After some discussion, Socrates and Euthyphro agreed that the gods love righteous behavior because it is righteous. That is, they agreed that the behavior is–in some sense of ‘already’--righteous, and that’s what it is about the behavior that pleases the gods. But the other option was open to them. They could have agreed that the gods’ being pleased with righteous behavior is what makes it righteous–that it is only after the gods are pleased with the behavior, that it becomes righteous. In its modern version, the view is stated something like this: “What is righteous, is righteous just because God commands it.” This is commonly known as the Divine Command theory of ethics.
The question raised in Euthyphro is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. In its modern form, it usually is worded something like this: “Does God command what is moral, because it is moral? Or is what is moral, moral just because God commands it?” It is a dilemma for Believers because either answer to the question seems to have unacceptable implications. For if, on the one hand, we say that God commands what is moral, because it is moral, we are suggesting that what is moral, is already moral, before God commands it. That is, it’s moral whether God commands it or not. Perhaps God’s commandments are helpful guides given to us by someone wiser than we are, but God did not create morality; at most God discovered it. God’s role in morality, then, would be as teacher, or maybe as enforcer, but not as creator. Apparently God is as bound by morality as we are. If we grasp this horn of the dilemma, we seem to be limiting God’s power.
If, on the other hand, we say that what is moral, is moral just because God commands it, then apparently morality is arbitrary. If it’s moral just because God commands it, then if God had commanded us to murder, rape, torture, and commit adultery, it would be morally right to do those things. If adultery, for example, is wrong just because God forbids it, then the fact that it is a betrayal of trust, or is deceitful, or that it is likely to lead to heartbreak, broken homes, and children with one parent families, has absolutely nothing to do with its moral wrongness. And if those are some of God’s reasons for prohibiting adultery, then those are the reasons it’s wrong, not just God’s prohibiting it.
One line of rebuttal I have heard is that commanding us to murder, rape, torture, and commit adultery would be inconsistent with God’s righteousness, inconsistent with God’s very nature. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t work as a rebuttal. If what is righteous, is righteous just because God says so, then God’s righteousness would be whatever God says it is. And if God says that his righteousness is such that commanding us to murder, rape, torture, and commit adultery would be consistent with that nature, then presumably that would be the way it is.
One of the teachings of my boyhood church was that premarital sex is a sin; it’s sinful because God prohibits it. The preacher argued that sex in marriage is according to God’s plan. But it’s like green grass. In a meadow where it belongs, green grass is beautiful. But in the wrong place, outside of marriage, sex is like grass in your living room–just dirt.
I asked my mother why premarital sex is just dirt, why it is prohibited.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked. She dwelt on the dangers of disease and the shame of unwanted pregnancy, on society’s disapproval, and on the secrecy, deceit, and surreptitiousness involved. Those are some of the reasons it’s wrong, she said; those are some of the reasons it’s prohibited.
Now, if the reason that premarital sex is wrong, is just that God prohibits it, then what my mother told me was not true. I don’t think she was deliberately lying to me, but the reasons she gave me were bogus reasons. They were irrelevancies.
The elders explained that those reasons are the kinds of thing children can understand. They are useful in helping children see some of the consequences of premarital sex. But they are not the reasons it’s wrong. It’s wrong just because God says so.
Their line of reasoning never seemed convincing to me. Even when I was a boy, I wanted to hear reasonable explanations. I found the position that, for example, betrayal of trust, deceit, heartbreak, and broken homes have nothing to do with adultery’s being wrong, wildly implausible, even morally repugnant.
I later learned that the Euthyphro dilemma has prompted a lot of responses. Even early Christian writers like St. Thomas Aquinas spent a lot of energy trying to find ways to make the dilemma more palatable. And no wonder! For either way of responding to the dilemma leads to conclusions that are unacceptable to Believers. If we take the position that what is righteous, is righteous just because God commands it, then we seem to be driven to unacceptable results. And if we take the position that God commands what is righteous, because it is righteous, we seem to be implying that we don’t need God to justify morality at all. Grasp one horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, you wouldn’t want the Divine Command theory. Grasp the other horn, and you don’t need it.
It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that Believers have desperately expended, and are expending, a lot of needless energy trying to patch up their doctrine. What is needed is either a thorough revision of their ethical theory or a new theory altogether. It isn’t as if there aren’t non-theological alternatives available. Aristotle developed an ethical theory grounded in human flourishing. Hobbes’ theory is based on a social contract, Kant’s on requirements of human reason, and Bentham’s on maximizing human welfare. These may not be without their theoretical problems; but none of the problems are more serious than those faced by the Divine Command theory. Of course, if what you’re looking for is another reason to support your theology, they won’t satisfy you. They do illustrate that you don’t have to rely on theology as the basis for morality.