The Euthyphro Problem and Solution

Introduction

The Euthyphro problem originates from the conversation Socrates has with Euthyphro is one of Plato’s earlier dialogues titled “Euthyphro”. Set outside the courthouse in Athens, the conversation between Socrates and Euthyphro revolves around the concept of ‘piety’. Through the exchange of dialogues, Socrates tries to arrive at a convincing explanation of ‘piety’.

Socrates requests Euthyphro to provide a possible explanation of what constitutes piousness, to which he replies that a pious act is something that is desired by the gods. Socrates, however, is not fully convinced as he feels there may be occasions when the gods may disagree among themselves regarding the piousness of the acts. Euthyphro then modifies his earlier statement in an attempt to redress this issue. According to him, pious acts are those that are unanimously accepted by all the gods.

In the light of Euthyphro’s above statement, Socrates asks him whether certain acts are considered pious because these are willed by gods, or pious acts are willed by gods because these are pious. This is actually the point at which the dilemma arises. Euthyphro, however, prefers to go with the second option, to which Socrates agrees.

The Euthyphro problem

The Euthyphro problem is actually a modernized version of the question raised by Socrates, which has been mentioned earlier- are morally good acts desired by gods because these are, in essence, morally good or are morally good acts morally good because these are favoured by gods. Either way, the Euthyphro dilemma contradicts the ‘Divine Command Theory,’ which states that things are good or bad, morally right or wrong depending on the will of gods. Thus, there are two horns in the Euthyphro dilemma. The first one refers to the argument that morally good acts are desired by gods because these are morally good.

If this argument is true, then it follows that these acts have existed prior to the gods’ will. Moreover, if the morally good acts had existed much before the gods’ willed them, then it may be inferred that the concept of what is morally good or bad is independent of the gods’ will. This has given rise to a problem known as the ‘Independence Problem’. This argument, thus, refutes the Divine Command Theory, which attaches utmost importance to the will of gods.

In case the second option is accepted, that is, morally good acts are morally good as these are desired by gods, two problems become prominent- the ‘Emptiness Problem’ and the ‘Modal Vulnerability Problem’.

Firstly, if the second argument is true, then there is no reason to worship the gods. This is because certain actions may be considered morally good by believing that these are willed by gods. In the light of the above argument, statements like ‘God is good,’ ‘What God does is good,’ and many more similar tautologies appear empty, trivial. This is referred to as the ‘Emptiness Problem’.

The second problem that germinates from the acceptance of the above argument is referred to as the ‘Modal Vulnerability Problem’. If the second argument is true, then it also follows that certain actions are morally good only by virtue of the fact that God loves them. If god is all-prevailing, omnipotent according to the divine theorists, then it means that certain acts may be considered morally good or bad depending on the whims of god. In other words, if God decides to consider ‘murder’ as a morally good act, then it must be accepted in this light. But, ‘murder’ is necessarily morally wrong. So, this argument also renders a severe blow to the Divine Command Theory.

Resolving the Euthyphro Problem

A number of attempts have been made to resolve the Euthyphro dilemma. Among the Christian philosophers, Thomas Aquinas addresses the issue more effectively. He seems to agree, to some extent, with the argument that morally good acts are desired by gods because these are morally good but qualifies this argument in a significant way.

According to him, morally good acts embody the command of God because goodness is inherent in the very nature of God. Hence, God cannot but command acts that are morally good. Since goodness comprises an integral part of god’s nature, whatever God desires is bound to be good. The moral standards of the world are judged with respect to the divine nature of God. It is thus, not without reason, that many scriptures use the qualifiers ‘god’ or ‘godliness’ to refer to something moral.

Although many philosophers have questioned the foundations for defining moral goodness in terms of the divine nature, it can be explained by mentioning that this is true for all the standards considered absolute in ethics like pleasure, universality etc.

Conclusion

The Euthyphro problem has been at the heart of the debate between the theists and the atheists for generations. Although the dilemma can be approached from a number of ways, it has undoubtedly inspired philosophers to arrive at a possible explanation of ‘morality.’