering the objections which unbelievers bring against the doctrine of objective value, or the Law of Nature. But in our days we must be prepared to meet objections from Christians too. ‘Humanism’ and ‘liberalism are coming to be used simply as terms of disapprobation, and both are likely to be so used of the position I am taking up. Behind them lurks a real theological problem. If we accept the primary platitudes of practical reason as the unquestioned premises of all action, are we thereby trusting our own reason so far that we ignore the Fall, and are we retrogressively turning our absolute allegiance away from a person to an abstraction? As regards the Fall, I submit that the general tenor of scripture does not encourage us to believe that our knowledge of the Law has been depraved in the same degree as our power to fulfil it. He would be a brave man who claimed to realize the fallen condition of man more clearly than St Paul. In that very chapter (Romans 7) where he asserts most strongly our inability to keep the moral law he also asserts most confidently that we perceive the Law’s goodness and rejoice in it according to the inward man.”[13] I would add that, in the chapter preceding Paul’s most graphic description of the moral depravation of mankind (3:10-18), Paul bases the condemnation of all pagans, before God, upon a natural law that is “written on their hearts.”[14] In the previous chapter Paul also implies knowledge of what is good in those who “knew God”, through “the things that have been made”.[15] Therefore, as a Christian, we must be committed to the fact that mankind has natural law, written upon his heart, and that the fall of man has not erased all knowledge of this good. Lewis concludes by saying that “A theology which goes about to represent our practical reason as radically unsound is heading for disaster. If we once admit that what God means by ‘goodness’ is sheerly different from what we judge to be good, there is no difference left between pure religion and devil worship.”[16]

The second question that I see can, as will appear, be worded in a number of different ways. The basic idea is, “Where is God in all of this?” It could also be worded as follows: How can we have objective morality without God? What about all the commands in scripture? First of all, the solution to Euthyphro’s dilemma that I have provided above gives us an objective foundation for moral values. However, in reply to the second question I would like to note that human nature was created by God. The foundation for human morality is human nature, and God created us this way.[17] So, where is God in all of this? We are what we are because God made us this way, that’s where God is in all of this. He is the creator and sustainer of human nature, and of each individual human being.

So, what about all the commands in the Bible? If we can know what is good for humankind because that which is good for man is to be rational, then why all the commands in the Bible?[18] In the Summa Theologica Aquinas says the following, “I answer that, It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God, besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to god, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou has prepared for them that wait for Thee (Isa. Lxvi. 4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.”[19]

            I am going to deviate slightly from the point that Aquinas is making here.[20] Humankind, due to the fall, is incapable, in general, of knowing perfectly what its proper end is. Aquinas notes in the first point. The proper end of humankind is union with God, but, unless we know our end we cannot pursue it. In this life we cannot have knowledge (by definition) of God, therefore God reveals Himself in divine revelation so that we can have knowledge (by faith) of God, and therefore, direct our thoughts and actions to God. In the same way, it is not easy for humans to arrive at knowledge of what we are supposed to be like, seeing as we have, naturally, no knowledge of what perfect human nature looks like – we know not, naturally, what God made us to be. This is only available to us through scripture, in the person of Jesus-Christ, who being God was also fully human, and the only (aside from Adam before he fell) truly human human. Along the lines of what Aquinas says, as quoted above, it is extremely difficult, if not actually impossible, for a human being, without divine revelation, to know what humans should do. Many philosophers have tried; there are examples, throughout the history of mankind of virtuous men and women, however, they all failed miserably to be that which God made them to be. In the Bible, we see, in the person of Jesus Christ, what we are supposed to be, and we are told how we should act, because without divine revelation the vast majority of humanity could never have more than a vague idea (implanted in our hearts) of what humanity is supposed to be like – like a shadow or flicker of something we saw in passing.[21]


[1]Plato, “Euthyphro, 10a,” in Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito,Meno, Phaedo, 2nd ed., trans. G. M. A. Grube, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2002), 12.

[2]C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; repr., New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 99. He asks the same question, and words it relatively the same way, in the article The Poison of Subjectivism (C. S. Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” in Essay Collection and Other ShortPieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 663.)

[3]The Moral Argument for the existence of God claims that due to the fact that humankind are, in general, aware of a basic concept of goodness and justice (a basic moral law), and where there is a law there is a law-giver, and that which imposes the law, therefore, there must be some being that put into mankind this natural law, and which imposes it. This superior being we would call God. The problem that is being expressed above is exactly this. If God commands certain acts, because they are good, then God himself is held under a moral law. If God is held under a moral law, then there must be a lawgiver, the law giver must be superior to God, which seems, by definition, to be a contradiction of terms.

[4]Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 99.

[5]Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” 663.

[6]Plato, Phaedo 89d, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1977), 40. “There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.”

[7]Plato, Phaedo 90c-d, 40.

[8]X is simply a place holder for whatever the reader wishes to insert: i.e. – human, dog, cat, tree, etc.

[9]Obviously the preservation of the food depends upon how long a certain dish can be logically preserved. We cannot claim that a refrigerator is a bad refrigerator when it does not preserve an open glass of milk for more than 2 weeks; however we can claim that the person who put the open glass of milk there was not thinking properly, or forgot about it. The nature of a think intrinsically includes its proper limitations.

[10]This is not to be confused with rationalism. What I am claiming here is not that a human person is a thinking thing (as Descartes claims) that resides in a material body, but that a human person is a substantial composition of soul and body. Therefore to be rational is not to live purely in the realm of the intellect, but to reside, do that which is proper for a being composed of body and soul (take care of one’s body, be appropriately emotional – based upon the circumstances, etc.

[11]Edward Feser, Aquinas: A Beginners Guide (2009; repr., Oxford: Oneworld, 2010), 176.

[12]Ibid., 184-5.

[13]Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism”, 663.

[14]Rom. 2:14-16.

[15]Rom. 1:19-32.

[16]Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism”, 663.

[17]Can we bring back the first horn of the dilemma? That a thing is just because God commands it? Not really. A thing is just because it is the good of human kind, which means that it is rational. To be rational is to be good. To be human is to be rational because God made humans rational. If anything is arbitrary in this it is the creation of human nature, not the objective moral standard. I think that the arbitrary creation of human nature so that we are rational is much more acceptable than the arbitrariness of a moral standard. Perhaps I am wrong. Essentially, human nature is what it is because God is. Therefore, in a sense, all of human morality is based upon the nature of God.

[18]A distinction needs to be made between the laws in the Old Testament that God gave to Israel as national laws for the nation. As Paul says, we are no longer under these laws, but under the Law of Christ.

[19]Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I. 1. 1, vol. 1, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1911; repr., Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1948), 1.

[20]Though in a sense, Aquinas includes human moral standards under knowledge of God, as knowledge of God implies knowledge of His acts, and therefore, His creation.

[21]Please note carefully, I am not talking about salvation, but about an objective moral standard. Salvation is by faith alone. Even the most virtuous person in the world will not be perfectly that which God made them to be, and therefore, they are just as guilty of sin, and just as condemned because of sin, as the most heinous sinner that the world ever knew. The point of a moral standard, which we are discussing above, is that it shows us our need for Christ (It shows us that due to our incapacity we must place our faith in another, who, being perfect, took on himself the condemnation what we deserved.) 

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