Monday, January 26, 2015

Brief thoughts on Euthyphro's Dilemma

     Euthyphro's dilemma, found in the platonic dialogue "Euthyphro", basically says:  

     Either (1) x is good because God says it is good, OR, (2) God says x is good because x is good.
     
     In the first disjunct morality seems to be arbitrary, because God simply declares "x is good." with no apparent reason.

     In the second disjunct there seems to be a moral standard that is over and above God. If such is the case, then it would seem that God is, himself, dependant on another.

   The problem with Euthyphro's dilemma is, quite simply, that it is a false dilemma. In logic a dilemma is created when we are presented with two, and only two choices (options, reasons, etc.). Socrates seems to present such a dilemma. When a person claims that there are only two possible choices, but, in reality, there are more choices, they have created a false dilemma. Of course, by adding other options, we do not change the manner in which we can arrive at a conclusion. In order to arrive at a conclusion from a logical disjunction it is necessary to negate the other option (s). However, we can demonstrate that a proposed dilemma is a false dilemma, by simply demonstrating that there is at least one other option.

    So, for example, suppose that we meet some day, and decide to go to Starbucks to have a chat about Euthyphro's dilemma. As we walk into the Starbucks I propose to you, "I'll pay, do you want coffee or tea?" I have created a false dilemma. There is at least one other option (without even looking at what is available at Starbucks). You could respond, "neither, I don't feel like having a drink right now." If what has been proposed is a false dilemma, then you need not decide between the two choices that have been provided. You may simply respond: "what you have proposed is a false dilemma, as there is, at least, one other possible option."

    Most Christian theologians, philosophers and apologists, from quite early in the history of the church, have made just this claim about Euthyphro's dilemma. Euthyphro's dilemma, again:

      Either x is good because God says it is good, OR, God says x is good because x is good.
     
     In the first disjunct morality seems to be arbitrary, because God simply declares "x is good." with no apparent reason.

     In the second disjunct there seems to be a moral standard that is over and above God. If such is the case, then it would seem that God is, himself, dependant on another.

    In response, many Christian theologians reply that there is a third possible choice: "the goodness is based not upon God's arbitrary choice, nor upon a higher moral standard, but upon the very nature of God." My personal response, which seems to provide a fourth option, is that morality is based not upon God's arbitrary choice, nor upon a higher moral standard, nor upon the very nature of God, but upon human nature (which was created by God). In order to defeat Euthyphro's dilemma you need not demonstrate that any one of the extra possibilities is true!!! You only need to demonstrate that there are other possible choices that cannot be reduced to one of the two possibilities already proposed by Euthyphro's dilemma. 

   For further reading on the subject I would suggest Keith E. Yandell's excellent article, "Moral Essentialism" in God & Morality: Four Views, ed. R. Keith Loftin (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012). See also R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the fact-value Dichotomy (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), which is an excellent introduction to moral philosophy from a christian perspective. Smith interacts with Euthyphro's dilemma on pages 31-35, 317-322. There are other books, but these will be a good place to start.