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7 comments | Wednesday, October 05, 2005

During Socrates dialogue with Euthyphro, Socrates presented a confounding question to Euthyphro; a question which perplexed Euthyphro. This infamous question has deliberately been used to make Christians stumble and scrounging for an answer without being plunged into the horns of the two options; and for the most part, it has worked. Plato, a historical master thinker, wrote about Socrates in his dialogues. Frankly; we only know of Socrates through Plato’s writings and he may have very well been a figment of Plato’s imagination, but even so, the very real question still lingers today.

So what is this mortifying question posed by Socrates? Here is the quote:

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

In other words, Euthyphro’s Dilemma consists of asking: Does God (or [gods] in the context) love things because they are good, or are they good because God loves them? This is a simple question, but to answer leads to grave problems for the Christian.

A short way of asking this question is, “where do moral standards come from?” However, either answer to the question posed by Socrates plunges the theist (more specifically—the Christian) into a horn.

Here is a simplistic formalization of the argument from the Strong Atheism site.
1. Either:

(a) The Good is willed by God because it is the Good.
(b) The Good is the Good because it is willed by God.

1. If (1a) is true, then the Good is independent of God’s will.
2. If (2) is true, then God did not create the Good, and is not Creator.
3. If (1b) is true, then the Good is contingent and subjective (toGod’s will).
4. If (4) is true, then there is no objective standard of morality, and the absolute of value-selection is false.
5. [Therefore] God does not exist.

As one can detect, there is somewhat of a dilemma that Eithyphro faces. Or is there? An atheist and British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, devised the problem this way in his polemic against the Christian faith in, Why I Am Not a Christian:

If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: Is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God Himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God's fiat, because God's fiats are good and not good independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God

When Russell is using this question, he is attempting to show a defect in the way Christians present God’s goodness. But the way the question is asked; one is forced to only take the two options. This is where the problem comes in. If “good” is good only because God says so, the goodness, therefore, has no meaning — God could take what is “evil” today and pronounce it “good” tomorrow, if He chose. On the other hand, if God has no control over what is “good” or “evil” in and of Himself, but is rather, inferior to some standard outside His control, can He actually qualify as an almighty and sovereign God? If there is a definition of “good” God can’t change, who wrote it?

Avoiding the Horns and solving the problem:

Socrates leaves us with only two options; however, there is a third. First, as Christians, we must reject both the first and second options (listed below) offered by Socrates to remain coherent:

1. Either:

(a) The Good is willed by God because it is the Good.

(b) The Good is the Good because it is willed by God.

In Islam; the “good” is the good because it is willed by God. Thus, the “good” is contingent and subjective (to God’s will) (1b) of the dilemma. Therefore, anything morally wrong today (i.e. torturing babies), is subject to change if God decides it is good. In other words, the God of Islam (Allah) is capricious. However, the God of the Bible is good by nature, and therefore, cannot fall in the horn of the second answer (1b), without being incoherent. But God is not good simply because He IS good (Good = God); He is good because it’s an essential characteristic of God, which leads to our solution.

Our third option (which is not offered by Socrates) is that objective moral law exists internally to God. In other words, the goodness of God is grounded in the absolute character of God; it’s in his makeup. Therefore, God could not arbitrarily make killing babies moral, because it would conflict with his character.

Dr. William Lane Craig condenses a precise answer to the dilemma as follows:

You split the horns of the dilemma by saying that the good is the very nature of God and that the commands of God flow necessarily out of His moral nature. Because God is just, He commands things that are for us just. So the good is neither arbitrary, nor is it something outside and above God. Rather the good is the moral nature of God Himself, which is expressed necessarily in His moral commands, which become for us our moral duties.

Solving the problem Euthyphro faced does not prove a Christian world view. However, it does show that Christianity is not surmounted with incoherence by this question. So, Euthyphro’s dilemma is really no dilemma at all; thus, it is a false dilemma

Moral Law Requires a Law Giver

Many Atheists reject absolute moral law because they recognize that, Atheism simply does not have the foundations for objective moral values and duties. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

Again, Dr. William Lane Craig makes the argument exceedingly simple:

Actions like rape, cruelty, and child abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior; they're moral abominations. Some things are objectively wrong. Similarly love, equality, and self-sacrifice are really good. Accordingly, we can affirm:

1. Objective values and duties require a Law Giver.

2. Objective values and duties do exist.

But then it follows logically and inescapably that:

3. Therefore, God exists.

Therefore, if you are an atheist, and you believe in absolute moral standards; you have a serious problem, because you simply have nothing to ground yourself with.

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Blogger Mr. WD said...

I am skeptical of the claim that moral values are absolute. However, I think the latter argument about all moral "laws" requiring a "law giver" is, quite simply, terrible beyond words. First, why would whatever God says necessarily be good (and how would you know)? Secondly, what about Mill's proof? Or Kant's argument for the Categorical Imperative? Or the social contract arguments?

10/06/2005 4:34 PM

Blogger Beowulf said...

First, according to Christian theology, God is perfectly just and good because it emanates from his character. Second, things such as morality are not “good” because God says so. If it were because God says so, the good is contingent and subjective to God’s will (the second horn). Third, whatever God says is not necessarily good. This is especially the case if you rebel against God. Try reading revelation. There are a lot of “not-good” things happening.

As far as Mill goes, he confuses two senses of the term "desirable", namely "capable of being desired" with "ought to be desired". He claims general happiness is the sole criterion of morality. This does not explain the “ought” of morality that sometimes conflicts with happiness.

Kantian Categorical Imperative has also taken on water. First, there are times when the ends do justify the means. Say it is World War II, and Nazis are knocking at your door. Meanwhile you are harboring a family of Jews in your attic. Wouldn’t it be more moral to lie to the Nazis and save the family, than to tell the truth about their whereabouts and send them to their deaths? Second, the a priori 'duties' raise questions as to the grounds of morality. If they are human Imperatives (grounded in human reason alone) then they are merely subjective and are not Categorical but Hypothetical Imperatives. If they are Categorical in some Ultimate sense, then this raises the question of a 'Law giver' and ultimately gives rise to the question of God.

Social Contact morality is the worst argument of all. First, since each society is "alien" to another, no society could ever be judged immoral by another society’s standard; no matter how uncanny or morally repugnant they may seem. Second, with social contract, there can be no such thing as an immoral law. If society is the final measure of morality, then all its judgments are moral by definition. Third, not only is it unfeasible to condemn society from without; it can’t even be opposed from within. Thus, it impossible to morally reform a society from either direction. So much for abolishing slavery.

Lastly, I find is some what peculiar that you have “suddenly” shifted to a skeptic on absolute moral values. Take for example you comment on my previous blog,

“Moral facts are not like physical facts -- they're more like mathematical facts; therefore they must apply not just in this world, but in any potential world. The moral maxim "gratuitous torture is morally wrong" is true on earth but it is also true on any other planet or in any other universe; just like 2+2=4.”

Secondly, why is the “Law Giver” argument “terrible”? It seems to me, if you have moral absolutes that transcend all things, they have to come from some where. How do you account for this? Also note, however, the quote I used from Dr. William Lane Craig, was in the middle of a string of arguments for the existence God and thus, does not stand alone.

10/06/2005 8:36 PM

Blogger Mr. WD said...

I just don't think this answer that Euthypro's horns can be avoided by saying 'well, God is a good guy and therefore none of his commands would be unjust' is very compelling. You say God chose specific standards of behavior which would apply eternally. But why did he choose the standards he chose? You say it's because of God's 'character' -- God wouldn't *want* to choose otherwise, even though he could. But what is the motivation for this decision? Once you get here, the horns of Euthyphro come back.

You've given some standard objections to all of the secular moral theories I asked about. That's fine, none of them are perfect (if they were, well, we wouldn't be having this discussion). For the sake of brevity, I'll skip over a defense of each of your objections and just say that I don't see the obvious superiority of your theological theory over these other theories. They are all flawed in their own special way -- except that yours has to overcome additional ontological and epistemological deficiencies.

As for my "sudden" shift: Well, I understand if it seems a little schizophrenic. But discussions about moral philosophy, like all other discourses, usually have their own particular rules (e.g. that morality is eternal, like math). If you don't follow the rules, then there's no point in having them. I don't think we would have been debating in the first place if I started out by denying that moral values are absolute.

So, to continue within the discourse of moral philosophy, if moral laws are like the laws of geometry, then I don't see how a "law giver" is necessary. Couldn't it just be that they're part of the "natural fabric of the universe" and have no supernatural origin? Or that they exist implicitly out of certain facts about human existence (as all three of the theories I mentioned hold)? In any event, I don't see how the claim that "all laws require a law giver" is the 'trump' you seem to think it is.

10/13/2005 7:24 AM

Blogger Beowulf said...

I think Euthyphro’s problem is completely solved from a Christian perspective. Euthyphro’s problem is a theological one; both horns are completely avoided with the solution I offered. As far as “why” God is always just and how I know, is another realm of discussion. To give a strait answer, I reach this conclusion through biblical teachings, which, I will concede, stands or falls on its validity.

As far as moral standards, pretty much all arguments (sophisticated as they are) can be boiled down to either two sides of the fence. Either 1: Morals are subjective or 2. Morals are absolute. I will post on this later, because like the Egyptian mummy--I’m pressed for time!

10/13/2005 9:09 AM

Blogger Francois Tremblay said...

Already known, already addressed, already refuted.

12/09/2005 10:50 AM

Blogger Beowulf said...

Wrong François; you only artificially dichotomize God and his nature. Try again!

12/13/2005 8:45 PM

Blogger Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

3/14/2008 10:16 AM


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