We’ve recently seen how poorly God fares when measured against his own Ten Commandments. Let’s move on to a classic argument about God’s relationship with morality.
Is something good because God says so, or does God say so because it’s good? The first option makes morals arbitrary. They’re just whatever God says, and he could’ve made them something else. They’re not based on anything, including external facts.
If God couldn’t have made them anything else, then they’re constrained, and that’s the second option. But this is no better: morals are external, and God’s role in morality is reduced to messenger boy. God is bound by this external morality.
Here’s an analogy. If I’m a clerk in a store and need the price of something, I look it up. I consult an external, correct source. But if I’m the boss, I could just make the price whatever I want it to be: “For you, let’s say $5.95.” So which one is God? Is he the boss (morals are arbitrary and changeable) or the clerk (morals are external and fixed)?
It’s “heads you win; tails I lose” for the Christian. Either option is unpalatable—morality is either arbitrary or God is not sovereign over an external morality.
World famous apologist William Lane Craig (WLC) responds:
The Euthyphro Dilemma has been refuted again and again as a false dilemma. We are not under any obligation to choose between saying something is good because God wills it or that God wills something because it is good. Those two are not contradictories. Those are not A or not-A. Therefore you can have a third alternative which is that God wills something because he is good. God is the good and his will is an expression of his essential nature.
How does this help? This simply changes the dilemma to: Is something good because God’s nature says so, or does God’s nature say so because it’s good? Is “God’s nature” changeable (morality could be something else) or fixed? If it’s fixed, what does God’s character conform to? And we’re back to the original problem, with arbitrary vs. external!
And what does it mean to say that God is good? We run into Euthyphro yet again: Is WLC proposing that this is true by definition (“good” is arbitrary—it is whatever God says it is) or that we can know that God is good by evaluating his actions against a standard (“good” is defined by an external standard)?
Make it a proper dilemma
If WLC wants a proper dichotomy, let’s give him one. Let A be the statement “Morality is within the control of God” (or “God’s nature” if you prefer). The two possibilities are now A and not-A. No other option is possible.
Consider the consequences:
- Option A is true, so morality is within the control of God/God’s nature. Morality can be anything that God says it is since it’s not bound by or evaluated against anything external, and morality becomes changeable. Murder would be a good thing, for example, if only God had said that. (And why couldn’t he? He’s not bound by anything.)
- Option not-A is true, so morality is not within the control of God/God’s nature. This makes morality external to God. God might accurately report morality to us (through the Bible or one’s conscience, say), but morality’s source is something besides God.
Sauce for the gander: how does this work for the atheist?
To be fair, we should consider what the Euthyphro problem would be for the atheist. How does the atheist explain morality? Let’s simplify and consider just the Golden Rule: why is the Golden Rule a fairly universal moral belief among humans? It’s because evolution gave us that as part of our programming. We’re social animals, and working and playing well with others had survival benefit.
Euthyphro’s question to the atheist would be: Is something good because our genetic programming says so, or does our genetic programming say so because it’s good? But there’s no dilemma here—the answer is the former. Our genetic programming (our conscience, in this case) tells us what is good and bad. (That is, seen from the human standpoint, our conscience tells us what is good and bad. Seen from an evolutionary standpoint, our conscience tells us what is useful to believe.)
God can’t just say, “Okay, that takes care of lying. The next item on my list is murder . . . hmm . . . oh, what the heck—let’s call that one bad.” We certainly don’t do it that way—we feel that murder is bad, and we get that by consulting our consciences.
Does God have such a fixed source of morality that he consults? Then Christians are caught on one horn of the dilemma. Or does the buck have to stop somewhere, and God is it? Then Christians are caught on the other horn. The naturalistic explanation seems a lot more reasonable.
Religion flies you into buildings.
— Vic Stenger (1935 – 2014)
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/1/14.)
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