Why I’m Not An Atheist, pt. 3

(on the Euthyphro Dilemma)

1. What is the Euthyphro Dilemma?

Everyone has a concept of morality, right? We all feel sick when we hear news about innocent people being gunned down and we all have a sense of justice being served when a thief is caught and punished. Our very societies operate on the idea that certain things are okay and other things are not okay. Some things are right and some things are wrong. Most of us—if we aren’t suffering from frontal lobe disorders—seem to have these very deep intuitions about goodness and badness, about rightness and wrongness. This is true despite the fact that our conceptions about what makes something right/wrong can be very different. Now, theism (or at least Western theism) has traditionally defined morality as being objective and absolute—that is, something that is wrong is wrong in all places, at all times, for all people. This view (which I will defend in this post) has come under attack from atheism (though it should be noted that some atheists defend an objective morality without God). So when I’m talking about “theistic morality” in this post, you should read that as an objective morality. What I want to talk about specifically in this post is one argument that has been used to call an objective, theistic morality into question.
In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates and the titular character discuss what has come to be known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. This has come down through the years to our own day and age, albeit in a modified form. It has been used to argue, basically, that the existence of both God and morality results in two equally nonsensical moral landscapes. In its modified form, the dilemma is this: “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” To show just why this dilemma is considered such a good refutation of theistic morality, I’ll lay out both horns of the dilemma. Keep in mind that the point is to show that God’s existence leads to nonsense and contradictions.

The first horn is that “God commands something because it is good.” Simply put, this view asserts that morality is something that God recognizes and then proceeds to command us to adhere to. For example, the Christian God delights in things like fidelity/benevolence/piety and abhors things like murder/adultery/theft because those things are right or wrong in and of themselves. As I understand it, this horn is chosen by some in order to avoid charges that God’s morality is arbitrary (which I’ll get to in a moment). In this view, morality is something that is inherent. It is essential to the universe. God’s own goodness, therefore, can be seen in that God adheres to those moral standards perfectly. Thus, for the person who picks this option, God can be praised for being moral without seeming arbitrary. However, there are some problems with this setup—especially for the Western (read: Judeo-Christian) theist. In Western conceptions of a deity, God is supposed to be sovereign and omnipotent. God is supposed to have a freedom of the will. However, if one’s conception of morality is in line with this horn of the dilemma, there exists a moral law behind God to which God must adhere. That is, God is subject to something other than Himself—a fact that most Christians would reject. Also, from an atheistic standpoint, this view shows that God is not necessary for morality. Thus, moral arguments for God’s existence cannot be used. So there seem to be some real problems here.

In order to escape the problems of the first horn of the dilemma, many philosophers and theologians have chosen the second option—namely, “something is good because God commands it.” Known as Divine Command Theory, this option maintains that God alone decides what is morally Right. The reasons for choosing this option are obvious, since it allows for God’s sovereignty/freedom of will/omnipotence/etc. So it seems to avoid the problems that the first horn of the dilemma falls into. However, this opens up some equally significant problems, some would say. To wit, morality in this schema becomes essentially arbitrary. God could tell us to go kill infants and that would, by definition, be the morally correct thing to do. In fact, not killing infants would constitute doing something wrong. This seems to go against our very deep intuitions about morality. In fact it seems to deny that our intuitions (the very things that theistic morality is said to explain) actually mean anything. And this seems wrong indeed.

A quick recap: the Euthyphro Dilemma seems to show that theists have to accept one of two options. Namely, either  [A] there is a moral law behind God (which seems to make God irrelevant in moral questions and to go against the traditional conceptions of God being sovereign, etc.) or [B] morality is based solely on God’s command (and thus is arbitrary). Both these options seem lacking.

2. My Response: A Modified Divine Command Theory

Really quickly, I want to show why I think this is a false dilemma. In doing this, I stand on the side of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas (note: I only point that out to show that I didn’t just come up with this myself). Basically, I want to say that morality is based upon the nature of God and not simply the commands of God. This is a significant modification, even if it doesn’t appear to be so on the face of it. According to Christian theism, God has always and will always exist. This means that anything tied to the nature of God is necessarily eternal and absolute. In this conception, God’s commands flow out of His nature. That which is good is what is in line with the nature of God, just as that which is evil is what goes against the nature of God. Therefore, God’s commands are essentially to reveal to us what His moral nature is—it is not the result of God trying to make up a morality for us to follow. In this way, Modified Divine Command Theory avoids both a morality based upon arbitrary commands and a God who is subject to something outside of Himself. You can think of this as admitting, essentially, that “might makes right” – but that, since God is by definition the Mightiest, His morality wins. (That doesn’t quite sum it up, because I believe that God’s having created us means that our [uncorrupted] intuitions point toward His morality).

Now, I’m going to anticipate the objection that this is all semantics. After all, many critics would say this view only moves the problem onto the nature of God rather than the commands of God. That is true, in a sense. I don’t think the arbitrariness is quite the same in this case, though. Since God has always necessarily existed, it cannot be said that morality “could have been different” and is thus arbitrary. This is because it is meaningless to say that God “could have been different,” since God is presupposed to have always been—and since that which is moral is defined as “that which reflects the nature of God,” morality equally cannot be spoken of with such language. However, the critic has hit upon something serious. In this conception, praise of God seems to become meaningless. After all, saying “God, thank you for being moral” is like saying “God, thank you for being God.” The speaker of such a phrase is extolling God for doing something that God is unable not to do.
I think there is a way out of this critique, though. Praise in this conception is valid based upon God’s choice between two equally valid moral alternatives. In other words, my saying “God, thank you for being merciful” has meaning in that God could just as easily have been just toward me and punished me for my not living up to the moral standard. So I think praise can still retain its meaning. Also, I think this is the view that the authors of the Bible’s various books seem to hold. This is why they can praise God even for His just destruction of societies, and why Proverbs says that the “fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom.

3. Why Atheism Doesn’t Escape This Problem

Enough about my own views. I just included them in an effort to put my cards on the table, since I’m basically finding fault with the alternative. Anyway, my main point for this post is that I don’t think a move away from theism escapes this dilemma. In fact, I think that move just intensifies our problems rather than alleviating them. Other than simply denying the existence of morality, which I don’t think is a wise move, the most common way for atheists to deal with morality is to say that “what is moral” equates to “what is good for society,” so I’m going to run with that and show why I don’t think it provides any answers.

If I say that killing is wrong because society is hindered by it, I run into similar problems as the Divine Command Theorist in the Euthyphro Dilemma. Does this mean that killing per se isn’t wrong? It would seem to be so, since I can easily point to cases in which killing must be done for the good of society in general (i.e. resource scarcity/overpopulation). However, that seems also to go against the intuitions that we used to throw out the existence of God.  Part of the reasoning we had when trying to discount Divine Command Theory is that it made things like murder or genocide “possibly” okay. Our problem with DCT seemed to be that God could say that killing is okay, and then it would become so. My point here is that now, in our societal-benefit conception of morality, we have the same exact problem. It could be the case that occasions arise in which killing is not only acceptable but morally required. We haven’t solved anything by making this move.

In fact, constructing morality in this way seems to assume that society ought to exist. That is, this view assumes that society is good. That humanity itself is good (though, if we look at what we’ve done to the world and to each other, that view seems counter-intuitive). The atheist still has not explained what makes something good. She has merely pointed to goodness and said “these things are good.” One ought to do something because it benefits society (because, it is implied, society is good). This is the same circularity with which many atheists charge theism. It suffers from the same problem.

I’m not saying that these problems are in any sense particularly damning of atheism. My point is merely that I don’t see how these conceptions solve the problems that the atheist had with theistic morality anyway. And in fact, as I will show in the next post, I think that morality itself points to the existence of a deity.

4. Final Thoughts.

Okay, this one was a little tough to write. I debated on whether or not to write this post or the next one (Part 4) first. Ultimately, I decided on this one, though maybe that was a mistake. In the end, I think that this post hearkens back to the first post in this series and its discussion on “necessary brute facts.” Both systems of thought have these presuppositions that must simply be accepted prima facie. However, I think that atheism actually increases the number of things one must “simply accept.” In this case, atheism cannot explain morality in any sense. It must simply say “society is good/life is good/humanity is good/etc.” This, as we have seen, is circular. After all, the Universe has existed without us for quite some time. Why is it the case that we ought to preserve life? Appeals to selfish gain work here, but then the very moral intuitions that we used to reject Divine Command Theory seem to go away as well—since I can’t really be commended for doing something just to preserve myself, can I?

One of the big reasons for writing this post first was to get my own Modified Divine Command Theory out there so that you, the reader, know where I’m coming from. The next post, which is going to deal with why I think the so-called Problem of Evil is not actually a problem for theists, will lay out exactly why I think this is the only way to have a morality that is worthwhile.

Anyway, thoughts?

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2 thoughts on “Why I’m Not An Atheist, pt. 3

  1. Bryant Cody Rudisill says:

    The modified divine command theory is one approach to going through the horns of Euthyphro’s dilemma. We’ve discussed this a little before, so you know that I disagree. I’ll reiterate one point I’ve already made and then go on to propose an argument I first heard presented by Kai Nelsen to the effect that it is not morality that rests on religion (or God) but religion that rests on morality. (I hope this doesn’t come across as shotgun blasting you with argumentation. I think these arguments build up to and, in some sense, round out Nelsen’s argument.)

    Grounding morality in God’s nature, as opposed to his command, creates a two-fold issue. Firstly, we still don’t know how you know that God (and his morality) is good: by what standard do you call God good? “He is his own standard,” you might say, but this seems even more (if it’s possible) incredibly uninformative than to say, “Of course God is good … He says that he is!” Rather, it is to claim, “Of course God is good … because he is!”

    Secondly, if God’s nature is the basis for morality the seemingly semantic issue of the equation of “God, thank you for being moral” and “God, thank you for being God” is raised–but with far deeper consequences than that of the assignment of praise, if you take “God is good” to be an identity statement, that is. As Kai Nelsen points out, it makes perfect sense to say that “God spoke to Moses,” but “Good spoke to Moses” isn’t even English. He goes on to tackle the issue of “God is good” being a tautological statement akin to “wives are married women.” (I think this will be a good tie-in to my conclusion.) The statement “wives are married women,” or even, “triangles are three-sided,” requires independent, and logically prior, knowledge of the consequent’s in order to understand the antecedent’s.

    Nelson makes the argument that “God is good” requires such a logically prior knowledge of good. In other words, we cannot apply the predicate “good” to God without first having a knowledge of what it is for something to be good and a way, or criterion, of going about saying things are good. So whether you base morality in God’s nature or his commands, to know whether those morals are good requires a judgment that is logically prior to the question of whether a God is morally good or perfectly good. As Nelson says, “That we call anything, or any foundation of anything, ‘God,’ presupposes we have a moral understanding and the ability to discern what would be worthy of worship or perfectly good” (his emphasis).

    I think this is interesting. It is we, in a very flawed epistemological position, who are claiming that God is good; looking at what we believe to be his book of deeds and salvation history and judging them to be good.

    • I knew you would disagree. I find a fault with Kai Nelson’s statement in its formulation. The better version, for me, would be to say that “good is God.” Not in the sense this we should worship the idea of good. Rather, that what god is is necessarily the definition of our own morality. I think that most of the Biblical extolling of God can be rendered as “God is good… to a specific person/people.” In other words, the praising of God is based on the recipient of grace and goodness realizing that an equally valid option would have been for God to act in a righteous anger, for instance. In any case, I don’t think atheistic conceptions of morality help the issue either. This is better seen in part 4, probably. Essentially, I see two options for the atheist: the first is to deny an objective morality. However, this is no better than the might-makes-right of the DCT, since it “fixes” the problem by denying the thing that makes most people skeptical of DCT. The second option is to say morality is based on some other thing, which I think must presuppose the existence of a deity, since morality is a law that involves conscious thought. However, I’ll get to that in the next post. I know I keep saying that, but this next post is the climax, for me at least (at least in the realm of morality).

      Also, personally, an arbitrary morality doesn’t bother me all that much. Mostly, I think, because of my Calvinist leanings. I long ago reconciled the idea that a creator can do what it wants with the creation. I include this I here mainly to show that I don’t think atheistic versions of morality are philosophically superior. And to let my own stance be more clearly seen.

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