The Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 1: The Question and the Options
The Euthyphro dilemma has been used for centuries as a basis for undermining theories that account for moral value in virtue of God’s will, activities, and/or nature, including various versions of Divine Command Theory (DCT). Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century the arguments directed against DCT that are grounded in this dilemma came in for sustained and penetrating criticism, especially from those philosophers who were attempting to articulate and defend modern versions of DCT. As a result of such criticism, anyone looking into recent scholarship about the dilemma will frequently find philosophers claiming that the objections to DCT stemming from the Euthyphro dilemma have been undermined or refuted. By no means is this the consensus view of professional philosophers, but I think that, within the specialized sub-discipline of theistic ethics, there is a widespread view that the Euthyphro problem has been effectively enfeebled. Here are some examples of philosophers making claims to this effect:
the Euthyphro Dilemma has been, in our estimation and in that of many others, definitively answered in the recent literature . . . (Baggett and Walls, 6)
In light of these reasons, there seems to be no reason to take the Euthyphro dilemma seriously. (Copan 167)
It is my contention that what is generally construed as the Euthyphro Dilemma as a reason to deny that moral facts are based on theological facts is one of the worst arguments proposed in philosophy of religion or ethical theory, and that Socrates, the character of the dialogue who poses the dilemma, was both morally bankrupt in his challenge to Euthyphro, but more importantly here, ought to have lost the argument hands down. (Peoples, 65)
In short, a nuanced divine command theory can finally put Socrates’ troubling question to rest. Arguments for the autonomy of ethics can no longer rely on the Euthyphro problem to undermine the conceptual coherency of theistic approaches. (Milliken, 159)
I will argue that the Euthyphro dilemma represents no threat to the DCT. (Joyce, 50)
Adams’ version of a DCT evades this dilemma by holding that God is essentially good and that his commands are necessarily aimed at the good. This allows Adams to claim that God’s commands make actions obligatory (or forbidden), while denying that the commands are arbitrary. (Evans)
And here is a video of William Lane Craig articulating the view that the Euthyphro dilemma is not a problem for DCT:
The claims that Craig makes to the effect that the Euthyphro dilemma has been refuted, as well as the similar claims I quoted above are all deeply problematic. The Euthyphro dilemma, and the arguments it gives rise to are not some of the worst arguments proposed in ethics or philosophy of religion. The Euthyphro dilemma has not been definitively answered. There is no relevant third option available for defenders of DCT. And no modern version of DCT has been shown to effectively evade the dilemma. Indeed, my considered view is that no version of DCT can evade the problems associated with the Euthyphro Dilemma; that the dilemma poses a mortal threat to all versions of DCT, including modern versions defended by philosophers like Robert Adams, John Hare, C. Stephen Evans, and others. In a series of posts, I will carefully explain the dilemma, the different aspects of what is often called the “Euthyphro problem,” and the objections to divine command theories that the dilemma gives rise to. In addition, I will look at the most influential and significant responses that have been offered to the dilemma and show how and why these responses fail.
My goal in this introductory post is to carefully explain the nature of the dilemma. The dilemma comes from a question that provides two options that are mutually exclusive. I will explain the question, state and explain the two options for answering the question, and explain why the options are mutually exclusive.
As Craig says in the above video, the Euthyphro dilemma takes its name from one of Plato’s dialogues, Euthyphro. The central philosophical issue of the dialogue is the nature of piety. Euthyphro insists that he knows what piety is, which leads Socrates to ask Euthyphro to explain his account of what it is in order that they might put that account to the test. Thus, the initial question that guides the dialogue is, “What is the pious?” and Socrates makes it clear to Euthyphro that, in asking this question, he is looking for that characteristic (or characteristics) in virtue of which all pious things are pious.
The answer the Euthyphro gives, once he understands the question, is that the pious is what all the gods love. But Euthyphro’s answer, as it stands, is ambiguous. It is not clear whether Euthyphro intends to indicate merely that the gods love all pious things or, on the other hand, to indicate that the feature in virtue of which something is pious is that the gods love it. Only if Euthyphro intends the later has he provided the kind of account Socrates is looking for. To resolve the ambiguity, Socrates asks the following question:
Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? (Plato, Grube (trans.), p. 12).
I will call this the Euthyphro Question (EQ). Though I will be offering an interpretation of EQ and an account of the meaning and significance of the question, I am not here interested in the role that Socrates’ question plays in the Euthyphro dialogue nor with offering an account of any argument that Socrates makes in the dialogue. Everything that I say with respect to interpreting what Socrates says is aimed at understanding EQ and not at getting Plato’s or Socrates’ argument right.
EQ presents two options, which options are mutually exclusive. That they are mutually exclusive is a point that I will return to, but for now let us get clear on what the options are. They are
(A) The pious is loved by the gods because it is pious.
(B) The pious is pious because it is loved by the gods.
There is one potentially interesting but, for our purposes, probably irrelevant issue that I will briefly mention and then set aside. As it appears in the dialogue, a natural interpretation would have it that Socrates’s question involves an attribution of the property of being pious to the form of the pious. Option (B), for example, seems to be saying that the form of the pious is itself pious because the gods love it. It is an interesting problem for Plato that the forms seem to exemplify the properties of which they are the forms; that, for example, the form of the good is itself good. The prospect that they do exemplify themselves yields a famous objection to Plato’s theory of the forms, namely the third man argument, which Plato raises and considers in his dialogue Parmenides. While this is an interesting argument (and has applications that extend beyond Plato’s theory of the Forms), it is not relevant to the Euthyphro dilemma. This is because, despite the wording of the question given above, we need not interpret Socrates as making any claim or asking any question that implies or assumes that the form of the pious is pious.
What Socrates is saying, in offering option (B), is not that the form of the pious is pious because the gods love it, but rather that a pious thing is pious because the gods love it. To eliminate this potential confusion, I suggest the following revised versions of (A) and (B):
(A1) Pious things are loved by the gods because they are pious.
(B1) Pious things are pious because they are loved by the gods.
With that potentially complicating issue out of the way, we can now turn our attention to clarifying what the two options are saying. As currently stated, the options can be misunderstood. EQ uses the word ‘because’ twice, once for each option, but importantly, ‘because’ does not have the same meaning in (A1) as it does in (B1). This is probably the most important point when it comes to understanding the Euthyphro dilemma: ‘Because’ is not univocal in (A1) and (B1). The ‘because’ in option (A1) indicates motives or reasons while the ‘because’ in option (B1) indicates a making (or in-virtue-of) relation. To get clear on this distinction, notice that the two options are accounts of distinct phenomena, or, to put it slightly differently, the options are answers to different questions. Option (B1) is an attempted account of what it is that makes something pious. It is an attempt to answer the question, “In virtue of what is something pious?” or “What is the feature (or features) that makes something pious?” Option (A1) does not attempt to answer this sort of question, rather, option (A1) is a proposed account of why the gods love pious things. It purports to answer the question, “Why do the gods love pious things?” or “For what reason do the gods love pious things?”
So now we have two questions that correspond to the two options in the dilemma. They are:
(Qa) For what reason do the gods love pious things?
(Qb) In virtue of what feature(s) is something pious?
Option (A1) is a proposed answer to (Qa). Option (B1) is a proposed answer to (Qb). Given this, we can see that the ‘because’ in option (A1) is not the same ‘because’ as that in (B1).
Let me say a bit more about the ‘because’ of (B1). When we say that some object, o, possesses some feature, f, because the object satisfies some other predicate, P, we are saying that o is f in virtue of the fact that o satisfies P. Another way of saying this is that what makes it the case that o is f is the fact that o is P. Thus, to say that something is pious because the gods love it is to say that an object is pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love it, or, equivalently, that what makes something pious is that it is loved by the gods. This in-virtue-of/making relation is not necessarily a causal relation. We should not think that Socrates is looking for a feature that causes pious things to be pious. Some making relations are causal relations, but not all. That is, while a causal relation is often a making relation, not all making relations are causal. When an umpire calls a pitch a strike, that makes it the case that it is a strike (it is a strike in virtue of the fact that the umpire called it a strike), but it would not be correct to say that the umpire’s calling it a strike causes it to be a strike. The upshot is that when Socrates ask what it is that pious things have in common in virtue of which they are pious, he is not asking for what causes them to be pious.
Thus, options (B1) can thus be reworded as follows:
(B2) Pious things are pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love them.
And option (A1) can be made more clear by rewording it as,
(A2) The reason that the gods love pious things is that they are pious.
These options are mutually exclusive. That is, if we accept option (A2) then we cannot accept option (B2) and if we accept (B2), then we cannot accept (A2).
And this leads us to the crux of the dilemma: if Euthyphro is offering an account of what makes something pious, then, on his view, something is pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love it. But if something is pious in virtue of the facts that the gods love it, then it cannot be that the gods love it because it is pious. On the other hand, if the gods love pious things because they are pious, then their being pious is logically prior to the god’s loving them; and therefore, things cannot be pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love them. To put it succinctly, option (A2) logically rules out options (B2) and option (B2) logically rules out option (A2).
In the context of the dialogue this is significant because, if Euthyphro maintains that (A2) is the correct answer to Socrates’ question (as in the dialogue, he does), then he has not offered an account of the pious. That is, if Euthyphro thinks that the reason that the gods love pious things is that they are pious, then, since on this option it cannot be that what makes something pious is that the gods love them, Euthyphro, in saying that the pious is what all the gods love has not thereby told us what all pious things have in common in virtue of which they are pious. This is a purely logical point: If the reason that the gods love a pious act is that it is pious, then the act’s being pious is logically prior to the gods’ loving it. And, if what makes an act pious is the fact that the gods love it, then the gods’ loving it is logically prior to its being pious.
I will offer two analogies that I hope will make this point clearer:
Example 1: Film Quality
Suppose you are talking about films and film quality with a friend and you want to know what the characteristics are that make a film good. Suppose your friend says something like, “Ultimately, a good film is one that I like.” You might ask, in the manner of Socrates,
(Qf) Do you like good films because they are good or are they good because you like them?
For this question, the two options are
(C) You like good films because they are good.
Or, in other words,
(C1) The reason that you like good films is that they are good.
(D) Good films are good because you like them.
Or, in other words,
(D1) What makes a film good is the fact that you like it.
In asking (Qf), you are attempting to determine whether your friend is offering an account of what makes a film good or is merely indicating that she likes films when and because they are good. Option (D) offers an account of what makes a good film good. Option (C) offers an account of the reasons why your friend like good films. If your friend answers (Qf) with (C), then she has not answered your original question, which just was the question of what features make a film good. We know this because if the reason that she likes good films is that they are good, then their being good is logically prior to her liking them. On (C), a film must already be good before she likes it. If, on the other hand, what makes a film good is the fact that she likes it, then it cannot be that the reason that she likes it is that it is good. That is, if (D) is correct, then her liking a film is logically prior to its being good and thus its being good cannot be her reason for liking it. If there is a reason for her liking it, it must be something other than that it is good.
Example 2: To-do List
Henry has been presented with a list of things that need to be done around the house. The list includes tasks such as replacing a faulty electrical outlet, cleaning the kitchen floors, repairing the leaky bathroom faucet, etc. Suppose we ask,
(Qt) Are the tasks on the to-do list on the list because they need to be done or do they need to be done because they are on the to-do list?
For this question, the two possible answers are,
(E) The reason that the tasks are on the to-do list is that they need to be done.
(F) The tasks need to be done in virtue of the fact that they are on the list.
If the reason that a task is on the to-do list is that it needs to be done, then it cannot be that a task needs to be done in virtue of the fact that it is on the to-do list. And this for the purely logical point that if the reason that the task in on the list is that it needs to be done, then its being a task that needs to be done is logically prior to its being on the list.
If (E) is correct, then, as Henry tries to think of what additional tasks to add to the list, he will try to think of tasks that need to be done. And, as he discovers additional tasks that need to be done, he will add them to the list; and the reason that he will add them to the list is that they need to be done. But, precisely because of this, it cannot be that a task needs to be done in virtue of being on the list. It is only added to the list if it needs to be done; thus, its needing to be done must be logically prior to its being on the list.
In this example, (E) is obviously the correct answer, and (F) is implausible. But to understand the nature of the Euthyphro dilemma, we should consider (F) and its logical implications. Thus, if a task is something that needs to be done in virtue of the fact that it is on the list, then it cannot be that the reason it is added to the list is that it needs to be done. In this case, if Henry is considering what new tasks to add to the list, he cannot add a task to the list because this task needs to be done. That is, Henry’s reason for adding it to his list cannot be that the task needs to be done since nothing can appear on the list (and thus need to be done) until it is on the list. This is a purely logical point: a task is not one that needs to be done, on (F), unless and until it is on the list. On (F), Henry can add things to the list, but he cannot add them to the list because they need to be done. If he does add items to the list, he must add them to the list for some other reason than that they need to be done since, on (F) they are not tasks that need to be done prior to their being on the list.
Notice that if (F) were the correct option, then even if Henry do not know that (F) is correct, it cannot be that his reason for putting something on the list is that it needs to be done. And, again, this is for the purely logical point that, if some task’s needing to be done is for it to be on the list, nothing could be a task that needs to be done unless it was already on the list. Henry might think that the reason that he has added a task to the list is that it needs to be done, but since, on (F), what makes a task one that needs to be done is that it is on the list, it cannot be that a task’s needing to be done is a reason for (counts in favor of) its being on the list. And this is so, on (F), regardless of whether Henry knows this or not.
So, if (E) is true (F) cannot be true; and if (F) is true, (E) cannot be true.
EQ and DCT
I will close with some observations about how the (EQ) applies to DCT. Suppose we believe that our moral obligations are those actions that are commanded by God. We can ask, in the manner of Socrates,
Does God command that we perform morally obligatory actions because they are morally obligatory or are they morally obligatory because they are commanded by God?
The options for answering this question are:
(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.
(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
One important point is that these options are mutually exclusive. Just as with the two examples just discussed (and for the same reasons), if the first option is true, the second cannot be true and if the second option is true, the first cannot be true. And so, we have the following two claims:
Claim 1: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory action is that they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
Claim 2: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be that they are morally obligatory.
No modern version of the divine command theory or defender of such theory has refuted Claim 1 or Claim 2. If the Euthyphro Dilemma has been defeated and/or effectively answered, it is not because Claims 1 and 2 have been shown to be false.
Since DCT accepts option (II), it follows from DCT and Claim 2 that the reason that God commands that we perform obligatory actions cannot be that they are morally obligatory. This is the source of the Euthyphro problem for DCT. It is unclear what reasons God could have for commanding that we do something other than that it is morally required. Since DCT rules this out, it appears that DCT might imply that God can have no reasons for his commands. I will discuss this issue in my next post.
 ‘Theological voluntarism’ is the name for the class of moral theories that ground moral properties in the will of God. ‘Divine command theory’ names of a class of voluntaristic theories that ground moral properties in God’s commands. The Euthyphro problem is a problem for all versions of theological voluntarism, but in this series, I will be focusing on versions of DCT.
 S. Marc Cohen provides a good explanation of the equivocal nature of the word ‘because’ in the Euthyphro dilemma in his “Socrates and the Definitions of Piety: Euthyphro 10A-11B.”
Baggett, D. and Walls, J. (2011). Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. Oxford University Press.
Cohen, S. M. “Socrates and the Definitions of Piety: Euthyphro 10A-11B.” Reprinted in The Philosophy of Socrates. Gregory Vlastos (ed.) University of Notre Dame Press, 1971
Copan, Paul. “The Moral Argument,” in The Rationality of Theism. Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser (eds.) New York: Routledge, 2003.
Copan, P. and Moser, P. K. (2003) The Rationality of Theism, New York: Routledge.
Evans, C. Stephen, “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/moral-arguments-god
Joyce, Richard (2002). “Theistic Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma.” Journal of Religious Ethics 30 (1):49-75.
Milliken, J. (2009). “Euthyphro, the Good, and the Right.” Philosophia Christi 11 (1):149-159.
Peoples, G. (2010). A NEW EUTHYPHRO. Think, 9(25), 65-83. doi:10.1017/S1477175610000084
Plato, (2002 ) Five Dialogues: Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, G.M.A. Grube (trans.) Hackett Publishing company.