The Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 4: Why is it a dilemma?

The Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 4: Why is it a dilemma? May 16, 2019

In part I of this series, I showed that the Euthyphro dilemma consists of the following two options:

(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.

(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

I also argued that these two options are mutually exclusive and that, from this, we can infer the following two claims:

Claim 1: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

Claim 2: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be that they are morally obligatory.

A dilemma is a situation in which there are only two options available, we must choose one option or the other (i.e., we cannot take both), and where there is something problematic, difficult, or uncomfortable about making the choice. To show that the choice between options (I) and (II) is a dilemma, we need to show (a) that (I) and (II) are mutually exclusive (i.e., that we cannot take both options); (b) that there is no other option to choose from (i.e., that (I) and (II) exhaust the possible options); and (c) that there is something problematic about making the choice. As I indicated, I have already shown, in part I, that that (I) and (II) are mutually exclusive. In this post, I will accomplish tasks (b) and (c); that is, I will show that the options are exhaustive, and explain why the choice between (I) and (II) is problematic.

Before I get to those issues, I want to make a point of clarification about Claims 1 and 2.[1] It is not just that, if morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it cannot be that the reason that he commands that we perform them is that they are obligatory. It is also the case that the reason that he commands that we perform them cannot be that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are obligatory. Similarly, it is not just that if the reason that God commands obligatory actions is that they are obligatory, then it cannot be that they are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them. It is also true that if the reason that God commands obligatory actions is that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are obligatory, it cannot be that they are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them. These two points are fairly easy to grasp once we’ve grasped the logic of Claims 1 and 2. If the feature in virtue of which an action is morally obligatory is that God commands that we do it, then God’s reason for commanding that we do it cannot be that it has some other feature in virtue of which it is obligatory. And if the reason that God commands that we perform some action is that it has some feature(s) in virtue of which it is obligatory, then it cannot be that what makes it obligatory is that God commands that we do it (since, in this case, the what makes it obligatory is that it has the feature(s) that also provides God with a reason to command it). So, we can re-word Claims 1 and 2 to account for these points as follows:

Claim 1′: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory action is either that they are morally obligatory or that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

Claim 2′: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be either that they are morally obligatory or that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are morally obligatory.

More Options?

I will offer two arguments in support of the claim that there are no options in addition to (I) and (II). The first concerns the kind of factors that can be normative reasons and is, since it relies on disputed claims about normative reasons, more controversial. The second consideration is based on a very natural assumption about the connection between God and morality and is, given the naturalness of this assumption, less controversial. Since the first argument is more controversial, the case I will make that (I) and (II) exhaust the options will not stand or fall on this argument. I mention and describe the argument because I think it is a good one, but I am not here basing my case on it.

Before I get to either argument, let’s consider what an option other than (I) and (II) would need to say. Given the mutual exclusivity of options (I) and (II), any option other than (I) or (II) must involve two aspects: first, it must assert that the reason that God commands a morally obligatory action is not that it is obligatory (or has features in virtue of which it is obligatory); second, it must assert that morally obligatory actions are not morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them. Given this, the basic outline of a possible third option immediately presents itself, namely,

(III) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something other than God’s commands and the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is something other than that the actions are morally obligatory (or have features in virtue of which they are obligatory).

As stated, option (III) is a formula for generating more specific additional options. The phrase ‘something other than’ appears twice in (III) and there are an indefinite number of descriptive phrases that can be plugged in to each space to generate unique options. For example:

(III-U) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that they maximize utility and the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that it makes him happy that we perform them.

(III-K) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that the action involves treating humanity as an end-in-itself and not merely as a means, and the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that it makes him happy that we perform them.

I strongly suspect that (III-U) and (III-K) are not genuine options because I strongly suspect that the fact that some action makes God happy is not a reason for God to command that we perform it. Remember that I am using ‘reason’ in the normative sense. That some action makes God happy might be a motive for someone to command that we perform the action. But that it is a motive does not entail that it is a normative reason. For reasons, some of which I have mentioned in parts II and III of this series, I think that a consideration such as that an action makes God happy is not a normative reason that favors commanding the action. Here, then, is a consideration in favor of thinking that there is no genuine third option: On the assumption that actions are obligatory in virtue of something other than God’s commands, the only normative reason that God could have for commanding that we perform some action is that the action is morally obligatory (or has features in virtue of which it is obligatory).

If I am right about this, then there is no third option at all. Any alleged third option will, as I’ve indicated, assert that God’s reason for commanding that we perform morally obligatory actions is something other than that they are morally obligatory (or have features in virtue of which they are obligatory). But there are no such other reasons. Thus, there can be no third option. Again, my conclusion that there is no third option will not be affected even if this argument does not succeed since there is another consideration that shows that (I) and (II) exhaust the options.

A very natural assumption about God makes a third option unavailable. This natural assumption is that God commands all and only morally obligatory actions. Whatever is morally obligatory, God commands that we do, and whatever God commands that we do is morally obligatory. God does not command us to do anything that is not obligatory and there is nothing that is obligatory that God does not command that we do. This assumption does not include any claim about ontological priority, only that the actions that are commanded by God are the very same actions that are morally obligatory.

If this assumption is correct, then the predicates X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God are co-extensive. But the connection is stronger than this. It is not just that these predicates happen to be (or are contingently) co-extensive, as ‘The highest mountain on Earth’ is (contingently) co-extensive with ‘Mt. Everest.’ There is a necessary connection between the properties X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God. We can capture this necessity as follows: In every possible world in which God issues commands, the properties X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God are co-extensive. This is not the same as saying that the predicates are necessarily co-extensive. And, indeed, I don’t think that they are necessarily co-extensive since I think that there are possible worlds in which God does not exist but in which moral properties do exist. But even an atheist can agree that in any possible world in which God does exist, he commands us to do all and only morally obligatory actions. Let’s call this claim,

(GC-M): In all possible worlds in which God exists, God commands all and only morally obligatory actions (i.e., in all such worlds, the predicates X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God are co-extensive).

It is very difficult to see how (GC-M) can be true unless either the reasons for God’s commands are that the commanded actions are morally obligatory (or have features in virtue of which they are obligatory) (i.e., option (I)) or that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of God’s commands (i.e., option (II)). The only other possible way for (GC-M) to be true is for there to be some feature that, necessarily, all and only morally obligatory actions have, the presence of which feature is the reason that God commands that we perform them. But this seems highly unlikely.

Therefore, if necessarily the actions that God commands are the same as the morally obligatory actions, then (I) and (II) are exhaustive.

Why the choice is problematic

I will now turn to the problematic nature of deciding between options (I) and (II). There are two reasons why a choice between two options might be a dilemma. It could be that both options are good or have good implications and we don’t want to give up something good by only taking one of two good options. Or it could be that both options are bad and we don’t want to have to accept the bad implications or consequences of either option. The Euthyphro dilemma is the latter type of dilemma. Both (I) and (II) have problematic implications.

If (I) is true, then moral properties (at least deontic moral properties) are independent of God’s commands. Since, on option (I) the reason that God commands that we perform a morally obligatory action is that it is morally obligatory (or has properties in virtue of which it is obligatory), the action must be obligatory prior to and independent of God’s command. This is problematic since it has seemed to many theists (and some non-theists) that all moral properties are dependent on God.

The problem for option (II) is that, if morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then, since God is omnipotent, his commands are wholly unconstrained. He could command any action whatsoever, and since deontic moral value[2]  does not exist prior to his commands, it seems that he has no reason to command one thing rather than another. Indeed, he could command something horrible, such as the gratuitous torture of an infant, and, on option (II), this horrible action would be morally obligatory. But no command can make the torture of an infant morally obligatory.

I am going to call the problem described in the previous paragraph the “Euthyphro problem.” As stated, the Euthyphro problem is multifaceted; there are actually at least four inter-related issues that are mentioned in that paragraph. They are

(1) The contingency problem

It is possible for God to command anything whatsoever. Given this, no matter what commands God actually issues, it is possible that he issues a completely different set of commands (in the sense that, in some possible world, he issues this other set of commands). So, since on option (II), morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we do them, no matter which actions are actually obligatory, it is possible that a completely different of commands is obligatory. Thus, in some possible world, a wholly different set of actions are morally obligatory than are obligatory in the actual world. This is problematic because it seems that at least some moral claims are necessarily true. In particular, it seems that there are some actions such that their deontic moral status is a necessary feature. However, if option (II) is correct, then it seems that no action has its moral features necessarily. For any action, whatever its actual deontic status, it is possible for it to have a different deontic status.

(2) The counterintuitive possibilities problem

The contingency problem that, on option (II), all actions have their moral properties contingently. A related problem (and a consequence) is that among the possibilities are some that are wildly counterintuitive. The above description of what I’ve called the Euthyphro problem contains an example: it is possible that the gratuitous torture of infants is morally obligatory rather than wrong. But there are other possibilities. It is possible that something morally laudatory, such as giving money to the needy is morally wrong. It is possible that something morally permissible, such as brushing your teeth three times a day, is morally wrong. And it is possible that something morally permissible, such as eating breakfast at 7:30, is morally obligatory.

(3) The arbitrariness problem

If actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it is difficult to see how God can have reasons for his commands. He has no reason to command one thing rather than another. On option (II) all deontic moral value exists in virtue of divine commands. Deontic moral value is precisely the value that actions have whereby we have reasons to perform or refrain from performing them. Commands are actions. So, if there is no deontic moral value prior to God’s commands, then God can have no reasons for his commands. But if there are no reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. And if his commands are arbitrary, then morality itself is arbitrary.

(4) The problem of the normative impotence of commands

A command (divine or otherwise) does not seem to be the kind of thing that can make a moral difference. Commands are normatively impotent in the sense that they cannot add to our reasons. We see this when imagine that God commands that we torture an innocent child. This command gives us no reason to torture a child, so it would make no difference to the moral status of child-torture. Or, again, imagine that God commands that we eat breakfast at 7:30 every morning. This command does not give us any reason to eat breakfast at 7:30 am and thus can make no difference to the moral status of refraining from eating breakfast at 7:30 am (by, for example, refraining from eating breakfast entirely). Commands are normatively inert in that they cannot add to the reasons that we already have to engage in (or refrain from) the commanded activity. Option (II) thus claims that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.

To summarize: the problem for option (II) is that it implies that morality is contingent, it has counterintuitive consequences, it implies that morality is arbitrary, and it claims that obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.

The choice between options (I) and (II) is a dilemma because, if we choose option (I), we have to accept that moral properties exist prior to God’s commands, and, if we choose option (II), we have to accept the implications described above.

Can we escape the dilemma?

If we believe that God does not exist, then we do not face the dilemma since we can deny that God issues commands (and thus deny both that God’s reasons for his commands are that actions are morally obligatory and that obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of God’s commands). If we believe that God does exist but that he does not issue any commands, then, precisely because we believe that God does not issue commands, we do not face the dilemma. But if we believe that God exists and that he issues commands, we must choose between options (I) and (II). There are many theists who will be happy to choose option (I). Such theists will assert that moral properties exist prior to and independent of God’s commands. There are different ways of fleshing out such a view, and I will not discuss the various versions of theism that are consistent with option (I). But many theists are reluctant to concede that moral properties are independent of divine commands. After all, one traditional theistic belief is that God is the source of everything that exists. On this view, moral properties must have their source in God. The Euthyphro dilemma is most problematic for those who hold such views. Such theists face the choice of giving up the claim that God is the source of everything or accepting implications (1) – (4).

On the other hand, there are defenders of option (II) who claim that it does not have any problematic consequences. In particular, such people claim, option (II) does not have the kinds of consequences that are typically mentioned in discussions of the Euthyphro dilemma. In my next post in this series, I will give my assessment of whether option (II) has the consequences I listed above (i.e., (1) – (4)). To give a brief preview, I will argue that problems (3) and (4) are much more serious and difficult to resolve than problems (1) and (2). I will also argue that problems (3) and (4) definitively show that metaethical divine command theory is false.

 


[1] If you are interested, my reason for clarifying claims 1 and 2 has to do with the fact that statements about an agent’s reasons are, plausibly, referentially opaque. (If you have questions about referential opacity or how it is relevant in the context of reasons statements, please let me know in the comments.)

[2] Deontic moral value is the value that an action has in virtue of which we ought to perform it or refrain from performing it. So, an action’s deontic status is just its status as obligatory or wrong or permissible (I do not mean to imply that these are the only three deontic statuses, there are others; supererogatory, for example.)

 

 

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