“God is arbitrary!” he said. “You can’t even rationalize the existence of goodness if God exists. Either goodness is entirely arbitrary, or God is entirely arbitrary.” What kind of weird objection to God is this? This skeptic was offering an objection popularly referred to as the Euthyphro Dilemma.
In Plato’s dialog titled “Euthyphro,” Socrates asks Euthyphro this question: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Since then, the question has been a catalyst in attempts to dethrone God as skeptics through the ages have used it as a philosophical wedge.
The Euthyphro Dilemma is an interesting challenge. Most of the time, skeptics object to the Bible directly or appeal to science to argue that the Bible is untenable. But this was a purely philosophical argument intended to strip away God’s character.
The Euthyphro Dilemma presents an apparent dilemma for Theists. I say “apparent” because it’s not clear yet whether this is a “real” dilemma; that is yet to be determined, but we’ll get to that later. In the dialog, Socrates and Euthyphro contemplate the nature of goodness. They try to determine which of these alternatives is true:
A. Something is loved by the gods because it is good.
B. Something is good because it is loved by the gods.
To put it another way,
“Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” [1. Leibniz, G.W., in Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice, circa 1702].
In the dialog, Socrates argues that both options cannot possibly be correct since they would create an infinite cycle – the gods love a thing because it is good and something is good because the gods love it. He also argues that we need to reject option B – the fact that the gods love something cannot explain why what is considered good is actually good. And if all we are left with is option A, then goodness must be external to God, which would present a problem for theists, since God must look outside of Himself and “love” what is good because it is inherently good without Him.
How does the first option fare for Christianity? Does God prescribe goodness because that thing is good on its own? Well, if that were the case, then goodness is outside of God and is something necessary that God needs. But if God is a self-sustained, self-sufficient being, He’d need to be complete unto Himself and should not need anything external to himself. If this were true, God would no longer be the standard for goodness and is at the mercy of some outside standard, the source of which is unclear and mysterious. Therefore, option A would be problematic because it strips away one of the most important attributes of God, namely His divine aseity or self-sufficiency.
What about option B? Is something to be considered good merely because God says it is good? If something is good merely because God says it is good, it’s hypothetically possible that God could say any number of things were good, and they would be good. Think of the most horrible of things, like rape, torture, murder, etc. For example, would rape be moral if God commanded it? In theory, all of these things could potentially be considered to be good simply because God says they are good and so goodness becomes completely arbitrary. So option B does not work either because it makes goodness completely arbitrary.
So, if neither option is viable for Christianity, then how do we deal with this dilemma? Is the Euthyphro Dilemma a knockdown objection against Christianity? Now let’s take a look at the dilemma as we promised we would at the beginning. Is it a real dilemma or just an apparent dilemma? Is the objection itself reasonable? It turns out that the Euthyphro Dilemma is not a sound objection because it offers us two alternatives and jams us in a corner to pick one.
This maneuver is a logical fallacy called a false dichotomy (interchangeable with either-or fallacy, false dilemma, etc.). One commits this fallacy when one presents us with a limited set of possible answers to choose from (two in this case) and asks us to select one. If neither answer is correct or favorable, we’re trapped in a corner to pick one. Well, what if neither of the options is true, but there is a third or fourth option that is true. Shouldn’t we be able to simply answer the question about the nature and origin of goodness without being trapped to select between two inferior and irrational options?
As it turns out, given the opportunity to answer the question freely about the origin and nature of goodness, the answer for a Christian is simple – God wills what is good because He is good. God himself is the very nature of goodness. He commands what is good not because the thing itself is good and the thing he wills doesn’t become good just because God wills it. He commands what is good because He is good. Goodness is an essential part of God. He uses the barometer of goodness, but He also is the barometer. Goodness is neither arbitrary nor external to God. Goodness is in the very nature of God, and He commands goodness because He is good. For Christians, this is nothing new – God is good!
The flaw in Plato’s dialog and the Euthyphro Dilemma is that no other options are considered. Plato offers two possible ways to answer the question of the nature of goodness and thereby creates a false dichotomy.
As you can see, the Euthyphro Dilemma is not a viable challenge for Theism in general and to Christianity specifically because (a) it commits the false dichotomy fallacy and (b) because there is a robust and persuasive answer regarding the nature and origin of goodness, namely in the very nature of God.
Have you been challenged with this false dilemma that attempts to debunk the existence of God? Doesn’t this give you a good reason to reject the objection? Have you claimed that the Euthyphro Dilemma debunks Theism or Christianity? What do you think of the dilemma now?
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.
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