According to proponents of the Euthyphro Objection, defenders of a Divine Command Theory of Ethics face a dilemma, actions are morally-required either because:
(i) God commands them;
(ii) God commands them because they are morally-required.
The latter (ii) entails that actions are right and wrong independently of God’s commands and as such, a Divine Command Theory of Ethics is false. The former (i), however, is said to be problematic for two reasons: [a] if things are morally-required because God prohibits them, then God’s commands are arbitrary; if God commanded gratuitous torture then gratuitous torture would be morally-required. Moreover [b], the claim that God is good is emptied of any substantive content; to say God is good is simply to say God does what He wills.
I am unimpressed with this argument. In previous posts I have argued why. Despite the popularity of this line of argument (seen by its repetition in almost every first year ethics text book I have read) I think these two arguments are not powerful at all. On a Judeo-Christian concept of God, God is understood to have a certain type of character and to possess certain virtues. As the Westminister Confession states, God is:
[M]ost loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
Once this is realised, one can take (i) and avoid the problems [a] and [b] that are supposed to afflict the affirmation of this horn of the dilemma that the Euthyphro Objection raises. One can avoid [a] because it is not coherent to claim that a being with certain virtues would command actions like gratuitous torture. Likewise, one can avoid [b] because claiming God possesses certain character traits does not commit one to the claim that his goodness consists merely in doing as he wills, and these traits provide substantive content to the claim that God is good.
In the discussion here Mark V posted an astute response:
“You say that God is good because he posseses certain character traits that we regard as good. But why do we regard them as good? Is it because God possesses these traits or because they conform to some external standard of goodness?”
If I understand Mark’s objection here, he is suggesting that even if my solution to the Euthyphro Objection is successful, the same problem arises again on another level, now we are faced with the same dilemma all over again with regard to the goodness of God’s character traits. Either they are good because God possesses them or God possesses them because they are good.
Although Mark doesn’t say so, I think he means to suggest that the same problems with each option of the Euthyphro Objection also apply to this new issue. If a person claims that God possesses these traits because they are good then goodness exists independently of, and prior to God, which appears to compromise the doctrine of divine aseity. However, if a person claims that God’s traits are good because he possesses them then analogues to the arbitrariness [a] and emptiness [b] objections apply. Let’s call this line of argument the Meta-Euthyphro Objection.
I want to suggest that neither option Mark suggests is quite right. It is not the case that God’s character traits are good because he possesses them, neither is it the case that they are possessed by God because they are good. Instead I want to suggest that these traits are good because God prefers himself to have them.
An obvious rejoinder to this claim is that it really avoids the issue. Whether God’s character is good because he prefers himself to have it instead of it being good because he possesses it does not make an iota of difference. I am still faced with analogues of [a] the arbitrariness and [b] the emptiness objections aren’t I?
Actually I think the answer to this is no. To see why, note that when Mark asks:
“You say that God is good because he posseses certain character traits that we
regard as good. But why do we regard them as good?”
He grants there is nothing problematic about God having these traits but rather that the question is what makes Him having them a good thing? But this fact disarms both the arbitrariness [a] and emptiness [b] objections.
Turning to [a], the arbitrariness objection, when this objection is applied to the claim that God’s character traits are good because God prefers to have them, the [a] contends that God’s preference of the traits in question is arbitrary; after all, he could just as well have preferred to be vicious and cruel, and if he did, it would be good to be vicious and cruel.
The problem is that this is based on a false assumption. If God has the character traits in question then it is not true that he could have preferred just any traits; a person who has the following traits will not desire to be a vicious or cruel person “loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in … truth, forgiving…” Holding these traits means that there are certain things that one does not desire or want to see happen. That is part of what having such traits means.
Similar things apply to the emptiness charge [b]. Just as before, one could say that when we say that God is good, we mean that he possesses certain character traits which are normally recognised as paradigmatic examples of goodness. Now the suggestion that a trait is good because a being who displays paradigmatically good character traits prefers it does not seem trivial at all.
I conclude then that the Meta-Euthyphro Objection does not fair any better than its predecessor; one can meaningfully attribute goodness to God and say that God’s duties constitute our obligations, and we can do so without making goodness independent of God. I maintain then that the standard textbook objections remain unsound.