No Escape | The Euthyphro Dilemma

“Must someone, some unseen thing, declare what is right for it to be right? I believe that my own morality — which answers only to my heart — is more sure and true than the morality of those who do right only because they fear retribution.
BRANDON SANDERSON, The Way of Kings

This is going to be a response to an old friend of mine Epydemic2020 (Aaron Wilson) and the Euthyphro Dilemma. Aaron Wilson is a Christian theologian, content creator, and an assistant professor of philosophy. A video posted by Wilson argues that the Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma (dichotomy), by claiming a 3rd option. And this ‘3rd option’ is what we will be evaluating here. The classical version of the argument can be found in Plato’s Dialogues and offers an account between Socrates and a young man named Euthyphro. Euthyphro is trying to turn in his father for the crime of murder but when confronted by Socrates, the young Euthyphro makes an appeal to morality or the pious of the Gods. This would be where Socrates makes his famous rebuttal. We’ll look at the modern version which raises the question as to the validity of God and morality.

“Is an action good because it is good or is an action good because God commands it to be?”

This dilemma was meant to be a counter rebuttal to the argument of divine command theory, in that moral law is commanded by a divine being (God). Since its inception this argument has presented a vexing problem for theist because no matter how you answer it is still going to run contrary to Divine command theory, (i.e. God commands moral acts because he is moral). Here the problem presents itself because if we answer the first proposition (P1), an action is good because it is good, then we can reason that actions are inherently good within themselves and we would not need a God or divine being to determine them. If you answer proposition two (P2), God commands moral acts, then morality is simply subjective or arbitrary to whatever Gods will commands. So God could command something to be moral even if considered immoral.

The common theistic response to this dilemma is to claim that God can command what is moral because it is consistent with his own moral nature. With this distinction theists may claim victory and say that at the very least they’ve shown it to be a false dichotomy, by presenting a 3rd option; but the problem may still remain. Let’s take a closer look at this response. Wilson makes the argument, “That if it is even possible that there is a (P3), then the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma.”

“God’s nature, aka his essential properties, is the standard of Goodness”.

– Aaron Wilson (Epydemic2020)

What Wilson is saying here is that God can command moral acts because it is consistent/essential to his own moral nature, so let’s address this assertion. Because does this actually escape the dilemma and is (P3) even a valid option. To be frank no, (P3) is not a valid option. What Wilson has really done here, as well as many other theists, is to commit was is known as a ‘fallacy of suppressed-correlative‘. A fallacy of suppressed-correlative is committed when given a dichotomy of X or Y one makes a definitional argument to which includes both X & Y, thereby avoiding any mutually exclusive option from being made. It can be likened to the Nordic based fallacy called Loki’s wager. The theistic response of God commanding what is moral because it is consistent with his moral nature, is really just (P1) and (P2) thrown together. So in this sense a God both commands and is the embodiment of moral acts. Besides being fallacious this so called (P3) has many other problems. Firstly, if God commands what is moral because he is moral, by his very nature, then this just reaffirms the same problem of how we judge moral claims. Remember the first proposition (P1), an action is good because it is good. To say that God can command what is moral because he acts morally would mean that moral acts are still the basis in how we judge moral claims. A good follow up question to the (P3) response would be, well how do you know that God is moral? The answer is obvious of course because God acts morally, right? Again, we’ve swung right back around to (P1). We can go on and on with this reasoning, but the theist has inadvertently fallen into a linguistic trap.

Secondly, even if we try and avert the problem by making an entirely new claim by including both proposition (P1) & (P2) together, the problem of (P1) still remains. If a Gods ‘nature’ is to mean that it is consistent with moral acts, then moral acts are still inherently good in and of themselves, God is simply consistent with them. A theist may attempt to salvage the argument by obfuscating the use of the term “nature” and its inherent meaning. As if to say, “it is not how God acts but what God is.” This clever use of semantics, however, just creates more problems for the theistic metaphysical worldview. Because we would then ask them to describe Gods moral nature? And if they even try to use terms like virtue and moral characteristics then they’ve again fallen right back into proposition one (P1), or the problem of (P1), normative acts being the basis of how we judge moral claims.

To summarize what we’ve discussed here we have demonstrated that this so called 3rd option (P3) is not a valid response. The true nature of this argument is in its evasiveness. To equivocate by the use of the terms included in (P1) and (P3), doesn’t make it a valid 3rd option. The justification presented for this other option can easily be dismissed by its adherence to (P1). Normative acts remain the justification for moral standards, whether it’s caused by Gods essential nature or commanded by it. In either case the Euthyphro dilemma remains a true dilemma. What the theists have presented here is a smokescreen to avoid validating its conclusions. Nobody should be fooled by this non-response, anyone who still uses it must acknowledge that they haven’t escaped Euthyphro’s Dilemma at all; they’ve simply reworded it.

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