Theists and atheists wield many weapons in the battle over the truth of God’s existence. One such weapon for theists is the moral argument, which asserts moral obligation is impossible without God. But since moral obligation is real, so the argument goes, it follows God must exist.
When it seems to the theist he has conquered his foe, the atheist grabs his own weapon of choice and fires back. That weapon is what has come to be known as the Euthyphro dilemma, taken from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro.
Philosopher Scott Sullivan, founder and president of Classical Theist productions, formulates the dilemma as follows:
Premise 1: Either an action is good because God commands it, or God commands an action because it’s already good.
Premise 2: If an action is good because God commands it, then God could arbitrarily command any evil act (like torturing babies), and that act would be good, which is absurd.
Premise 3: If God commands an action because it’s already good, then there is a standard of goodness independent of God, in which case God is not necessary for morality.
Conclusion: Since a theist can hold neither option, it follows a theist’s claim that God is necessary for morality is undermined.
This seems to be a “gotcha" moment for atheists. But all we have to do is take each premise and show it doesn’t lead to the absurdities to which it claims to lead and thus in turn show there is no dilemma.
How to know good and bad
First, let’s take premise three. A theist, at least of the classical sort, has no problem in affirming that God commands an action because it’s good. Now, my theist buddies might be thinking, “Why are you affirming the antecedent of premise three? Doesn’t it imply a standard of goodness independent of God?" No. Let me explain why it doesn’t.
In the natural moral law tradition as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas and others, what is good and bad for human beings is determined by the various capacities and ends set for us by nature. So, for example, nature directs us to preserve our own lives. This is something we share with all living things. Nature also directs us to preserving our species through procreation and rearing of children—something we share with animals specifically. Finally, nature directs us to certain ends or goals that are peculiar to us as rational animals: namely, to know the truth about God, live in society, shun ignorance, and avoid harming those with whom one has to live.
The whole understanding of good and bad is based on these goods of human nature. Any behavior that facilitates the achievement of these natural ends is considered good—that is to say, it will fulfill human nature. Any behavior that frustrates the achievement of these natural ends is considered bad—that is to say, it won’t bring about human flourishing.
God commands because an act is good
Now, God commands all actions that facilitate the achievement of our natural ends; i.e., the good, and prohibits actions that frustrate them; i.e., the bad, because he wills our perfection. So, we can say God commands certain actions because they’re good.
But this doesn’t mean a standard of goodness exists independently of God. First of all, as a universal, human nature preexists in the divine intellect as an archetype by which God creates. As such, the ordering of human nature is an expression of God’s will—it is of his making. Therefore, the measure of goodness for man¬—i.e., human nature—is not independent of God.
Moreover, God is necessary for human nature to have an act of existence in human beings, both to come into existence and to remain in existence.
So, given the traditional understanding that human nature determines what is good and bad for man, and given the understanding that God is the author of that nature, affirming the idea that God commands something because it is good does not imply a standard of goodness independent of God; thus premise three is not a problem for theists.
Can God command evil?
This leads us to a question that has to do with premise two: “Can God command us to act contrary to our human nature—i.e., do what is evil?" If we can prove the answer is no, then premise two, like premise three, has no persuasive force against theists.
There are two reasons we can put forward for why God can’t will us to act contrary to human nature.
The all-wise God
First, if God were to command us to act contrary to our nature, then he would be violating his infinite wisdom. Why would God create us with a specific nature, and order that nature to certain ends, only to command us to frustrate those ends and thereby violate our nature? That would be unreasonable.
As I wrote in a previous blog, this would be analogous to someone installing an air conditioning system in his home and then turning the system off every time it turns on to cool the house. One might reasonably ask, “Why did you install the air conditioning system in the first place?"
Similarly, it would be unreasonable for God to create us with a nature ordered to certain ends and then command us to frustrate the achievement of those ends. But given the perfection of his intellect God can command only in accordance with reason. And since willing what is good for us is in accordance with reason, it follows God can’t command us to act contrary to our nature. He can only command good actions.
More specifically, God could never command us to torture babies for fun, because torturing babies for fun violates the goods of human nature, both our nature and the babies’ nature. As Brian Davies writes:
God could never command us to torture children because, in effect, that would involve him contradicting himself, or going against his nature as the source of creaturely goodness (The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, 102).
The all-good God
A second reason why God can’t command evil is that if he were to do so, he would lack in goodness, which is metaphysically impossible, given the classical understanding of God as ipsum esse subsistens—subsistent being itself. According to the doctrine of the transcendentals (aspects of being—e.g., being, one, true, and good—that transcend Aristotle’s categories of being), being and goodness are convertible.
So to say God is subsistent being is the same as saying he is subsistent goodness. And if God is subsistent goodness, then there could be no privation of goodness in him. But to command us to act contrary to human nature, i.e., to do evil, would entail a privation of goodness. Since this is not possible, it’s incoherent to say God could command evil actions. That would be like saying the all-powerful God is too weak to lift a rock he created.
St. Thomas Aquinas takes this line of reasoning:
God is the highest good, as has been shown. But the highest good cannot bear any mingling with evil, as neither can the highest hot thing bear any mingling with the cold. The divine will, therefore, cannot be turned to evil (Summa Contra Gentiles, I:95).
I’ll admit that at first glance the Euthyphro dilemma seems to propose a major obstacle for theists advocating God is necessary for morality. But when a coherent explanation of what constitutes good and bad for human beings is given, and one understands God is the ultimate ground for that standard of good and bad, then the Euthyphro dilemma no longer has any force against a theistic account of morality.