UNDERSTANDING THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA: THE POWER AND GOODNESS OF GOD
It had seemed to me that the dilemma about God and goodness derived from the Euthyphro is, and had been for some time, well understood by philosophers. I have discovered evidence recently that that is not so. The chief culprit here is none other than the eminent James Rachels, whose misunderstanding of the argument, at least in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, has influenced others to misrepresent the matter.
The chief misconception is that Rachels, and consequently others, hold that the dilemma shows that what has been called The Divine Command Theory or, by Rachels, The Theological Conception of the Good is mistaken. However, to think that the dilemma is, or even might be, decisive against Divine Command Theories is a complete misunderstanding of the logic of the matter.
The dilemma in normal form is this: Either something is good (right) because God commands it or God commands something because it is good (right). Having specified that basic disjunction, the consequences of accepting each horn are spelled out. Then the question is asked: which disjunct do you choose as the correct one?
Now the first horn, in the above ordering, represents Divine Command Theories. That is, one who subscribes to a Divine Command Theory holds that what is morally good or morally right is so because God commands it.
However, nothing in the dilemma, in the entire problem field, can logically compel one to reject that alternative (or to accept it either). For what we have on our hands is a dilemma after all: an argumentative structure which says 'Choose' but which does not do the choosing for one. A philosopher, theologian, believer, can, with perfect consistency, accept that the dilemma presents a real problem and yet make the consequent choice, on whatever grounds seem attractive, that the view expressed by the Divine Command Theory about the relation of God and morality is the correct one.
The situation needs to be more precisely characterized, even if some tendentious terms are to be employed. What I shall call 'The naive believer' thinks that she/he can assert two different claims about God: such a one thinks that God can be both good and also the ground of morality. The dilemma, which has its historical origin in the Euthyphro, forces the naive theist to rethink their original position as it shows that one cannot have it both ways. 'The sophisticated believer', accepts the dilemma as genuine and opts for one or the other horn, depending upon very general views of God, morality and the world. 'The overly sophisticated believer' tries to avoid the dilemma by evading it in one way or the other, some wanting to return to the view of the naive believer, others wanting to come to some new conclusion entirely.
That set up, let me now look at the argument presented by Rachels.
(1) Suppose God commands us to do what is right. Then either (a) the right actions are right because he commands them or (b) he commands them because they are right.
(2) If we take option (a), then God's commands are, from a moral point of view, arbitrary; moreover, the doctrine of the goodness of God is rendered meaningless.
(3) If we take option (b), then we have admitted there is a standard of right and wrong that is independent of God's will.
(4) Therefore, we must either regard God's commands as arbitrary, and give up the doctrine of the goodness of God, or admit that there is a standard of right and wrong that is independent of his will, and give up the theological definitions of right and wrong.
(5) From a religious point of view, it is undesirable to regard God's commands as arbitrary or to give up the doctrine of the goodness of God.
(6) Therefore, even from a religious point of view, a standard of right and wrong that is independent of God's will must be accepted.
Before turning to the issue which I am really interested in, something needs to be said about Rachels' characterization of the consequences of option (a). The first of those consequences is that "God's commands are, from a moral point of view, arbitrary." Rachels later (in (4) and (5)) describes them as "arbitrary", omitting the qualification "from a moral point of view".
The unqualified 'arbitrary' is surely wrong. God might have a reason for commanding this rather than that and would not then be at all arbitrary. In fact, across the range of commands he issues, God might consistently stick to that reason and so morality would be a far from arbitrary set of arrangements.
What God cannot have, on this view of the relationship between God and morality, is a moral reason for commanding something to be a moral requirement. That is, as morality is to be instituted by and dependent upon God's choice of a program, morality comes into being as a result of that choice, is nothing independently of that choice. However, moral reasons mention morally relevant considerations for choosing or doing something. Hence, if all moral considerations were to come to be by, and rest upon, God's will, there could not be any moral reasons in advance or independently of his choice. Consequently there could be no moral reasons for making the choice of moral principles God made. There may have been reasons for commanding one thing rather than another, but not moral reasons. Thus, if God is to be the foundation, the ground, of morality, then God cannot act morally, cannot act for morally sufficient reasons.
Understanding that consequence of Divine Command Theories, can we say, as Rachels does, that God's choices would be "from a moral point of view, arbitrary"? On Divine Command theories would God be acting in a morally arbitrary way? That criticism presupposes that we have a moral point of view from which we can view God's actions and choices. But Divine Command theories surely deny that there is any such standpoint. Hence God's choices would be, if God's will is what morality is founded upon, neither morally arbitrary nor morally satisfactory.
Descartes, working within the Augustinian tradition, said of mathematical propositions that God could have created as mathematical truths whatever he wanted. For instance, God might have commanded that 2 plus 2 equals 17. Descartes allows that it is unintelligible to us here and now how 2 plus 2 might have been 17, but given the dependence of all things, including therefore mathematics, upon God's will, God could have done what we find unintelligible. However, Descartes does not say that God's choices of mathematical truths are mathematically arbitrary - rather he assumes that we, in our finitude, go wrong in attempting to comprehend God's mathematical actions and reasons.
So too, for those who want to require the dependence of morality upon God's will, God could have commanded that fifty percent of all human two year olds be trampled to death on each January 1. It might be morally unintelligible to us how that could have been a moral principle demanded by God. But we simply cannot comprehend God's reasons in our finite state. As our standards of moral assessment cannot be independent of what he has instituted, we cannot critically assess what he could have done or, for that matter, what he did do.
All this commentary amounts to saying that in Rachels' premise (2) the claim that it is a consequence of Divine Command theories that God's actions are arbitrary should be dropped. That is not a legitimate negative consequence of the view. What must remain in that second premise is Rachels' other comment: that if this disjunct is true, then "the doctrine of the goodness of God is rendered meaningless."
Rachels must be commended for putting the point in that strong fashion. Others traveling in his footsteps have tried to make a weaker claim, saying that if morality is what God commands, then God's goodness is rendered trivial. 'Trivial' is too wimpy a critical term.
To see that observe that to say that anything is morally good is to say that it satisfies the standards of moral goodness. But since God, in his commands, his approvals and disapprovals, is instituting standards rather than meeting or failing to meet standards, God is beyond good and evil. It is the same with any standard: it cannot be used to judge itself. As Wittgenstein said of the standard meter, it neither is or is not a meter long. Plato, on the other hand, failed to appreciate this point, when he held that the Form of Beauty must be beautiful and analogously for each Form.
On this horn of the dilemma, God is the standard of goodness; therefore, in the strongest terms, it makes no sense to judge his choices by the standard. On this horn, you can say that the claim that God is good is vacuous, empty or, most strongly, makes no sense. What it is not is trivial: for what is trivial is true and 'God is good' here, on the Divine Command Theory, is neither true nor false.
Now, back to the main theme. Step (4) of Rachels' argument should read: therefore, we must either give up the doctrine of the goodness of God or hold that there is a standard of right and wrong which is independent of God's will. It is my chief contention here that at that point the dilemma which is historically derived from the Euthyphro comes to an end. The choices are mentioned - what remains is up to the believer. What is centrally at fault in Rachels' representation of the dilemma is step (5): "From a religious point of view it is undesirable to give up the doctrine of the goodness of God."
That is not part of the logical issue first raised in the Euthyphro. It is Rachels' own contribution.
Further, the first clause is wildly mistaken. It surely is not true from a religious point of view that option (a) is undesirable. What Rachels is doing is characterizing as the only acceptable religious view, one which finds option (a) to be repugnant and so rejects the Divine Command Theory. But, within Christianity, there have been theologians and religious philosophers who, upon realizing the options, have plumped for option (a). Those who want to emphasize the power of God, upon realizing the conflict within naive Christianity between the asserted power and the asserted goodness of God, surrender the doctrine of God's goodness without thereby ceasing to be believers, without giving up a religious point of view. Roughly, that is the Augustinian tradition. While philosophers such as Socrates, Aquinas, Leibniz and Rachels find such a move incredible, it is nonetheless a genuine religious response to the dilemma which first arose in the Euthyphro. It might even be God's: when God replies to Job's moral complaints all he does is emphasize his power.