A Quick and Easy Refutation of Theologically-Grounded Ethics?

According to many skeptics, including many philosophers, the idea that God is the foundation of morality can be refuted according to the Euthyphro dilemma (ED). Socrates, in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue (10a), asked: “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” In modern times this has been rephrased in various ways. Here’s one: “Is what is good good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?”

Is this a good objection? It all depends on the details. As I showed in an earlier post, “Taxonomy of Theistic Meta-ethics,” there are a variety of theories about how God or some fact about God might be the foundation for morality (or, to be more precise, moral properties). One of the oldest and simplest versions is the Divine Command Theory (DCT-D) of moral obligation: moral properties like required, permitted, and forbidden are metaphysically grounded in God’s commands. In my opinion, the ED is a successful objection to DCT-D. Probably most philosophers, including most theistic philosophers, would agree. But most theists–at least most theistic philosophers who write about metaethics–reject DCT-D as such. Indeed, while I don’t know this for sure, I suspect that the ED was one of the reasons Christian philosopher Robert Adams was motivated to develop his Modified Divine Command Theory (MDCT-D).

But, as shown by just a cursory glance at my taxonomy, there are many other theistic metaethical theories besides DCT–D. So even if ED refutes DCT-D, it doesn’t follow that all of the other theories have been refuted. Some philosophers–again, including some Christian philosophers–have argued that a modified version of ED can be used to refute MDCT-D. Even if that is so, however, that would still leave untouched other theistic metaethical theories, including Divine Will Theories (DWTs) and the Divine Nature Theory (DNT) of moral goodness.

Can the ED be modified in other ways to refute these other theories? Perhaps. But this needs to be shown, not assumed. Woe to the skeptic who naively assumes that trotting out the ED somehow refutes all of the various theories about how morality might depend on God!

My advice: if you’re going to make an objection to a theory, make sure your objection actually applies to the theory!

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.