Making Sense of Morality: Objections from Euthyphro and Evil

Various ethics terms
Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay

Introduction

In the previous post, I argued that there is another explanation for the ground of core morals, such as justice and love are good, and murder and rape are wrong: they are grounded in God. However, there are a couple serious objections that I will address here, and then I will summarize several of my findings.

Euthyphro Dilemma

“Euthyphro” poses a dilemma: are morals good because God commands them, or does God command them because they are good? If the former, it seems God’s will alone is the ground of morals. But, it seems God could will whatever God wanted, and it would be moral. If so, God could will things we clearly know are wrong, even evil, such as justice being bad, and rape being permissible. Earlier, I suggested this issue seems to face Allah, due to the supremacy of Allah’s sovereignty.

If the latter, it seems God’s commands are redundant, for we already should know morals are valid. Also, they seem to be valid independently of God; if so, God is not needed to ground morals. Moreover, God must consult these morals before commanding them.

Regarding the former, the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity portray God as being morally perfect and good. That is, God is bound by God’s character, so God would not will something that is contrary to that character. Moreover, that God is good fits with what we may know by reason and reflection (i.e., what many have called natural law), including our core morals and others too (e.g., we should not torture babies for fun).

On the latter, we may need to have some understanding of goodness before we can know God is good. But, it does not follow from that that morals are independent of God. Further, just because we can know some moral truths without God’s commands (e.g., by reason), still we possess a remarkable ability to suppress or rationalize away what we know morally. In that case, God’s commanding something we can know via reason would not be redundant, but a reinforcement and clarification of that knowledge.

Back to Evil

So far, I’ve suggested that the best explanation of our core morals is that they are grounded in God’s moral character. But, is there more we can infer by reason?

Suppose we consider evil. Many think evil provides one of the strongest arguments against God’s existence. Yet, what kind of thing is evil? Earlier, I suggested that evil is a privation (or perversion) of goodness. Indeed, it seems hard to define evil is some way other than the way things should not be.

If that is the case, evil presupposes goodness, like Augustine suggested. What then is the best explanation for this standard of goodness? Above, I suggested it is God’s own character. Yet, we can infer more, I think. To be truly good, God must be love. This suggests God is personal. Furthermore, to be truly good, God must be truly just.

Together, these two findings suggest that God would deal with evil, yet in love and care for humans. This in turn raises questions for consideration that are beyond the scope of this book: which God is this? And, has God done this? If so, how? What are implications for us?

Final Thoughts

We have completed our survey of the major moral views in the west. I’ve argued that the best explanation for our core morals is that they are universals that are grounded in God’s morally good character. I’ve argued for this while also arguing for several more key points; e.g.:

· Nominalism is false, and Platonic-like universals exist;

· There are essences, including of core morals, human beings, and mental states (they have intentionality); and

· We can know reality directly, even though our situatedness does affect us in significant ways. So, historicism is mistaken.

Notice too that from our findings, the fact-value split, the deeply held belief that science uniquely gives us knowledge of the facts, whereas ethics and religion give us just opinions and preferences, is false. Science, if grounded in naturalism and nominalism, cannot give us knowledge at all. On the other hand, we do have ethical knowledge of at least our four core morals. Maybe there are more we can know. We also have justified reasons to believe it is true that God is ground of morals — another item of knowledge.

For Further Reading

William Alston, “What Euthyphro Should Have Said,” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, gen. ed. William Lane Craig

R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge, chs. 12–13

Professor of ethics, philosophy of religion @ Biola's MA Christian Apologetics. Interests: ethics, knowledge, nominalism, & how Christians have been naturalized