bull, horns

A Dilemma Or Not A Dilemma?

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.

dilemma, euthyphro


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.

scylla and charybdis

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.)

dilemma, horns, Jesus

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.”

Jesus Christ, hearing God, pharisee

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 What?

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!

excalibur, defense, argument

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!

8 thoughts on “A Dilemma Or Not A Dilemma?

  1. Great article! Thank you for blogging these thoughts and ideas. Love it! My two cents on the questions is that it is a bad question grounded in the assumption that kindness is always good. My wife loves the phrase “common courtesy”. She believes in kindness to all no matter what. Her kindness would get people killed in a tough situation. Maybe the greek word for kindness meant something else but to me kindness does not always imply absolute goodness and goodness as defined by God. I believe the book of Job is a good example of this situation.

    1. Hi Aaron. Those are good questions, and I’m not sure what I think about that. But we don’t have to focus on kindness. You could pick any other moral virtue that you think God has and expects of us. But it needs to be something truly ‘good’ or ‘right.’ If kindness is not always good, then it probably isn’t a good example for the dilemma.

      1. The version of the Euthyphro I remember reading used “piety” rather than kindness, or moral goodness, for that matter. Euthyphro seemed to assume that piety and moral goodness were synonymous, and Socrates (who was awaiting his court date on a charge of impiety) went with that.

  2. That’s probably the best response to Socrates I’ve ever heard and I enjoyed the section on Bulver. Never heard of him before. In addition to your examples of false dilemma and the one Aaron mentioned I’ve noticed that those who favor the legalization of gay marriage often hold a sign up that says “Love wins” implying that you must be in favor of legalizing gay marriage if you favor loving people and also implying that if you don’t favor the legalization of gay marriage you must be a hater.

    But why is it not possible to love people and not be in favor of some of their actions? We give advice all the time to people we love that is contrary to what they wanted to hear. A relative of mine that I dearly love requested that I give her a particular type of medication to help with weight loss. There had recently been health warnings against this particular medication from the federal government so I told my loved one no, I will not prescribe it which made her angry but I did it because I love her.

    Those in favor of legalizing gay marriage propose a false dilemma in my opinion- join our cause and show love or oppose it and be a hater. I think there’s a better option- love those in the gay community but don’t support gay marriage.

    I do have a question about the Euthyphro dilemma. I don’t know who the god is that Socrates was referring to perhaps it was the kind of god who was not omnibenevolent and could be arbitrary but for us to split the horns of the dilemma and say that God’s commands are from His divine nature do we need to prove that He is omnibenevolent? Could your debate opponent simply have replied that any moral value that comes from God could still be arbitrary because we really don’t know if God is omnibenevolent?

    1. Great question about why we think God is omnibenevolent. It is an assumption, I suppose. The atheologian uses the Euthyphro dilemma to say, “theism is not coherent, and this should not be believed.” It doesn’t show it to be false, just incoherent. So, our job is to show that given certain facts, it is coherent and can avoid both horns. We don’t have to prove the assumption. But they ought to be plausible. So, some arguments are defending coherence and some are defending a truth claim outright. We don’t need to know that God is, in fact, omnibenevolent.

    2. In the Euthyphro, Euthyphro and Socrates agree that piety consists of doing that which all of the gods together require. (Given how Greek mythology reads to our ears, a questionable assumption, but Socrates granted the point.) The question then turned to the matter of priority: is the pious man pious because he is loved by the gods, or loved by the gods because he is pious? Euthyphro ducked out on answering that question. I think most people would feel that the pious man is loved by the gods (or God, questions of Grace aside) because he is pious. But that suggests that the gods are using some moral yardstick outside of themselves to make their judgments, and morality (or piety) is not merely the result the commandments of their collective.

      Let’s say that “omnibenevolent” means something like “always does the right thing” rather than “loves everybody.” In that case, stipulating that God is omnibenevolent wouldn’t be enough to avoid the dilemma. How would you determine if God is omnibenevolent even if that proposition is true? If you choose the horn of the dilemma that says that morality (or piety) is whatever God says it is, then “God is omnibenevolent” says nothing more than “God follows His own commandments.” For that matter, as Leibniz pointed out, “God is Good” transforms from a meaningful statement of praise into something approaching a meaningless tautology.

      As for the “love wins” and gay marriage thing… I would define love as a state where another’s happiness is a necessary component to your own complete happiness. Just because you love somebody, it doesn’t follow that you have to fulfill their every whim. But if they want something, then frustrating their efforts to get that thing is a form of paternalism. This paternalism may even be motivated by love: you want them to be happy, and you know (or believe) that them getting what they want will actually make them less happy. In the case of the diet medicine, you might well have been in a better position of knowledge than your patient. But, in general, we usually think that paternalism should be avoided, because paternalism assumes that others are not in a position to make choices for themselves. So if two people love each other, and the want to commit to that love, and they want that commitment solemnized by their community and what they hold divine, well, then you would need to show your work and explain to them why that act would not tend to promote their happiness.

  3. As a starting point, just how much is riding on the Dilemma? I’ve never seen the Dilemma as an argument against theism itself, but only as an argument against Divine Command Theory. Alternatives to DCT might not require God to exist. But neither does, say Newton’s Laws of Motion. And as far as I know, that fact does suggest that we should reject either Newton or theism. I personally prefer it when my philosophical theories are compatible with current scientific theory, but I would actually be a bit nervous if my philosophical theories require current science to be true – if the science shifts, I’m screwed.

    You might take a look at Natural Law Theory. A quick and dirty way of defining that theory is that it says that morality is determined by species-nature. If you loop in Creationism, then God did create human morality, but only indirectly, by creating human nature. On this view, God’s commandments are something like an infallible Operator’s Manual. They don’t create morality, they merely infallibly describe it.

    On the Natural Law Theory, “God is good” is a meaningful statement: God has a nature, and invariably abides by it. (Unlike us poor corrupted humans.)

    I should point out that Baptists have explicitly rejected Natural Law theology, in favor of sola scriptura, and it’s mostly supported by Catholics. I have a few objections to it. The first one that popped into my head when I first heard about it was the Mad Scientist’s Omnicidal Android. That objection might be handled by distinguishing between Creation and mere creation. (I’ll leave the footwork to others.) Secondly, the theory is actually subtly relativistic rather than objective, since it makes morality relative to species-nature. That’s a problem, since if Darwinian Biology is true, then humans arguably lack a true species-nature. From that and NLT, it follows that humans are the victims of a localized form of moral nihilism.

    But at least NLT allows theists to take one horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma without over-much trauma.

  4. crazyeddie;
    I appreciate your comments on the “love wins,” gay marriage part of my post. I would say that the Biblical definition of love probably includes what you stated but goes further. Jesus gives His definition of love in John 15:9-14 and it involves obedience (to His commands) and self-sacrifice for another. So genuine love has to do with our relationship with Him and other people. So while I’ve no doubt that many gay and lesbian people have profound feelings for their mates I think you can make a case that it’s only half of the Biblical description of love.
    Since Chris’s post had to do with morality and the nature of God I used the issue of gay rights as an example of a false dilemma and didn’t want to get side tracked on it. I agree with you that paternalism is the poor basis of a relationship. It was the M.O. of physicians a generation ago but is as you said frowned upon now in favor of patient participation in the decisions around their care. Paternalism invites no participation, disagreement or questioning on the part of one side of the relationship. It’s my way or the highway so to speak but my feeling about gay marriage is certainly open to discussion and argument. I’m more interested in showing people the reasons for my opposition than just saying here’s what I think, take it or leave it. You mentioned in the last part of your post that I would want to “show my work” and I agree but again since it’s Chris’s post and this wasn’t the main topic I held off.

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