Saturday, December 18, 2010

Euthyphro Dilemma

"Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?"

This is often presented as a puzzle by atheist because it becomes a circular argument or leads to conclusions that seem to contradict our concept of God.  In the grand scheme of things the whole dilemma is more complicated that it is simply stated. 

First recall the dilemma is absurd to the atheist. 

Is what I think is good (or what we generally call good) commanded by a non-existent being because we think it is good, or is it our thinking it is good because it is commanded by a non-existent being.

After a while one begins to wonder why atheist are so concerned dare I say threatened by absurdities?  It also makes me wonder why some atheists are so vehement against theists.  My advice to atheists, "Screaming and mocking the naive does not make them less naive, but it does make them less likely to listen to you."

As with most of these arguments the defining of words is important.  in this case the defining of a word is the central part of the dilemma.  In short this dilemma could be restated:

Does goodness define itself or does God define goodness. 

The other option is that neither goodness nor God exists.  Which is the way that most hard core atheists go. 

What is meant by "it."

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

"It" seems to be "What is morally good."  If this is the case then the dilemma restated becomes:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because what is morally good is morally good, or is what is morally good, morally good because what is morally good is commanded by God?

This is the core of the defining good.  That is does good define good or does God define good

x commanded by y because x is x or x is x because x is commanded by y

"It" could also be the "what is commanded by God."  If that is the case then the dilemma restated becomes:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because what is commanded by God is morally good, or is what is commanded by God morally good because what is commanded by God is commanded by God?

In this case the first horn is a tautology and the second horn is illogical.

x is y because y is x or x is y because y is y

Either the dilemma is illogical or hinges on defining morally good. 

On the other hand "it" could be generic "the thing" implied by the argument which is the object of our speculation. 

Is what is morally good commanded by God because the thing is morally good, or is the thing morally good because the thing is commanded by God?

If this is the case then we need to define what the thing is before we can proceed to answer the dilemma. 

God commands moral good.  This is a true statement to the theist.  The problem occurs when you attempt to separate moral goodness from God.  Treating moral goodness as a quality independent of the nature of God creates a contradiction in the first horn of the dilemma.  If moral goodness is separate then it constrains God which then God looses his will, sovereignty,  and omnipotence.  However these problems dissolve when you consider that "the thing" to be the nature of God.  Restating the first part of the dilemma becomes:

What is morally good is commanded by God because God's nature is morally good.

If this is what is meant by moral goodness then the first horn of the dilemma is true.  It also answers the question of how to define goodness.  It is God's nature that defines moral goodness.

The second half of the dilemma becomes:

God's nature is morally good because God's nature is commanded by (proceeds from) God

A command is a statement proceeding from the speaker asserting his/her authority.  In this case God's nature then proceeds from God as a word (command).  In short God's nature both defines and acts according to what is morally good.  Interestingly this makes me think of two parts of the Bible that express this idea of goodness proceeding from God in the form of a command.

Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.
Genesis 1:3-4 (HCSB)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created. Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:1-5 (HCSB)

In Genesis we discover that God commands into existence many things (in fact all things).  He also observes that it is good.  What makes this interesting is that His creation proceeding forth (by way of command) from His Nature (goodness) becomes an object which He can now describe as "good."  He is the definition, the creator, and the observer of goodness. 

One might object that this goodness is arbitrary and therefore meaningless.  That is to say an all-powerful evil god could do the same thing and call it good.   However God's goodness is immutable.  That is to say unchanging and fixed.  That which is evil and good cannot be arbitrary.  Goodness is fixed in God's nature.  Everything that is good in existence is then a reflection of God's goodness and/or proceeding forth from God.

Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning.
James 1:17 (HCSB)

The passage of John identifies the command of God (Word, Logos in Greek) as the person Jesus Christ.  It continues to describe how The Word was God and created all things.  Continuing the Bible says that the Word has "life in Him."  The "life was the light of men."  The light is not darkness.  It shines into the darkness. Spiritual darkness is the absence of spiritual light.  Evil is often equated with spiritual darkness.  Evil then is not so much a quality that is opposite the quality of good as it is the quality of being without God.  This is fundamental to our understanding of Good and evil.  Which I will have a chance to elaborate in future posts I am sure. 

Back to the second half of the dilemma we see a hint of why God created.  God commanded because goodness proceeded from His nature.  It also makes the second half a true statement.  If both halves of a proposed dilemma are true then it is by definition a false dilemma. 

By this point most have lost interest in the dilemma I am sure.  For those of you that read through my philosophical ramblings; Why?  ;-) and thank you for your readership.   In short the dilemma is best answered with a question, "What do you mean by morally good?" And then proceed from that point with the theist position that moral goodness is defined by God's nature, if the atheist is uncommitted.  The rational position for the atheist is that moral goodness does not exist and that goodness is an arbitrary or beneficial opinion of the individual or community that holds it.  The implication of this view is that all manner of evil can be justified because it is a matter of lack of benefit or opinion that it is evil.  But more on that later.

God Bless You

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