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Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Euthyphro dilemma

Today I read about the Euthyphro dilemma, a question asked by Plato ... Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? ... and realized I've been considering it without realizing what it was. When I've read on the one hand that God sends people to hell (or "lets" them go to hell), but then on the other that he saves everyone (Hans Urs von Balthasar), I've wanted to believe Balthasar. I've felt God should conform to a standard of goodness which doesn't fit with eternal punishment (horn #1 of the dilemma), and I've felt that if hell does indeed exist, the only reason God is called good is that might makes right (horn #2 of the dilemma).

OK, maybe I don't really understand all this, much less explain it well :) so here's a little about the Euthyphro dilemma from Wikipedia (bolding mine) ....


The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro: "Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" .... "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?" The dilemma has continued to present a problem for theists ......

The first horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is right is commanded by God because it is right) ... the view is that there are independent moral standards: some actions are right or wrong in themselves, independently of God's commands .... this is the view accepted by Socrates and Euthyphro in Plato's dialogue .....

Though Aquinas never explicitly addresses the Euthyphro dilemma, interpreters often put him on this side of the issue. Aquinas draws a distinction between what is good or evil in itself and what is good or evil because of God's commands, with unchangeable moral standards forming the bulk of natural law. Thus he contends that not even God can change the Ten Commandments (adding that God can change what individuals deserve in particular cases, in what might look like special dispensations to murder or steal) .....

This horn of the dilemma faces several problems ..... 18th-century philosopher Richard Price, who takes the first horn and thus sees morality as "necessary and immutable", sets out the objection as follows: "It may seem that this is setting up something distinct from God, which is independent of him, and equally eternal and necessary." ..... Nontheists have capitalized on this point, largely as a way of disarming moral arguments for God's existence: if morality does not depend on God in the first place, such arguments stumble at the starting gate.

The second horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is right is right because it is commanded by God) is sometimes known as divine command theory or voluntarism. Roughly, it is the view that there are no moral standards other than God's will: without God's commands, our actions would be neither right nor wrong.

This view was partially defended by Scotus, in arguing that not all Ten Commandments belong to the natural law. Scotus held that while our duties to God (found on the first tablet) are self-evident, true by definition, and unchangeable even by God, our duties to others (found on the second tablet) were arbitrarily willed by God and are within his power to revoke and replace (which is why God was able to command the murder of Isaac, the spoiling of the Egyptians, and the adulterous marriage of Hosea) .... Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both stressed the absolute sovereignty of God's will, with Luther writing that "for [God's] will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it", and Calvin writing that "everything which [God] wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it." .....

This horn of the dilemma also faces several problems ... If there is no moral standard other than God's will, then God's commands are arbitrary .... A related point is raised by C. S. Lewis: "if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the 'righteous Lord.'" .....


The Wikipedia article states that Aquinas asserted that there really was no dilemma, but that his explanation was somewhat wanting.


Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Hi Crystal,

I think the questions are wrong. They're just off on both counts largely because they (at least from my pov) completely ignore the central aspect of love that is the single most important defining characteristic of the divine nature.

If God is Love, and love includes in itself certain inalienable, a priori moral Truths (murder is wrong or love should be returned for love - the first command "you shall have no other gods" which could be read as "I have loved you, and the proper response to being loved is to love in return")

The first horn then is moot because "that which is right is commanded by God because it is right", is commanded by God not because it pre-exists God, but because it is God. In effect God says, "this is who I AM, and if you are to live with I AM this is how you do it".

I find the second horn even sillier esp as summed up by Scotus "Scotus held that while our duties to God (found on the first tablet) are self-evident, true by definition, and unchangeable even by God, our duties to others (found on the second tablet) were arbitrarily willed by God and are within his power to revoke and replace..."

The second tablet is in a direct and equally inalienable relationship with the first and my argument remains the same as that with the first horn, I AM is love, love must be shared to be experienced, to 'be'. The second tablet in this light I do not see as in any way arbitrary, I see it more as God's explaination of the depth of this new relationship Israel is being invited into, a relationship where God Loves and is loved, and that love is most explicitly experienced when love is shared among the People of God themselves.

Both questions, at least how I read them, seem to be trying to separate the moral life from the nature and existence of God and I guess it seems silliest to me because without God, there is no life at all, moral or otherwise.

But they sure made me think! Then again, you always do. Thanks Crystal. ;o)

9:02 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

I just came upon this thing yesterday and with nothing else to post, picked it. It is one of those weird philosophical thought experiements, I guess, that don't seem to really relate to actua life.

I think that Aquinas went the way you did. Wikipedia says this about him ....

Christian philosophers, starting with Thomas Aquinas have often answered that the dilemma is false: yes, God commands something because it is good, but the reason it is good is that "good is an essential part of God's nature". So goodness is grounded in God's character and merely expressed in moral commands. Therefore whatever a good God commands will always be good. Which is to say that God is good by definition — in a way he has no choice because it is simply in his nature to be that way. And he commands others to be good as well.

Love, interestingly, never gets mentioned in the argument.

One thing I wonder about - you wrote ...

"I have loved you, and the proper response to being loved is to love in return"

I don't know if that's true - it would all the objects of unrequited love bad people :)

1:38 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

I guess lucking into agreeing with Aquinas is a good thing. ;o) As soon as I started reading the dilemma I thought "The question's just wrong from the roots as it were.

As for the 'I have loved you..." thing, I always get into trouble when I try to put words into God's mouth...LOL! I should have clarified that, while the proper response of the Beloved to the Lover is to love in return, the perfect Lover never makes being loved in return a condition of's just the right or good thing to do. I think in the end, this is what God has been trying to teach us all along.

1:50 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Love is the thing that keeps me trying to figure out all the problems I have with believing in God - can't give up on that :)

3:05 PM  
Blogger victor said...

Now who could possibly want to give UP on God's Love for very long?

Can't wait to get into "Spiritual Grade ONE" with God's Angel where me, myself and I will be able to learn so much more.

Right now I sometime in silence feel like my Heavenly Father is a Great Builder and He's shows me a few of His Blue Prints and calls me His Little Man. I marvel at the designs and tell Him in so many words that someday I hope to be The Great Builder that my Heavenly Dad is.

Does that make any sense? :)


5:59 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Victor,

Yes, makes sense to me :)

9:56 PM  
Blogger Mike L said...

One of my pet gripes about English is how many meanings some words have, and I think among the most confusing is the word love. I really like CA's "the proper response to being loved is to love in return" which sounds an awful lot like the golden rule.

I think the meaning of love is shifted in Crystal's comment that the objects of unrequited love when then be bad. I can think of many cases where refusing a marriage proposal would be for more loving (in one sense) then in going through with what one knows will be a bad marriage.

We also tend to think that love (in one sense) requires us to be nice the the beloved. As a parent I know that sometimes I had to step in and discipline my kids and at lest some of the times they though it was unloving. Letting them play in the middle of a busy street is not loving.

I have now seen several cases where a loving parent refused to believe that his/her child was breaking the law. In one case it was drugs, and the mother raised such a fuss that the police were reluctant to arrest him. Unfortunately one time when they approached him he swallowed his entire collection of crack, the police let him go, and he shortly died from the drug overdose. Of course now the mother complained that the police had not arrested her son. This is not love as I see it.

Perhaps more than anything love, in my mind requires honesty.


Mike L

8:01 AM  
Blogger Rick Lannoye said...

Thanks for reminding us of Plato's wise question.

Whatever the ultimate answer turns out to be, though, it's safe to say that Jesus never thought God threatened to hurt people in order to win them over, not for a moment, much less for eternity.

I've actually written an entire book on this topic--"Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell," (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of my book at my website:, but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it to explain why.

If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

True, there are a few statements that made their way into the copies of copies of copies of the gospel texts which place “Hell” on Jesus’ lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

Bear in mind that the historical Protestant doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures applies only to the original autographs, not the copies. But sadly, the interpolations that made their way into those copies have provided a convenient excuse for a lot of people to get around following Jesus’ real message.

11:54 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike,

I think the idea that the proper response to someone loving you is to love them back only works when you apply it to God, and maybe not then. That would be the most satisfactory response, but no one owes love to anyone - if it isn't freely given out of choice rather than as duty, how can it be love? When someone loves another, there are hopefully no strings attached. If a person fell in love with another and their love was rejected, we would consider that unfortunate, but imagine how we'd feel if that person was able to demand and force the reciprical love of the other. Love is evoked or inspired but it can't be bought, not even with love.

Or so said Crystal who actually knows very little about love :)

1:30 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for your comment and link. I agree with you that it doesn't make sense for a loving God to create and maintain a place like hell. Thomas Talbott says a similar thing. Hans Urs von Balthasar only "hoped" there was no one in hell, and he was attacked by many as a heretic.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Paul Maurice Martin said...

To me it feels more like my heavenly Father is a great builder who built a world to look just like the world would look if there were no heavenly Father.

There are so many horns and so many dilemas that for me an anthropomorphic idea of God doesn't work. It's been a long time since I took a look at the Old Testament but I know it has some passages that suggest the divine is beyond thought. The one that's always stuck with me is the voice from the whirlwind in Job.

And of course Christianity's contemplative tradition also points this way, for example The Cloud of Unknowing.

8:22 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

I hate the voice in the whirlwind in Job :)

I think there is indeed a tradition in Christianity like that you mention, modernly represented by guys like Thomas Keating (centering prayer). I don't really like that tradition ... it's sort of the opposite of Ignation spirituality.

The way you describe the Christian God sounds almost like gnosticism .... the Christian God as the demiurge, an inferior creator diety like the one in the OT, and the "real" God a remote and superior kind of force that doesn't interact with people.

9:37 PM  

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