The Euthyphro dilemma is often used by atheists to argue that the Christian understanding of morality either makes God subject to a greater morality that is independent from God or it makes God’s judgments concerning what is and is not moral merely arbitrary. This is not as difficult or complex as you might think so, stay with me and you will experience a return on your investment of time.
Euthyphro is part of the dialogues of Plato. The actors in this dialogue are Socrates and Euthyphro. The scene takes place on the porch of King Archon. The dialogue begins with Socrates admitting to being under prosecution by a Meletus, moves to Euthyphro’s family situation in which his father had murdered one of his family members, and whether the act was just or not, and then to Euthyphro’s method for distinguishing himself above others. Euthyphro argues that what makes him more pious is his exact knowledge of what is pious and impious. Socrates then asks if piety and impiety change, a statement which Euthyphro affirms. Then Socrates asks, what is piety and impiety.
Socrates: “I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved.”
The Euthyphro Dilemma: In our own paraphrase of this you would get, “Is something moral because God loves it or does God love it because it is moral?”
If the Christian says that something is moral because God loves it, this logically ends in an arbitrary morality. So if God had loved rape, it would have been moral or murder, etc. As you can imagine, this would not be consistent with Christian theology. On the other hand, if we say that God only loves things because those things are moral, this separates morality from God, meaning that things can be moral or immoral independent from God. Such a position would make God subject to a moral law which would mean that God is not absolute or supreme in any sense whatsoever. He is just as subject to moral actions as humans are. This does not bold well for the Christian.
The Euthyphro Dilemma seemingly forces the Christian to choose between a God who is arbitrary or one who is not supreme. Both choices destroys Christianity as we know it. What is the Christian to do?
First, the best Christian apologetic is Christian theology. Far too many Christians want to run out and do apologetics will skipping theology. This is like an astronaut who wants to fly to the moon but skip math class. It isn’t going to work out very well. So then, know the God you serve. Know what Christian theology claims about the God who is!
The Dilemma is a common form of argument. The premises of the syllogisms so combined are formulated disjunctively, and devised in a way to trap the opponent by forcing him to accept one or the other of the disjuncts [Copi, 279]. In this case, the disjuncts are both devastating to Christian theology. There are three ways to respond to a dilemma: go between the horns, taking it by the horns, or offering a counter dilemma.
Socrates’ choices are the problem. He has offered Euthyphro only two choices. Either an act is moral because God loves it or God loves an act because it is moral. God loves himself. God is perfectly moral. An act is moral when it reflects God’s nature. Because God loves himself and because God is morally perfect, it is obviously the case that God would love any act that reflects his own nature. Since God is absolute, unchanging, independent, morality is absolute, unchanging, and independent. Since God’s nature is the greatest of all possible good, an act is moral when it reflects God’s nature. Conversely, an act is immoral when it contradicts God’s nature. Morality then is not arbitrary since God’s nature is not arbitrary. Neither is morality independent from God since God’s nature is not independent from God.
As it turns out, the Euthyphro Dilemma is no dilemma at all for the Christian who has bothered to take the time to understand precisely what Christian theology understands Scripture to reveal about the nature of the God that is!
Here is another quick point about morality. All moral arguments presuppose absolute morality. Arguments that advocate for and those that are opposed to absolute morality presuppose absolute morality in order to argue for their respective morality. This is unavoidable. The opponent to absolute morality will claim that his version of morality is the correct one and will ultimately land on the logical conclusion that every other moral theory is itself immoral and should be surrendered in order to embrace his particular moral theory. If he does not hold this view, then why bother even debating the matter? You can excuse such a person from the discussion which I am pretty sure he will think is immoral. See how that works. You see, a rational person “ought” not to hold to a view that is without sufficient proof or evidence or so the argument goes. And since I think my theory of morality is the only one with sufficient evidence, I also think that every one else ought to give up their view once they understand my view. That is a moral claim. There is an “ought” in that position. You cannot argue for a subjective morality without presupposing objective morality. It is a self-referentially incoherent position. It makes no sense.