Answering a Common Challenge to Christian Morality

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When I say “Christian Morality” what I mean is the position that morality comes from God. You may have heard the phrase, “If you have a moral law, then you need a moral lawgiver” spoken by Christian evangelists.

One of the most common “comebacks” is called the Euthyphro Dilemma. Euthyphro was a character in a play written by an ancient philosopher named Plato.  In the play Euthyphro is debating morality with Socrates.” and Plato uses the interaction to ask basically  this question, “Is something ‘good’ because God says it is good, or does God say it’s ‘good’ because it already is good?”

This is meant to back the Christian into a corner. If we say it is good because God says it is ‘good’, then the good becomes arbitrary and subjective.  God could just as easily say murder was good, and then that would become “good”.  This just doesn’t seem like it could be the case.  The alternative provided by the dilemma is to say that God calls it ‘good’ because it already is good.  If we answer this way, however, then we’re stuck in another tight spot because now there is some objective standard outside of God to which God must compare things.  If even God has to point to an objective standard then at best objective moral values can’t be rooted in God and at worst God isn’t really God because he is subject to this moral standard (He wouldn’t be the highest moral good).

Before we go on, we should define what we mean by “Objective Moral Values” since this is the point that the dilemma is meant to undermine. Something is objective when it is “object-relative” and it is subjective when it is “subject-relative”.  If you were to walk up to a painting, for example, then you can say objectively that it is painted onto canvass.  It is dependent on the object itself whether it is on canvass, no matter what anyone has to say about it.  If you were to say that it is a beautiful painting, then that description would be dependent on you, the subject, who is looking at it.  While it is true for everyone that the painting is on canvass (it is objectively true) it may only be true for you that it is beautiful (it is subjectively true).  Christians say that moral values and duties are objective, true no matter what anyone has to say about it (there may still be concerns about how we know what is “good” or “bad”, but at root there is a real objective answer in any given circumstance).  If moral values and duties are subjective, then it depends on the person making the moral choice as to what the morally “right” answer will be.  It doesn’t really matter what they decide, whatever they decide is “right” (no matter what that decision is, even if others might find it to be horrible).  Their decision is “true for them” even if it isn’t “true for you”.

The Euthyphro Dilemma is meant to undermine the objective sense of morality.  If successful then the Christian either has to give up on the existence of objective morality by saying it is arbitrarily set by God or they have to admit that there must be some other basis for objective morality.

The answer to the dilemma given by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig is to reject both alternatives.  The Christian will say that moral values and duties are rooted in God’s nature.  They don’t come from arbitrary commands that he might dish out nor are they an external standard that God must look to, but instead they come from his very nature.  It is “good” to be compassionate because God is compassionate.  It is good to serve others rather than yourself because God is selfless and serves others.  It is for this reason that Moses said that we need to be holy, because God is holy (Leviticus 20:26).  He didn’t just say we should be holy because holiness is good and wickedness is bad, but because God is holy.  In the same way Jesus tells us to be perfect because God is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

So what?  What good is this to us?  Answering the Euthyphro dilemma preserves the doctrine of God’s moral perfection as well as the integrity of the Moral Argument for God’s existence.  The Moral Argument works from objective moral values to the existence of God.  It consists of three steps:

1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3) Therefore, God exists.

If God does not exist, then there is no basis for objective moral values.  If atheism is true then what we call “morality” is just the product of our evolutionary history or our social upbringing.  In either case morality is “subject-relative” rather than “object-relative”.  It is ingrained in us to conceive of things as having moral value or of our having particular moral duties.  The things themselves wouldn’t have any value relative to them (things such as human life, civil rights, freedom, justice, etc).

Our experience gives us premise #2.  We experience moral values all the time.  When we are angry over some wrongdoing or some evil in the world, we don’t just believe that we personally don’t like it. We believe that it really is evil and wrong.  We think that things like racism, child abuse, murder, and cruelty really are evil.  We experience not just that we don’t like those things, but that they are evil. Their “evilness” is object-relative, rather than simply our own subjective opinion.

The Euthyphro dilemma is meant to take the wind out of the sails of this argument by undercutting either of the first two premises (depending on which of the two options you choose), but as we have seen the argument survives by choosing the third option.

If you are interested in exploring this topic further, the posts below may be helpful:
Morality Without God is Confused (Further discussion about Christian vs Atheistic Morality)

Can You Be Moral Without God? (Defense of the Moral Argument against an atheist’s critiques)

-Matt Bilyeu
www.NewTheist.org

 

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Categories: Apologetics, Christianity, Contributors

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6 replies

  1. Hi Matt –

    It seems to me that, although you deny it, you are saying that certain things are good or bad simply because God deems them to be so. For example, you say “It is ‘good’ to be compassionate because God is compassionate.” which would essentially just indicate that God says it is good to be like him–and this still provides us with no basis for why this should be so. Most people tend to think that their own views and actions are the “right” ones, so it wouldn’t seem far-fetched to think that the same could be true of God. If God simply wants us to be like him because he “is right,” then it would seem that we’re back to his morality being arbitrary.

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    • Hello Jon,

      Thank you for reading the post! It is a very subtle difference, but an important one. God’s commands are a function of his free will. For example, the Bible claims that God commanded Abraham to leave his home for the Promised Land. Whether you believe that happened or not, it is easy to see in principle that God could have refrained from giving this command to Abraham. If moral goods are simply God’s commands, then they are arbitrary.

      Instead the Christian will say that moral goodness rests in God’s nature. God’s nature is not a function of his free will, but is static. His commands are consistent with this nature, but they are not the same thing. In this way his nature is not arbitrary, and his commands come out of his nature.

      It is important to distinguish between the nature of morality and how we come to know morality as well. God’s command that we be like him would fall under how we come to know morality, but not how it comes to be moral. It is “good” to be like God because that is the nature of who he is. We come to know this by his telling us so.

      Thanks for the comment, and thanks again for reading!

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      • I’m not entirely sure I follow, but it sounds a lot like you’re saying it’s not arbitrary simply because you define it that way. Perhaps this is just something we’re just not going to agree on, but still don’t see that there’s an underlying reasoning for it being objective.

        However, you said that “It is ‘good’ to be like God because that is the nature of who he is. We come to know this by his telling us so.” Yet, if God were evil, he would likely still tell us he was good. In this manner, it again seems that we have goodness simply being a matter of God’s declaration. Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to judge actions by their effects? There are many moral issues on which the Bible is either vague or even silent. Yet we can still judge these actions by their consequences. Would this not indicate that morality is available outside of the Bible?

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        • No, that’s not quite what I’m saying. Let’s take you for example. Let’s say that you see a movie, and you say, “That movie was great!” What you mean is that you found it interesting/creative/whatever. In a sense you could say that it belongs to your command that the movie is interesting to you.

          However, it would also be true that you were a human being while you watched the movie. It belongs to your nature that you are human. It isn’t arbitrary that you’re human, it is in your nature to be human. Goodness is to God like that human nature is to you. It isn’t a function of his will, it is just his nature that is “good”. Now you don’t believe in God, so I don’t expect you to believe that “goodness” is in God’s nature. All that I want to say is that objective moral values and duties are consistent with theism but inconsistent with atheism. It is up to you, of course, to make up your own mind regarding what you will believe.

          To your second point, we should define what we mean when we say, “God”. God is the greatest conceivable being and worthy of worship. If there was an immensely powerful being, perhaps omniscient as well, but who was also evil then whatever that being was, it wouldn’t be “God”. In fact if you were to say that the only supernatural creator is this evil entity, then that would be to say that God does not exist. So it couldn’t be the case that God were evil. You could imagine a world in which a necessarily evil entity existed, but that entity wouldn’t be God.

          You proposed a system of moral reasoning, “…wouldn’t it make more sense to judge actions by their effects?” This system, called utilitarianism, deals not with why good is “good” but instead how we come to know what is good. This moral system is typically rejected for a number of reasons, but I’ll just give you one. If someone were to take an action that had an immediate benefit, then that action would be good. If over the course of time more of the effects of that action started to unfold, and these secondary effects were on balance bad then the action would retroactively become bad! Imagine if more time passed, and over time the consequences of those secondary results tipped back to good again. Then the action would retroactively reverse again! Most of us would agree that morally good or bad behavior can’t waffle back and forth like that.

          Finally you indicated, “Would this not indicate that morality is available outside the Bible?” I think you’re falling back into considerations of how we come to know morality rather than what makes morality moral. The Bible might be one way that we can learn about morality, but the Bible doesn’t make anything moral or immoral.

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          • When you say that such a being wouldn’t be God, are you referring specifically to the Christian God, or are you saying that ontologically, such a being couldn’t be defined as God?

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          • I’m saying that what we mean by “God” wouldn’t be consistent with the description of the being as evil.

            If I were to say, for example, that you could imagine a “computer” that was organic, had low level sentience, was a domestic pet, had fur, purred and meowed then you’d say that I was really imagining a cat, not a computer. Whatever we mean by “computer”, we don’t mean the animal that I’ve described. So it is really a semantic difference.

            On Christian Theism, God isn’t evil. God’s nature is morally perfect, and is the root of morality. As a necessary being, God’s nature is immutable and could not have been different. All of that is to say that objective morality is consistent with Christian theism. This isn’t an argument FOR objective moral values and duties, but is an argument that such objective moral values and duties are consistent with the Christian worldview.

            There doesn’t seem to be such a grounding for objective moral values and duties if atheism were true, however. If atheism is true, then it seems that there can be no basis for saying that any objective moral values and duties exist. In other words, our every day experience of objective moral values and duties doesn’t seem to be consistent with an atheistic worldview.

            So…if God did not exist, and instead this evil entity existed, then that would be to say that atheism is true. If that were the case, then you’d be right to say that there couldn’t be any objective moral values and duties.

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