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The Euthyphro Dilemma


The name comes from Plato's eponymous book, Euthyphro. In it, the speaker asks: "Is God moral because He follows morality? Or is He moral because He created it?" If the former, that means there's some other, more powerful or authoritative source of morality than God. If the latter, then morality is arbitrary and therefore meaningless.

Paul seems to maybe lean toward option two in Romans 7:7-8, but here he is probably talking about one part of God's commands, perhaps to the Israelites (Rom. 14:5), not morality as a whole. Socrates sided with the first solution: the gods loved what is holy because it was always holy. For him this was not a problem: the ancient Greek deities were neither omnipotent, nor even morally perfect all the time: they were subjected to the power of Fate more or less.

But the Christian, Jew, and Muslim have a problem. How can God be omnipotent if He didn't make morality of all things?! What does it imply if morality has a different origin from Him? Where did it come from and what is the significance of this origin: is it another Euthyphro Dilemma? Or is it just an indiscriminate, supernatural law (which must be obeyed?)? Could God deviate from this? Could He make His own morality in addition, or is it identical?

Is the first option is unacceptable if we suppose an omnipotent and wholly holy deity? If so, is morality arbitrary and thus whimsical?

Morality: Uncreated

So is God moral because He follows uncreated/not created by Him morality? Or because He has the power to arbitrarily create it? The answer in my opinion has to be "Yes" to the first question. But this doesn't mean there's something more powerful or authoritative than God: simply put morality should be based on justice which should be based on logic. And God doesn't "create" logic as it's not a thing. Kindness and other good things are undefined without intent. A cloud isn't being "nice" by giving rain and causing a beautiful rose to blossom. But if I help someone, it doesn't become a greater or lesser good if I have three hands instead of two, both of which variables are entirely arbitrary, but irrelevantly so with respect to morality.

This is why, if I'm interpreting him correctly, Robert B. Coote says:

Exhortation cannot, by its nature, be fulfilled. The fulfillment of exhortation would be justice itself; there is no sign that human society has run out of the need for more. Since fulfillment cannot be at issue, the authority for exhortation cannot be grounded in exhortation itself. In other words, unlike the prediction of catastrophe, the command "Do justice" does not have within it the basis of its own authority. [Amost Among the Prophets (Fortress Press, 1981), p.65]
That brings up another point. Justice is irrelevant without power. If an omnipotent deity did not care for what may or may not be objective fairness, it's quite irrelevant. It doesn't exactly help you to successfully argue your case in court, if the judge can simply say, "Doesn't matter."

If we can suppose that God is capable of creating morality, the fact that it's arbitrary is only unjust if we assume God cannot create justice. But I believe that's an inescapable conclusion exactly because of questions like "Can God make a rock so heavy not even He can lift?"

Having said this, there are commands that God gave entirely on His own (such as for Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree - Rom. 5:14), but He ultimately had a good reason: to expose unrighteousness (Rom. 7:7-13, esp. verse 13). Similarly how a man who creates a company owns it, even if he might not be the most qualified to run it: it's his. And he's free to give it to his children. Nobody considers that unfair (provided his children aren't incompetent and lose everyone's jobs).

The logic of the Dilemma applied in other areas

How did logic come about to be the way it is? Nothing created it, so it must've either always existed, or, if possible, it created itself. Either of those two options means that logic is arbitrary, which we know by its very definition and function isn't the case. The same would happen for justice or any other conceptual relationship if it were the highest power.

Euthyphro is a little like the (very old) question: did man invent math or merely discover it? Obviously 2+2=4 whether we exist or not, but with respect to math, this is an axiom (that x=x). Similarly, geometry wouldn't exist if the world didn't. Maybe conceptually? But then we have Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems which tell us no mathematical model can be self-sufficiently consistent. This is applicable outside math, such as Tarski's Undefinability Theorem, which essentially means that you can't, for example, have a self-contained, consistent language (imagine a dictionary: it cannot give definitions for every word, because it needs words to describe them - like a scale which can't weigh itself).

But math, like logic, exists and is at the very least valid. For example, the Pythagorean Theorem is a proof. But our world simply happens to use it - it's possible that the world existed in non-infinitesimal points (space, which is technically not a thing either), such as the Weil Tile Argument: like how in chess, the diagonal square from a piece is 1 square away just like the ones on its side; yet the diagonal is obviously longer (for us) than its side. In this sense, morality could be arbitrary and uncreated, as well as logical at the same time while made by God because its origin would not have the same starting points: like asking what's north of north?

The same dilemma exists if I ask, "Where does reality come from?" If I say "Nowhere," then there was something before existence, which would make "non-existence" (if it were a "thing" like the fallacy with Euthyphro) more powerful, hence how could existence, being so weak originally, all of a sudden...exist? If there's an infinite regress, then how could (as modern physicists have shown) there be something before t=0?

Other examples that I think are legitimate would be:

  • "How do you know something?"
    • Do you know it because you know it (circular reasoning)?
    • Or do you know it because your brain told you that you know it (circular reasoning as your knowledge is part of your brain)?

  • How is something logical?
    • Is it logical because it's logical (circular reasoning)?
    • Is it logical because...someone (a logician) said it's logical (arbitrary)?
  • How does something exist?
    • Does it exist because it exists? (circular)
    • Does it exist because something else made it exist? (brings the question to what that other force/thing is)


In summary, God creates arbitrarily, and imposes the one and only Law, there since the beginning (1 John 2:7-11): love. This law is arbitrary in the sense that it could've been anything else. In that sense nothing can be "non-arbitrary" since it must have some kind of origin, whether from a deity or not.