Last spring, I sat on a panel of two Christians and two atheists at Kansas State University. To be honest, I felt a little intimidated by one panelist– Bruce Glymour. Bruce is an excellent philosopher and Chair of the department at K-State. If you ever want to hear an atheist give a coherent, moral, and attractive account of a meaningful life without God, talk to Bruce. (He’s on the far right, below.) At one point in the event, Bruce brought up the “Euthyphro Dilemma.” This ancient puzzle proposed by Socrates highlights a problem for those who take their moral cues from God. In other words, philosophers often use it as an argument for why theism makes less sense than atheism.
Socrates asks his friend Euthyphro a question similar to this: “Is kindness good because God loves it, or does God love kindness because it is good?” In other words, it seems there are only two possibilities. Either A) kindness is only a good thing because God says so, or B) kindness is a good thing regardless of what God says. If you’re a theist, neither option looks good. Choice (A) implies that morality is arbitrary, and that God could declare rape “good” if he wanted to. Choice (B) makes God unnecessary because morality is what it is, whether God exists or not. So, as a Christian theist, you might feel stuck between two bad options.
So what do you do? If you go ahead and pick one of the “horns” of the dilemma, then this counts against theism in the debate with atheism. But theists, before you freak out, realize that this is only one of many, many points scored on either side. The final tally is what counts! So, does logic force us to choose? Like Odysseus, must we choose between Scylla and Charybdis, two deadly options? Must we write one more rhetorical question?
Split the Dilemma’s Horns
Well, another way may exist. Sometimes, when someone poses a dilemma, it may be a “false dilemma.” That is, there may actually be a third option (or even more)! At least one philosopher has argued that we can “split the horns” of the dilemma with an option that avoids the pointy implications of (A) and (B). (I can’t resist mentioning one of the great “horn splitters” in history: Jesus of Nazareth. Multiple times, his opponents tried to trap him in a dilemma, only to be brilliantly confounded by a third way that no one had ever considered! Two great examples here.)
When I proposed this solution to Bruce during the panel, he immediately rejected it. Perhaps if we had had more time to continue that topic, he would have offered an argument in response. But we had to move on with only his assertion of the solution’s inadequacy. So what was the solution? Can we escape the dilemma? (I love this dramatic tension!) Tune in next time . . . just kidding.
Adams To the Rescue
Well-known philosopher Robert Adams articulated this solution to the Euthyphro dilemma in his essay, “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness.” Knowledge hounds can follow the link to the actual essay. The rest of us can read a summary from Mike Austin in the IEP, since he puts it so well:
“The first horn of the dilemma posed by Socrates to Euthyphro is that if an act is morally right because God commands it, then morality becomes arbitrary. . . The Modified Divine Command Theory avoids this problem, because morality is not based on the mere commands of God, but is rooted in the unchanging omnibenevolent nature of God. Hence, morality is not arbitrary nor would God command cruelty for its own sake, because God’s nature is fixed and unchanging, and to do so would violate it. . . The Modified Divine Command Theory is also thought to avoid the second horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma. God is the source of morality, because morality is grounded in the character of God. Moreover, God is not subject to a moral law that exists external to him. On the Modified Divine Command Theory, the moral law is a feature of God’s nature. Given that the moral law exists internal to God, in this sense, God is not subject to an external moral law, but rather is that moral law. God therefore retains his supreme moral and metaphysical status. Morality, for the modified divine command theorist, is ultimately grounded in the perfect nature of God.”
Not So Fast, My Friend!
What an elegant solution, right? Well, there are critiques of Adam’s proposal, and these must be faced. But I find it persuasive and coherent (so far). But if this solution is at least possibly true, then we split the horns and avoid those nasty, pointy horns!
Some skeptics will feel the temptation to deconstruct my thinking at this point. “You only believe that because (insert non-intellectual, psychological/social motivation).” Well, it may be true that I believe it for psychological reasons. After all, it helps preserve the coherency of a worldview I really like, namely Christian theism. But I need to point out that this psychological worry about me has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the truth of Adam’s solution. To insist that it does is to commit the insidious genetic fallacy of reasoning. If you disagree with Adams, you must give reasons to doubt either the premises or the validity of his argument. (Or, you can show that the state of affairs implied in the solution is logically impossible.) Otherwise, you run the risk of being deconstructed yourself!
So, if someone draws Euthyphro from their philosophical scabbard, as if it were Excalibur, you may parry her attack with your own blade or reason, a technique so generously provided by Prof. Adams. College freshmen often feel defenseless against the Euthyphro, left to wallow in a skeptical malaise. Well wallow no more!
But this lesson provides further benefits. Whenever someone tells you that “it’s either this, or that,” or that you must choose from two unsavory views, step back and ask, “Is there another option?” Many times you’ll be relieved to discover that there is! People use the false dilemma more often than you realize. “You can either support women, or you can promote back-alley abortions.” “You can either uphold freedom, or you can let the government take all our guns away.” “You can either be pro-science, or you can be a backward religious bigot.” “You can either support your president, or you can be an anti-American, fake news believer!” None of these are true, logical dilemmas. And be careful that you don’t commit this fallacy yourself!