Douglas Jacoby on Answering Skeptics: Euthyphro

Wednesday, 10 June 2015 08:29

Morality: "That's personal" recap

Douglas JacobyLast week (in Morality: that's personal!) we examined several common moral claims. We especially addressed the self-centered claim "I'm free to do whatever I like, as long as I'm not hurting anyone." Some of the key points:

  • In desiring to live free from God's authority, our world is trying to replace virtue with "values." But "values" are subjective; you prefer or approve a certain behavior. Your value isn't right or wrong -- although it may be "right" for you. No wonder, loosed from its moral moorings, the human race is adrift in a sea of relativity (Ecc 7:29).

  • When we act in violation of God's will, we sin against God. Of course in a god-less world this wouldn't be the case -- but then there'd be no morality, only preference. Since Christ died for us, we should never take sin lightly (Heb 10:26-31).

  • Sin also affects others, even if committed in private. Sin diminishes our capacity to love. It erodes character. Like certain beverages and medications, it influences judgment -- sooner or later somebody is going to be hurt (Gal 5:19-26).

Euthyphro: A dilemma?

This week we examine a philosophical argument sometimes used to discredit faith. It's called the Euthyphro Dilemma.** Though it will be most familiar to university students, every Christian thinker should be prepared with an answer to the dilemma. The Bible encourages all of us to be on our guard against specious arguments:

"I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments... See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit..." -- Col 2:4, 8 ESV

Here's the dilemma: Is something good because God has commanded it, or has God commanded it because it is good?

Is God arbitrary, or not ultimate?
Let's unpack this. On the one hand, if something is good simply because God says so, then good is arbitrary. What makes something right is God's approval, not any objective quality of goodness. He could have commanded otherwise. (He might have made petting dogs the highest virtue, or shaving one's head. As for vice, charity might have been forbidden as evil, if it all takes is a decree.)

On the other hand, if God commands only because something is good, then God isn't ultimate, since good already exists apart from him. God himself would be required to obey the moral law -- implying this law is above/greater than him. In both cases, the God of the Bible (ultimate, absolute, and good) wouldn't exist, since his decrees would be either arbitrary or redundant. How to escape the dilemma?

Some philosophers think one cannot escape Plato's logic. Yet in fact we're being asked to accept one of two false choices: morality exists apart from God, or God's moral commands are arbitrary. 

Morality rooted in the nature of God
Good is good not because of any decree, or because good exists apart from the Deity, but because it conforms with God's nature. No command is needed to make something right or wrong (although we do benefit from God's wisdom revealed in his word). If morality is determined by the character of God, there is no true dilemma, We are right to reject both false choices. The dilemma is a trick -- a good example of bad philosophy.

Imitate Jesus' sharp mind!
Jesus wasn't one to be cornered and trapped by words. In fact, he was masterful at navigating dilemmas (Mark 11:27-33, 12:13-16). Let's imitate him!

And you never know -- the solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma might come in handy some day. The solution is also useful since it drives us to recognize the holiness and transcendence of the infinitely good God.

** The preceding is an adaptation from Plato, who wrote nearly four centuries before the birth of Christ. The original query concerned the Greek gods, who are bound by space and time, and often morally inferior to the mortals over whom they rule. The gods have little in common with the One we know through Christ.


Next week we'll investigate the meaning of Nietzsche's famous dictum, "God is dead." Unless we take Nietzsche seriously, we won't understand nor can we refute the relativism of our day -- in both ethics and morality. As we continue with Answering Skeptics, let's keep loving the Lord and his word with all our heart and mind.

Subscribe to the newsletter here. 

Read 2885 times Last modified on Wednesday, 10 June 2015 08:44