Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Euthyphro Dilemma


Atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, in his recent debate with theist philosopher William Lane Craig, referred to the famous Euthyphro Dilemma (Plato) in his attempted refutation of Craig's moral argument for God's existence. I'm now reading Rosenberg's Atheist's Guide to Reality, where he assumes the Euthyphro Dilemma is a genuine dilemma. But it is a false dilemma, as various philosophers have shown.

The E.D. goes like this. We are, supposedly, presented with two horns of a dilemma; this means we are going to get "gored" any way we answer. Horn #1 is: God commands what is good because he sees that it is good. Horn #2 is: Something is good because God commands it. If we embrace Horn #1 then we must admit that there is something outside of God, which can be called good. If we accept Horn #2, then we must admit that the commands of God are arbitrary. Either way we get gored.

Craig argues that this is a false dilemma, because there is a third alternative; viz., that God commands what is good because he is good. That is, the essence of God is goodness. "Goodness" is an essential attribute of the being of God. Craig writes:

"So moral values are not independent of God because God’s own character defines what is good. God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial, and so on. His nature is the moral standard determining good and bad. His commands necessarily reflect in turn his moral nature. Therefore, they are not arbitrary. The morally good/bad is determined by God’s nature, and the morally right/wrong is determined by his will. God wills something because he is good, and something is right because God wills it.This view of morality has been eloquently defended in our day by such well-known philosophers as Robert Adams, William Alston, and Philip Quinn."

"The Euthyphro Dilemma," writes University of Wisconsin philosopher Keith Yandell,  "is bogus." This is because the E.D. exemplifies a false dilemma. A false dilemma, in logic, is an either-or statement that does not exhaust the alternatives. For example:America: either love it or leave it. Oh really? Are there no other alternatives? But of course there are!

Here's Plato's Euthyphro Dilemma.

  1. Either (i) God approves of something because it is good, or (ii) something is good because God approves of it.
  2. If (i), then the ground or basis of something's being good lies outside, and is independent of, God.
  3. If (ii), then something is good because God arbitrarily chooses it - what is good depends on mere divine voluntarism, sheer choice not constrained by reasons.
  4. Therefore, either the ground ort basis of something's being good lies outside, or is independent of, God, or something is good because God arbitrarily chooses it - what is good depends on mere divine voluntarism, sheer choice not constrained by reasons.
One who accepts the E.D. takes statement 4 to mean: Either morality is independent of (monotheistic) religion, or morality simply amounts to what God arbitrarily chooses. 

But this settles nothing. Yandell writes: "There are alternatives in addition to the two that the Euthyphro argument consiers. The argument would succeed only if there were not." ("Theology, Philosophy, and Evil," in For Faith and Clarity, ed. James Beilby) Here are some other possibilities.
  • (iii) a necessarily existing God exists and is perfectly good by nature; this what God wills, God wills in accord with God's nature, not arbitrarily.
  • (iv) God exists with logical necessity, and God necessarily has thoughts the propositional content of which is the true principles of morality.
  • (v) God exists, though not with logical necessity, and God is good by choice; God wills in accord with God's character and not arbitrarily, and this character is what it is due to God's free choices.
The E.D., therefore, "should begin with a premise at least as complex as this:

(1*) Either (i), (ii), (iii), (iv), or (v).

"But then the rest of the argument will not follow. The conclusion would then be much more complex:

(4**) Either morality is independent of (monotheistic) religion, or morality simply amounts to what God arbitrarily chooses; or a necessarily existing God exists and is perfectly good by nature; thus what God wills, God wills in accord with God's nature, not arbitraril; or God exists with logical necessity, and God necessarily thinks thoughts the propositional content of which is true moral principles; or God exists , though not with logical necessity, and God is good by choice; God wills in accord with God's character and not arbitrarily, and this character is what it is due to God's free choices.

Yandell then goes on to show that choices (iii) - (v) are genuine. Perhaps there are even some other alternatives? Yandell concludes, "It is sufficient to note that the Euthyphro argument fails to establish the intended dilemma for theists."