Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Argument

As always, this is best appreciated as a PDF, but for the rest of you here’s the text:

The divine command theory is the view of morality in which what is right is what God commands, and what is wrong is what God forbids. This view is one that ties together morality in and religion in a way that is very comfortable for most people, because it provides a solution to pesky arguments like moral relativism and the objectivity of ethics.

The Euthyphro Argument comes from Plato’s dialogue in which Sokrates asks: Is something is right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right? The ethical implications of this argument suggest that the relationship between morality and religion might not be as clear-cut as previously thought. What makes this question so effective is that if the interlocutor accepts either part of it he is often logically forced into conclusions that may conflict with other beliefs he has, therefore creating a logical dilemma for him. Let us look at these two cases:

  • If something is right because God commands it, then it follows that something would be just as right if God commanded otherwise. God “says” it is right to honor your father and mother, and so that is the morally right thing to do because He says it. However if on the mount God had commanded Moses to say it is not right to honor your father and mother, then it would be just as right today to do that because it is what God commanded. This, in effect, completely trivializes all the commands of God as completely arbitrary, and furthermore it eliminates the logical validity of God being Good, because if something is Good because God commands it, then God is Good because God commands it, a tautological statement with no real force behind it. The rebuttal that God would chose something to be right because of His infinite wisdom fits in line more with the next argument.
  • The second option, that God commands something because it is right and that is obvious to Him in His infinite wisdom, avoids the arbitrariness of the previous option, but introduces a new problem which takes us back to the beginning: if God commands something because it is right, then in accepting that argument you have abandoned a theological concept of right and wrong, insofar that it would be right whether or not God commands it.
    Each of these cases will lead the believer in the divine command theory into morally uncomfortable territory. In my personal experience, I have found that when presented with these two options, most people who previously believed in the divine command theory outright will go with the second option, as it is more pious to acknowledge God’s infinite wisdom and an independent concept of right and wrong than to characterize God as arbitrary.

Another problem with the divine command theory that isn’t as logically addressable, but is still a sticking point, is that what God “says” is mired in issues of accuracy and human error. What if a person claims God has said something to them, and another person claims God has said something different? Whom should you believe? The answer is, of course, the right one, but that does not get you anywhere. Now think of this in larger terms of the chief document of Judeo-Christian faith, the Bible, and millennia of time and generations of translations multiply the problems. Within the Christian faith, different denominations accept different parts of the Bible, and exclude others from the very inclusion in printing; a Catholic bible will be textually different from a Baptist bible. Furthermore, in teaching their particular texts, different parts are emphasized and deemphasized, lending an entirely different interpretation of what is thought by each to be God’s word.

All of these arguments lead us to the fact that the divine command theory is not as universal and robust as many might believe it is. This should not be viewed as an anti-religious argument, rather simply as an invitation for deeper thought into the issues. Some of the greatest religious thinkers of all time such as St. Thomas Aquinas rejected the divine command theory because of the very logical dilemmas presented here. Therefore, in this sense, elements of religion certainly do and should borrow from moral concepts, but moral conceptions may exist separate from religion.

15 replies on “Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Argument”

  1. I came to your site researching for a World Religions Class…..but i was sucked in by the Girl Scout Cookies……

  2. I am writing a paper on the same arguement for my college philosophy class, and i found that your views very much concerted with mine. I found your paper helpful in picking what may be the stronger of my claims to focus on, thanks!!

  3. You do a good job of laying out the Euthyphro dilemma. One point you may consider: The mere fact that God could have made a different decision does not make His decision “arbitrary”. This is one of the biggest problems with the so-called “dilemma”. Ask yourself this. Suppose you want to walk from point A to point B, and there is a straight sidewalk leading directly from one to another. Now along the way you come across another sidewalk to your right that leads to point C. You have a decision to make. You can continue to go straight or turn right. You, of course, decide to continue straight because you want to reach point B, and the sidewalk to the right will not get you there. You were, naturally, free to choose to turn right. You could have chosen to turn right. Does the mere fact that you could have come to a different decision somehow make your decision to go straight arbitrary? Of course not. You weighed the consequences of going straight with the consequences of turning right and made an informed decision. The mere ability to make a different decision does not render the decision you made arbitrary.

    Now you may object that what I have said leads into the second problem; i.e., I am basically saying that God knew the moral truth and simply stated a pre-existing truth. But notice that in the example I gave the consequences you weighed were completely devoid of moral consequence. It would be neither morally right nor wrong for you to choose one path over the other. The same could be true of the decision-making process for the origin of morality. Bear in mind that we are talking about how morality came into existence. Therefore, prior to that point there was no morality. Decisions did not have “moral” consequence because morality did not exist yet. All decisions were in essence of the same nature as our diverging sidewalks example. Using these non-moral considerations, God could have made a decision about morality and defined morality in accordance with potential consequences. So He is not simply restating a pre-existing moral truth. He is defining morality itself, but based upon non-moral considerations. I could go on a lot further explaining this, but that at least provides you with a brief introduction to the problem with the Euthyphro dilemma.

    Also, you may consider modifying your paragraph dealing with the differences in Bibles, because it does show that you do not fully understand Christianity’s view of the Bible. First of all, there is no such thing as a “Baptist” Bible. All genuine Christian religions believe that the only true authority is the original. Errors have crept in over time due to copyists mistakes, translational differences, etc. But no denomination bases it’s theology upon one particular English translation. The authority for making theological decisions always lies in the original Hebrew or Greek. Ultimately, while the Catholics include a few more books in their Bible than protestants (the vast majority, including the entire New Testament, are the same), there are no textual differences between the common books because the “Bible” for both is the original text in the original languages, NOT the English translations. While there may be differences in translations (the Catholics do have their own English translation, although they do not go so far as to say other translations are incorrect), the translations are simply tools for us to use since most of us do not speak ancient Greek or Hebrew. The “Bible” is the same for all.

    In regard to your comment about a “Baptist” Bible, you should know that among all protestant denominations, there is not even one authoritative translation. A protestant is free to use whatever translation they believe speaks best to them. Your statement that “different denominations accept different parts of the Bible” is incorrect. “Denomination” refers to protestants, and they all accept the same Bible and can use any translation. Finally, in answer to your question about “Whom should you believe?”, the answer is neither. You should believe the Bible (i.e., the original text). Of course humans are going to disagree as to what this all means, after all we are fallible creatures. But that can be said of any moral discussion, whether religious in nature or otherwise.

    Ultimately, the conclusion may be that an infinite number of factors go into determining morality, and because humankind only has a finite mind, we will never be able to fully understand it. That certainly would explain why every moral theory attempted to date has failed to adequately explain all aspects of morality.

  4. First off, excellent post. You lay out some good points that are well worth considering. That said, there is Ken’s post. LOL

    Question:

    What exactly is “All genuine Christian religions believe that the only true authority is the original?” Who decided this?

    Thoughts:

    Yes, there are different versions ( not translations) of the Bible.

    “At the time the Christian Bible was being formed, a Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, was in common use and Christians adopted it as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. However, around 100 A.D., Jewish rabbis revised their Scripture and established an official canon of Judaism which excluded some portions of the Greek Septuagint. The material excluded was a group of 15 late Jewish books, written during the period 170 B.C. to 70 A.D., that were not found in Hebrew versions of the Jewish Scripture. Christians did not follow the revisions of Judaism and continued to use the text of the Septuagint.

    Protestant reformers in the 1500s decided to follow the official canon of Judaism for the Old Testament rather than the Septuagint, and the excluded material was placed in a separate section of the Bible called the Apocrypha. Protestant Bibles included the Apocrypha until the mid 1800s, but it was eventually dropped from most Protestant editions.

    The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches continue to base their Old Testament on the Septuagint. The result is that these versions of the the Bible have more Old Testament books than Protestant versions. Catholic Old Testaments include 1st and 2nd Maccabees, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), additions to Esther, and Susanna and Bel and the Dragon which are included in Daniel. Orthodox Old Testaments include these plus 1st and 2nd Esdras, Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151 and 3rd Maccabees.

    The Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox New Testaments are identical.”
    http://www.twopaths.com/faq_bibles.htm

    “Council of Trent: on April 8, 1546, by vote (24 yea, 15 nay, 16 abstain) approved the present Roman Catholic Bible Canon including the Deuterocanonical Books. This is said to be the same list as produced at the Council of Florence in 1451, this list was defined as canonical in the profession of faith proposed for the Jacobite Orthodox Church. Because of its placement, the list was not considered binding for the Catholic church, and in light of Martin Luther’s demands, the Catholic Church examined the question of the Canon again at the Council of Trent, which reaffirmed the Canon of the Council of Florence. The Old Testament books that had been in doubt were termed deuterocanonical, not indicating a lesser degree of inspiration, but a later time of final approval. Beyond these books, some editions of the latin Vulgate include Psalm 151, the Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Esdras (called 3 Esdras), 2 Esdras (called 4 Esdras), and the Epistle to the Laodiceans in an appendix, styled “Apogryphi”.

    Thirty-Nine Articles: in 1563, of the Church of England, article 6, recognized the Roman Catholic Canon including the Deuterocanonicals with the caveat “for example of life and instruction in manners … [but not] to establish any doctrine.”

    King James Bible: of 1611, included deuterocanon and apocrypha from the Vulgate and Septuagint.”

    Vatican I: on April 24, 1870, approved the additions to Mark (v.16:9-20), Luke, (22:19b-20,43-44) and John, (7:53-8:11) which are not present in early manuscripts.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon#Orthodox.2C_Catholic_and_Protestant

    Before you make such sweeping generalizations against a post Ken, you might want to research your assertions.

  5. I don’t like ken’s comments either.. they simply confused me more. Your word choice is very circular, and your points are not good

  6. Oh yes and James every even you stated is not a version but a translation by definition. Further while canons are considerd important they are not part of the Bible and no real authority believes that.

  7. The only problem with the argument is how it assumes god is defined. What it means depends on how god is defined in the case. Otherwise, its sound reasoning; most definitions of a god are disproven in this argument.

  8. KEN really? I want to adress your first 2 paragraphs. to say that God defines morality for us, is the same as saying ‘its good b/c God said its good. Where it really does become an arbitrary command BECAUSE he could have commanded anything, since there is no pre-existing standard for goodness. Also there is a massive flaw in your sidewalk analogy, because if you are going from A to B, your decision not to go to C is not arbitrary as you said, and that is because A does in fact exist, and you want to get there; even though you were free to go to C. This can be translated into: God wants to define the good, he knows the good and command it, or he can diverge and command evil.

    by saying that he defined morality based on the different consequences of different actions, for him to make the decision on which consequences are good, once again there must have to have been a pre-existing standard for which consequences are good, for God to pose his definition. Your trying to pose a circular argument by disguising it in different terms.

    there is no problem with the Euthyphro dilemma.
    therefore your argument is invalid

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