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)