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On the Meta-Euthyphro Objection

October 18th, 2008 by Matt

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;

or,

(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.

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8 responses so far ↓

  • Matt writes:
    “If God has the character traits in question then it is not true that he could have preferred just any traits;”
    We can reconstruct this statement:
    If God has the character traits in question (‘loving character traits’ for short), then he could only have preferred character traits which do not conflict with loving character traits.

    Matt also wrote:
    “I want to suggest that these traits are good because God prefers himself to have them.”

    Surely “Loving traits are good because God has them” is essentially the same as “Loving traits are good because God prefers to have them.” Matt acknowledges this argument, saying:
    ‘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.’

    Matt, you seem to be arguing:
    1)God has loving character traits.
    2)A person with loving character traits would not desire to have un-loving character traits.
    3)Therefore God would not have chosen un-loving character traits, and would choose loving character traits.

    Essentially, Matt says: God chooses to have loving character traits because he has loving character traits. Either Matt’s argument is circular, or he is implying that God used a circular argument when he decided which character traits he would have.

    To put that slightly differently: Matt has said that God prefers to have loving character traits. This implies that causally (not necessarily temporally) prior to God having character traits, he chose some character traits to have. At this point there would be no restrictions on his preference – he has not yet chosen to have loving character traits; thus choosing to have loving character traits seems to have been an arbitrary decision on God’s part, according to Matt.

    That said, I have no problem with the implications of the statement “X is good because God is X”. It does mean that the statement “God is good” is meaningless, but that’s OK. It has educational value, therefore although it is technically meaningless it is not un-useful, because most people acquire a concept of “good” before they acquire a concept of “God”.

    So, I disagree with you that the textbook argument is unsound, but I contend that the textbook argument does not actually show the divine command theory is false. It only shows that God’s commands are arbitrary in that nothing morally requires he makes them; it shows that the statement “God is good” is tautological, and that “morally-required”, in an absolute sense is synonymous with
    “required by God”.

  • Hi binschmidt

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    1. You state that “To put that slightly differently: Matt has said that God prefers to have loving character traits. “ I agree, where we disagree is the inference you draw from this. You suggest my position “implies that causally (not necessarily temporally) prior to God having character traits, he chose some character traits to have.” You then argue that this implication is problematic: God’s choice at this causally prior moment was either arbitrary or circular.

    The problem is that this implication does not follow from what I said at all. To say that God prefers loving character traits ( as you call them) does not entail that there was a causally prior time did not posses those traits but chose them traits. Unless you assume something like the following principle: If a person prefers X then there was a causally prior time when he did not have X, and chose to adopt X. The problem is that this principle is false. I prefer to be alive than to be dead, it does not follow that there was a causally prior time when I was not alive and in this unalive state chose life.

    Hence I think your criticisms miss the mark because they attack a notion I never suggested and is not entailed by what I wrote, the notion that God at some point choose to have loving traits.

    2. You go on to suggest that the statement “X is good because God is X”. is “is technically meaningless” and that it expresses a “tautology”. But this seems to me to be false. Consider an analogous claim “that clear liquid is water because it is H20” now this does not seem to me to be a meaningless claim, it actually gives us substantive scientific information. Nor is it a “tautology”, nor is the claim “X is water” synomous with the claim “X is H20” medieval men who existed before atomic theories were developed code talk about water and not saying anything about H20 which they did not believe in. So I see no reason why the claim that “X is good because X is God” must be these things either.

    3. Finally you suggest that “ “Loving traits are good because God has them” is essentially the same as “Loving traits are good because God prefers to have them.” “ I think this is mistaken for God to prefer something is not necessarily the same as him having that thing. God might for example prefer me to be sexually faithful to my wife it does not follow that God has the property of me being faith to his wife. So preferring X is not equivalent to “having” X. The fact that in some situations the two coincide does not mean they are equivalent.

    In light of this I maintain that the argument is unsound and my criticisms stand.

  • 1) I think you’re right! Perhaps what I was getting at was asking how God got those traits, which is a question you never claimed to answer.
    2) Apologies for my lack of clarity. What I meant to do was to agree with a part of the Euthyphro Objection you hadn’t objected to, at least in this post. Let me try again: If we define “good” as “God”, or “God’s will”, then to say “God is good” is tautologous unless we are simultaneously defining “good” in other ways – for instance, to be good is to love, or to care, etc. However, if we define good in these ways, we’re no longer ascribing to Divine Command Theory, so either Divine Command Theory is false, or the statement “God is good” is a tautology – in the event that the dilemma presented in the Euthyphro objection (“Either God is good because he conforms to external standard X, or God is good because good, by definition, is what God is”) is true.

    3) You are correct that God preferring something is not the same as that something being true. What I meant to say was that the statement “X traits are good because God prefers to have them” has all the same problems as the statement “X traits are good because God has them.” But I concede you’ve made a convincing argument against this, because the God’s choice is no longer “arbitrary”, in the sense that we’ve identified a reason why God would – why God must – prefer X character traits over Y character traits.

    But that leads the question, “Why does God prefer X character traits to Y character traits?” You state “If God has the character traits in question then it is not true that he could have preferred just any traits” – will you extend this to “If God has X trait then he would prefer X trait”? If so, the answer is “God prefers X trait because God has X trait.”
    That leads to the question, why does God have X trait? It would be a circular argument, given the above statements, to say “God has X traits because he prefers to have X traits.”

    (It’s not true that for any X, if God has X, then God prefers X. You seem to have assumed that for any X trait, if God has X trait, then God prefers X trait. That seems like a reasonable assumption).

  • I think the dilemma existed at least partially, if not predominantly, because the original complaint was that of the gods, not the creator God. And because the gods differed it led to the 2 considerations.

    If there is only 1 true God then one can say that it is good because God said so, and there is no dilemma because there is no disagreement amongst God (or within the trinity).

    So I don’t think the dilemma is very strong, it is acceptable to claim that God defines good and it is good because he said so.

    Now I happen to think there is more to good than God says so, but this is not really part of the dilemma, but trying to understand what and why is good, which is what you endeavour to do in your post and reply above.

    Part of the reason I think it hard to see is that we are in God’s image so if God thinks something is good, chances are that we also see it that way. We are trying to defend what is intrinsically part of us. Of course we don’t always agree with God, but that is because we are fallen and therefore struggle against right, but the objective good is still there as part of our created nature.

    I am not certain of the best way to defend God’s goodness against arbitrariness. I can think of 3 considerations.

    1 is consistency, truth is consistent, lies are inconsistent. So we can argue that all of God’s attributes including goodness are self consistent.

    The second (to follow Lewis) is that evil is distorted good. All creatures seek some form of goodness, it is just evil in the way some pursue it. Material blessings are good, to have them is not intrinsically bad, but to steal to have them is bad. God cannot be evil because he does not distort good and evil only exists in relationship with good (it does not self exist).

    The third (briefly) is beauty. There may be something to the idea that we do/will recognise God’s goodness in that it is beautiful, glorious.

  • Hi binSchmidt

    Thanks for continuing the interesting dialogue.

    You write

    “Let me try again: If we define “good” as “God”, or “God’s will”, then to say “God is good” is tautologous unless we are simultaneously defining “good” in other ways – for instance, to be good is to love, or to care, etc. However, if we define good in these ways, we’re no longer ascribing to Divine Command Theory, so either Divine Command Theory is false, or the statement “God is good” is a tautology – in the event that the dilemma presented in the Euthyphro objection (“Either God is good because he conforms to external standard X, or God is good because good, by definition, is what God is”) is true.”

    I agree that if one “defines” “good” as “God’s will” then problem you mention arises. My response is however to simply point out that this is a straw man. I don’t think any notable defender of a Divine Command Theory actually does this. Most defenders of a Divine Command Theory (Adams, Alston, Quinn, Hare, Weirenga, Evans, Izdiak, Craig etc) propose it as a theory of deontic properties such as right and wrong, not of the ‘good’ in general moreover they typically do not propose the relationship between God’s commands and rightness to be a ‘definition’ most specifically deny the are proposing a theory of meaning or definitions . Adams, Hare, Craig for example seem to hold that it’s a relationship of identity analogous to the relationship between water and H2o or superman and Clark Kent not. Others like Quinn , Weirenga suggest it’s a causal or supervenience relationship. Hence the dillemia as you present it is simply a straw man.

    You go on to ask
    “That leads to the question, why does God have X trait? It would be a circular argument, given the above statements, to say “God has X traits because he prefers to have X traits.”

    Agreed if God has X traits because he prefers them and prefers them because he has them it would be circular. But I don’t maintain that God has these traits because he prefers them, as to your question “why does God have X trait?” I don’t think is a legitimate question. In orthodox Christian Theology God is essentially good (i.e essentially posses the traits I mentioned) he cannot not have them. Hence asking why he has them is like asking why a Bachelor is unmarried or why the colour purple does not snore, or like asking when did the eternal God begin?

    Matt

  • I think the meta-issue here is: what reasons would one have for wishing to defend Divine Command theory as opposed to naturalistic theories? It seems to me that even if DCT can be rescued from the charge of arbitrariness, we can then ask: what use is the theory? It would be a rare theist who would be happy to deny that moral propositions are as the case may be true or false in virtue of facts about the nature of the divine. Otherwise we have a picture according to which God’s agency is very much like ours, and God is not the Supreme Good. Both seem strange from a traditional theistic viewpoint.

    But God is the reality all moral conduct is “aimed at” or “reflected in” under all sorts of naturalistic moral theories.

    It seems that the easier it is to rescue DCT, the more superfluous becomes.

  • “In orthodox Christian Theology God is essentially good (i.e essentially posses the traits I mentioned) he cannot not have them”
    And why are those traits good? Is it becasue God has them or does God have them because they are good? You are right back where you started.
    The definition of a good person, is one who does good things (which pressuposes the good is independent). Not the other way around ( which is what DCT maintains is the case with God). But since DCT rejects a standart of what is good, which exists indepenent of God, to say God is good is to say nothing, as in sayng God is —– . That’s why you cannot escape the charge that God’s commands are arbitrary. To object to it by saying God is —–, is not a good objection, right? :)))

  • “The definition of a good person, is one who does good things (which pressuposes the good is independent). Not the other way around ( which is what DCT maintains is the case with God).”

    Not sure why this is the definition of a good person virtue theorists for example would deny this and one needs an argument to show why they are wrong not mere assertion.

    “But since DCT rejects a standart of what is good, which exists indepenent of God, to say God is good is to say nothing, as in sayng God is —– . That’s why you cannot escape the charge that God’s commands are arbitrary. To object to it by saying God is —–, is not a good objection, right? :)))”

    Actually I have addressed this point numerous times in posts on this blog and I address it in the above post. Its also been addressed repeatedly in the literature, it remains a mystery to me why skeptics keep repeating this argument given the number of times it has been addressed by defenders of DCT. It gives the distinct impression that they never actually read any divine command theorists.