On Euthyphro

Continuing the discussion from God, Genocide and Slavery:

I thought this would be better as a new topic. Brief recap: @John_Harshman asked @thoughtful about the Euthyphro dilemma (does God command what is good as determined by some standard outside of him, or is whatever it is that is good so merely because God commanded it?). She replied:

And he responded:

@John_Harshman, something seems off here to me. I think you may be mixing up what makes something true and how we know it is true, though maybe that’s not the right way to articulate what I’m thinking. In response to your questions:

Is what’s good good because his character defines good?

Yes. God’s character is the objective standard of moral goodness. This, however, does not make goodness arbitrary (to forestall a possible objection), because God necessarily has the character that he does - it is not possible for God’s character to be different than it is, and so the standard of goodness is unchanging as well. That alone resolves Euthyphro, as far as I can tell.

(For clarity, I’m not intending here to get into the argument that there is some objective standard of morality and that it is rooted in God’s character; just trying to respond to the objection that this theistic moral theory doesn’t resolve the Euthyphro dilemma.)

do we know his character is good because we have a standard of goodness to which to compare it?

Yes. We have our own subjective standards of goodness, which stem partly from our human natures (which God made us with), and partly from the external influences and internal decisions that factor into the development of our moral beliefs. But our subjective standards of goodness can be more or less accurate, depending on how they agree with or deviate from the objective standard of goodness. Realizing that, we see that when there is some disagreement between our subjective standard of goodness and our understanding of God’s character, one or the other has to change.

(Or we have to jettison this theistic moral theory. But since there are good reasons to hold to that theory, or so I claim, we have to evaluate whether the reasons supporting the supposed inconsistency are stronger than the reasons supporting the moral theory.)

If you have no external standard by which to judge, how do you know what a God of good character would or would not do?

By using our moral intuitions (subjective standard of goodness), comparing them to our understanding of God’s character (from Scripture, say), and seeing if those two are in alignment. If not, evaluate whether it is more reasonable to adjust one or the other. (I.e. on one side, one could argue that God commanding genocide is within his rights since he is not a mere human being. Or on the other side, one could argue that would be an atrocity even for God, and we so should read those texts non-literally, or abandon inerrancy. Or you could argue that none those options is plausible, and it is more reasonable to reject the underlying moral theory.)

Any way it goes, however, I don’t see why the usual response to Euthyphro doesn’t work. God’s goodness is neither arbitrary nor due to conformity with some external standard, and we can know what goodness is and that God is indeed good by cross-checking our moral intuitions and our understanding of God’s character against each other.


It doesn’t. It is purely arbitrary to pick God’s “character”, as opposed to that of anyone, as the standard of goodness.

This philosopher elaborates:

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I don’t see how it does. It just declares victory by definition and closes up shop. Why is having the character he has necessary? Why does necessity translate to goodness? How do we know that his necessary character is good unless we have a standard by which to judge?

This would seem to lead either to changing our understanding of God’s character so as to decide he isn’t good (if we accept our own standard) or deciding that our standard is wrong and adopting his. But the second alternative would seem to lead us to approval of genocide. Does that seem good to you, and if it doesn’t are you willing to change your idea of goodness to include genocide?

I’m not talking about merely commanding genocide. My reference is the flood, in which he performs the genocide himself. Now why should not being a human being make genocide right?

Now that’s a viable alternative. Do you reject the Flood as history, then?

I believe I see.

I don’t actually see how your third alternative could work. There’s no space between arbitrariness and conformity with a standard. (Well, actually, there is: the subjective human moral standard; but that doesn’t help God.) You can’t make God’s character objectively good just by saying so. This is no escape from Euthyphro.


Got an argument to back up that assertion? 'Cause the unique necessary being and foundation of all reality looks pretty non-arbitrary to me.


Why should necessity or being the foundation of all reality correlate with goodness? How does that even give “goodness” a meaning?

Incidentally, I don’t find any of the arguments for a necessary being at all compelling. I will not ask if you do, lest the thread be derailed.

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No. This key claim here (God’s nature is the ground of objective moral values) is inferred by philosophical arguments, not stipulated.

A necessary being necessarily has the nature it does (otherwise it would not really be necessary, we would just be calling different things by the same name). That a necessary being is the ground of objective moral values is the conclusion of the above mentioned arguments.

I don’t think that there are always answers to “why” questions regarding necessary truths. However, we can infer that this is the case.

Initially, because we have a subjective standard as part of our natures. Later, because we understand that that subjective standard points towards an objective standard.

You misunderstood me on the first alternative. The change in the understanding of God would be “no, he didn’t actually do that”.

At this point, you aren’t arguing the Euthyphro dilemma anymore. This is a different objection. “You claim that God is good, but you also claim that God did this thing, and this thing is not good” isn’t a rebuttal of the coherence of my response to Euthyphro, but the consistency of my response with some other premises.

But if you want to concede that my response to Euthyphro does in fact work, I’d be happy to discuss this further objection…

Ah, but there is space between arbitrariness and conformity with an external standard: namely, by conformity with an internal standard, his own nature. In other words, there is an objective standard of goodness that God conforms to, but that standard is an abstraction from the real thing, which is God’s nature.

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What are these arguments?

Only if all aspects of the being’s nature are necessary. If a hammer is necessary its color could be anything.

That sound quite a bit like lifting yourself by your bootstraps. How do we understand that the subjective standard points to an objective one? And what do we do if the subjective standard fails to match the objective one?

That doesn’t sound like a change in understanding not of God but of scripture. But OK. Sure, if there was no Flood, there’s no reason to blame God for the genocide.

I think it’s actually a form of Euthyphro. If it’s good because God did it, genocide is good. If it’s not good even though God did it, God is not the objective standard. This is a case in which our pitiful subjective human idea of morality fails to match God’s objective morality. I prefer our pitiful subjective human idea in this case. What about you?

But why should we call that standard “good”?

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39 posts were split to a new topic: Side comments on Euthyphro

Answering your questions slightly out of order:

We understand that our moral intuitions point to the existence of an objective standard of morality because that is part of the very meaning of those moral intuitions. In much the same was as our subjective perceptions of the external world (though sight, sound, touch, etc) naturally lead us to believe in the objective existence of that external world, our moral intuitions naturally point to an objective standard. I’ve written more on this point on my blog, here.

If, on investigation, we find our moral intuitions don’t match up with the objective standard, the correct thing to do is to adjust our moral intuitions, just as the correct thing to do if our perceptions of the external world fail to match up with reality (due to poor eyesight, for example) is to correct them (through eyeglasses, say).

I’m not going to claim to be the best at articulating them, but here is an example of such an argument, continued in this post and the one after.

The basic reasoning goes like this: objective morality is real (supported by moral intuitions) and if therefore grounded in reality in some way, the possible ways for objective morality to be grounded in reality are A, B, C; B and C don’t work (for such and such reasons) so are false, therefore A is true.

By “nature” I am referring to the essential characteristics of a thing. That God’s character is essential to him is part of what can be inferred by arguments such as the moral argument I linked to.

Because we recognize it as that to which our moral intuitions about goodness point.

Just like Euthyphro, then, this is not a true dilemma. Another option is that God is good and genocide is evil, and God didn’t commit genocide (either because he didn’t do what is claimed, or because what he did isn’t genocide).

But I maintain that this is a distinct objection from Euthyphro, again because it relies on an additional premise. So if you are ready to concede that the original Euthyphro dilemma can be satisfactorily resolved…

You understand that. I don’t. Why should that be true? I deny that your analogy to sense perception is valid.

Does this lead to a defense of genocide? Because that’s where it seems to be going.

I reject the initial premise. I reject the subsidiary premise. And if A is “god”, see Euthyphro.

Great. How do you know that being the ground of morality is an essential characteristic of a necessary being? As far as I know, the arguments for a necessary being are the need for a first cause and the ontological argument. Regardless of the validity of those arguments, neither of them leads necessarily to a moral authority. Is there another argument?

In that case, our moral intuitions are the standard by which we judge God’s nature.

We’ve already considered the first part. I’m not clear on what the second part means. Under what definition is killing everyone in the world except for one family not genocide?

I’m not. Why would you think so?

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That’s quite the equivocation there. We have been able to come up with a very complete and objectively testable account of how something that we see might exist in the external world, involving light waves, their behaviour when reflecting off objects, and the physiological processes that occur in our body when light strikes our retina.

There is no such equivalent for what you call “moral intuitions”. You say they are somehow related to God’s nature or character, but give no account of how that give rise to these “intuitions”.

It is also the case that, while some things we perceive as being part of the external world, other aspects of subjective experience are not so necessarily understood in the same way. For instance, we can understand a sunset or mountain landscape as physically existing outside of us. However, our emotional and aesthetic reaction to such perceptions, by which we experience them as beautiful or awe inspiring, is not so obviously something that exists apart from us, but rather could easily be seen as something that only arises from our own brain processes.

That is to say, while it can easily be assumed that if a mouse or dog or parrot looks at the same sunset a person is observing, these other animals would be seeing the same thing the person is. However, it is less easily assumed that they are having a similar emotional response to the experience, or even necessarily an emotional response at all.

It also appears to me that “moral intuitions” have much more in common with these emotional responses than with the physical aspects of a sunset.


I wrote about that more extensively on the blog post to which I provided a link.

Again, see blog posts that I linked to for further defense of said premises. And you haven’t shown that my response to Euthyphro doesn’t work.

The moral argument itself is an argument for a necessary being that with the essential characteristic of being the ground of morality.

I’ll refer you back to the analogy to sense perception. (I know, you deny that it is valid. But in light of my reasoning that it is valid - which you’ll find if you follow the link to my blog - I simply think you are wrong about that.) Our moral intuitions about goodness are how we evaluate God and come to recognize that God is good, but they aren’t what makes God good, objectively.

Because you keep bringing up genocide. I see that you want to continue to discuss the Flood, but as I said, that is an additional premise and so represents a distinct objection from the original Euthyphro dilemma.

This is just summarizing one of the posts I linked from my blog, but…

That whole account relies heavily on our rational intuitions about what forms of reasoning count as valid, and ever since Descartes the philosophical discussion surrounding the “problem of the external world” has shown that it is rather difficult for the whole enterprise you speak of to get off the ground without granting properly basic status to some beliefs formed through sense perception. So we have to grant properly basic status to rational intuitions, and we also have to grant properly basic status to sense perception.

But in fact, it would be arbitrary to deny that same properly basic status to moral intuitions, since moral intuitions and rational intuitions come from the same place (namely, our cognitive faculties). The question then is whether those moral intuitions are defeated by some other reasons, i.e. so that they are really merely subjective rather than pointing to something objective as I claim. I don’t think they are.


However, I am also skeptical regarding any attempts to ground such properly basic beliefs in the god of Christianity.

Whereas I cannot justify attributing the same properly basic status we give the rules of math and logic and the existence of an external world, to a “moral intuition” like “Masturbation is wrong.”


I think you need to be more explicit there in step two. Just because two things come from the same place doesn’t mean they deserve the same status. Both the Grateful Dead and Rice-a-Roni come from San Francisco. Does that tell us anything about their qualities?


A post was merged into an existing topic: Side comments on Euthyphro

Did that render it more sensible? I don’t see how that argument could possibly work.

It’s my opinion that I have. Do we now accept genocide as a good thing?

Could you briefly make that argument?

I resist reading your blog. Can’t this argument be made briefly here?

Again, this would seem to lead to a defense of genocide unless you reject the historical truth of the biblical account. Do you?

I bring it up only because that was the beginning of this discussion and because belief that genocide is good arises directly from accepting your argument against Euthyphro. It’s a bit of a reductio ad absurdam.

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Sure. It follows from a principle of indifference: we should treat two relevantly similar things the same unless there is a relevant difference between them, a reason to treat them differently. The relevant similarity between rational and moral intuitions is that they are both sets of intuitive beliefs that we have. I’m not aware of a relevant difference that doesn’t beg the question against according properly basic status to moral intuitions.

Very well. Here’s one way of putting it. (Actually superior in some respects to the argument on my blog, since if I have to write it out again I might as well improve on it. But I don’t have time to defend all the premises in depth, I’m afraid.)

  1. There is a necessary objective standard of morality. (Supported by moral intuitions.)
  2. If there is a necessary objective standard of morality, it is grounded in reality in some way. (Basically what it means for there to be something is that it is grounded in reality.)
  3. Either a) God (a necessary being distinct from the natural world who is essentially morally perfect) exists, or b) he does not exist.
  4. If 2b, then either a) naturalism is true (nothing supernatural exists), or b) something supernatural, but not God, exists.
  5. If 3b, then either a) some non-concrete entity or entities (i.e. abstract Platonic Forms) exist, or b) some concrete supernatural non-God entity or entities exist.
  6. If 4b, then either a) the concrete non-God supernatural entity or entities are distinct from the natural world (i.e. something like deism), or b) not (i.e. something like pantheism).

Premises 0-5 imply:

  1. The standard of morality is grounded either in
    a) God
    b) One or more non-God supernatural entities distinct from the natural world (deism)
    c) One or more supernatural entities not distinct from the natural world (pantheism)
    d) One or more abstract objects (atheistic moral platonism)
    e) The natural world (naturalism)

  2. But:
    e) 6e is false - the natural world can ground a necessary objective standard, because the natural world is contingent, contains no value facts (since value facts are not reducible to facts about physical things operating according to natural laws), gives us no reason to select one normative premise over another, or any at all, etc.
    d) 6d is false - things like Platonic Forms suffer from philosophical objections going all the way back to Aristotle; they are causally impotent and therefore there cannot be any connection between our moral intuitions and the objective standard of morality, etc.
    c) 6c is false - a supernatural entity not distinct from the natural world would contain a mix of good and evil and therefore could not serve as a standard of morality.
    b) 6b is false - a non-God supernatural entity distinct from the natural world could not serve as a standard of morality, since either it fails to be necessary or it fails to be essentially morally perfect.

Premises 6 and 7 imply:

  1. The necessary objective standard of morality is grounded in God (a necessary being distinct from the natural world who is essentially morally perfect).

That’s a brief as I can go while still providing a modicum of support to every premise.

Edit: @John_Harshman, I might as well add that if you are going to reply with a premise 7a. 6a is false - because Euthyphro, I’m going to have to ask you to please state the objection more fully. :slight_smile:


Seriously? So you think the belief that 2+2=4 is as widely accepted and as difficult to argue against as is the belief that boys should all be circumcised? On what grounds can you possibly assert that the belief in the morality of compulsory circumcision is properly basic?

This is where your argument runs into trouble right out of the box.


I’m going to call faulty generalization on this. There are rational intuitions much weaker than 2+2=4, and moral intuitions much stronger than the propriety of circumcision.

Then by all means, let me know where I went wrong. Though, I think a further defense of premise 0 in this thread may be straying off topic.

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