POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

O Euthyphro Where Art Thou?

I wrote this a little while back and thought it might bore a few of you :) Enjoy.


In Plato's dialogue the Euthyphro, Socrates asks his confident interlocutor, for whom the dialogue is named, for a definition of piety.  The answer offered, after some refinement, is that piety is what is loved by all the gods.  The dialogue shifts to the ancient, but ever contemporary question, of whether an action is pious (or good) because the gods love them or do the gods love them because they are pious (or good, from this point forward, the source of ethical good will be used in place of piety).  The problem that emerges is arriving at the very definition of ethical good - is there an answer to the question, what is the source of ultimate ethical value?  In this paper I will defend a sensible theistic moral realism, the view that ultimate, objective ethical value lies within the essential nature a transcendent, personal, moral being which is referred to as God.  I will defend this view by first examining the two options offered in the dialogue between Socates and Euthryphro and demonstrate the problems with each.  Finally, my thesis of a sensible theistic realism will be offered and some objections to this view will be answered.

Options from the Euthyphro

The timeless question of what makes an action good or bad, right or wrong, surfaces in the Euthyphro as Socrates questions a man (Euthyphro) who is taking his own father to court for the accidental killing of a murderer.  The culture of ancient Greece placed a high value on honoring one's parents, so Socrates is shocked at how Euthyphro could know that this is the right thing to do.  Sensing that he may be talking to a very wise man, one who could discern right and wrong in such circumstances, Socrates begins to ask Euthyphro to teach him what it means for an action to be good.   What emerges from the questioning is the definition that good is that which is loved by all the gods (or a monotheistic God, for the gods were said to be in complete agreement, from this point forward, the singular God will be used).   This is not satisfactory to Socrates as it surfaced for him yet another question.  Is an action good because it is loved by God or does God love them because they are good in and of themselves?  From this question we have two possible answers for where ultimate ethical value is found in the universe.  Option one, which will be referred to as Universe A, says the good is what God loves or wills.  Option two, which will be referred to as Universe B, claims actions are good independent of God, and God loves these actions for the qualities that make them good actions.  Each of these possible worlds will be evaluated as the source for ultimate ethical value. Before turning to this task it should be noted that in Socrates' dialogue with Euthyphro a few premises, underlying assumptions, were involved in the discussion.  The assumptions are as follows:

  1. Certain things are objectively right and wrong.

To say moral values are objective is to say that something is right or wrong apart from whether human beings believe it to be so or not.  It is to say that the Holocaust was morally wrong, even though the Nazis thought it was good.  Even if Nazi Germany had won World War II and killed or brainwashed everybody who disagreed with them, their actions would still have been wrong. [1]

  1. God exists.
  2. God is good and wants all and only good actions from us.

It is noted that Universe A only makes sense if God actually exists, but Universe B does not necessarily require the existence of God for the objective good to exist.

Universe A

In Universe A, the good is defined as what God loves/wills/commands.  This view, known as voluntarism, has merit for two main reasons.  First, in this universe ethics are grounded in the will of a transcendent being who is the creator of all things.  If God created the universe, then God would also be the creator of moral values.   Second, if moral values are actually objective, then where else but God could morals be grounded but in such a transcendent creator?  Voluntarism, however suffers from a central flaw, as its definition of the good appears arbitrary.  What is good?  Whatever God wills.  What does God will?  Whatever is good.  If ethics appear arbitrary in Universe A, our quest for the source of ultimate ethical value must be turned towards Universe B.

Universe B

In Universe B actions are good for some quality other than them being the will of God.  In Universe B, the good, just somehow exists whether God exists or not.  The question in Universe B however remains - what is it about an action which makes it good?   It seems that in Universe B, we simply have no definition as to what makes something objectively right or wrong.  It then can be argued that the existence of truly objective moral values requires the existence of God as their source, a requirement that would then refute the main claim of Universe B...that the good exists apart from God.  A simple argument for this position may be stated as follows:

  • If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. 
  • Objective moral values do exist.
  • Therefore, God exists.

To reject premise 1, a sort of atheistic moral realism must be affirmed.   By this I mean that objective moral values must just exist somehow hanging in the universe as mere abstractions without any foundation.  The atheistic moral realist must affirm that goodness or justice just exists, independent of persons, without further definition.  It may be readily understood when someone is called a good or just person, but it is difficult to understand what is meant when one says justice simply IS.  Additionally, atheistic moral realism does nothing to explain the nature of ethical duty.  Even if one can somehow show that goodness just is, why ought anyone do what is good tomorrow?[2]  Many subjective answers may be offered at this point (for the greater good of society or the species, to make me happier, so I do not go to jail etc) but these are in no way objectively binding on anyone.  I am by no means saying that you need to believe in God to live a moral life or to recognize objective moral values.  What I am saying is this, in a universe without God, where matter is all that exists, barbarous acts (such as torturing babies, rape, etc) may not be useful for the species or they may not be preferred by large numbers of people, but this merely shows that it is not useful or not liked, not that it is in some way objectively wrong.  If values cannot be shown to be actually objective apart from the existence of God, then perhaps the only recourse to maintain atheism is a rejection of premise 2 by embracing relativism.  Philosopher of science Michael Ruse exhibits such a rejection:

Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and has no being beyond or without this. Why should humans be thus deceived about the presumed objectivity of moral claims?  The answer is easy to see.  Unless we think morality is objectively true, a function of something outside of and higher than ourselves - it would not work.  If I think I should help you when and only when I want to, I shall probably help you relatively infrequently.  But, because I think I ought to help you - because I have no choice about my obligation, it being imposed upon me - I am more likely, in fact, to help you...Hence by its very nature, ethics is and has to be something which is, apparently, objective, even though we now know that, truly, it is not. [3] (emphasis mine)

As stated prior, in the Euthyphro the argument between Universes A and B is framed with the assumption that values are objective, so we will save any arguments against relativism for another time.   Universe B appears to fail to provide the source of objective moral values, because it is not possible to ground what is objectively good without a transcendent creator.  Therefore Universe B also fails us as an explanation of the reality of ultimate ethical value as it exists, for in this universe one could never have any confidence that she was actually living in a good manner.

If both Universes A and B have failed us in our quest to find the ultimate source for ethical value, perhaps another description of the universe is needed which solves the dilemmas presented by voluntarism and atheistic moral realism.  I offer a universe C, which we could call a sensible theistic moral realism, as a solution to these difficulties.

Universe C - Sensible Theistic Moral Realism

In our investigation of A and B we have surfaced several weaknesses.  In Universe A ethics were possibly arbitrary in that the good was based only in the will of a transcendent God.   In Universe B ethics were not grounded, as the good remained firmly planted in mid-air.  A solution may be found in divine essentialism (from the Latin esse "to be"), which I see to be a sensible theistic moral realism.[4]  It is realist in that it holds that objective moral values exist apart from human minds. It is theistic in that it recognizes that ethical value must be grounded in God, with God being ontologically necessary for their existence. It is sensible because it does not claim that the apprehension of objective values is simplistic or the application thereof infallible.  C.S. Lewis gives support to this sensible nature in an essay entitled "On Ethics":

Who could ever have supposed that by accepting a moral code we should be delivered from all questions of casuistry?  Obviously it is moral codes that create questions of casuistry, just as the rules of chess create chess problems.  The man without a moral code, like the animal, is free from moral problems.  The man who has not learned to count is free from mathematical problems.  A man asleep is free from all problems.  Within the framework of general human ethics problems will, of course, arise and will sometimes be solved wrongly.  This possibility of error is simply the symptom that we are awake, not asleep, that we are men, not beasts or gods.[5] 

Historically, there are two main types of essentialism, platonic, where God wills all things according to an external Good, and theistic, where God wills things in accordance with his own unchangeably good nature/essence.  This view claims that the ultimate source for ethical value is found ultimately in God, not simply in God's will.  It is not the same as Universe A which holds that something is good only because God wills it; in Universe C God wills something because it is good, it is according to his own unchangeably good nature.

This view has merit for several reasons.  It maintains that God's nature does not change; therefore morals are in no way whimsical or arbitrary.   It explains that actions do have an objective property of rightness or wrongness apart from human opinions.  It explains the nature of moral duty, as duty is owed to persons.  It is our duty live and act according to the way God is and would like us to be. God loves things that resemble his own nature, especially if God creates certain things for this very end (telos).

Objections To A Sensible Theistic Moral Realism

Some objections may be made to this solution to the Euthyphro problem.  First, someone may ask why the good has to be found in God's nature and that the statement "God is good" makes no sense in this universe.  It is as if one is saying God is God, which brings no useful additional knowledge.   This objection is noted, but the objection confuses the order of knowing something to be good and the order of it being good. [6]  We apprehend or come to understand what is good and bad through various means; moral and/or religious education and personal experiences help us begin to grasp moral concepts.  This however is much different than the ontology of goodness.  Goodness, and in this universe God, exists ontologically prior to our apprehension of it.  One may argue the possibility of knowing ideas of moral goodness prior to knowing of God, but objective goodness itself cannot just exist prior to its source.  In this universe, God is the necessary source of ultimate ethical value.  Ethical value begs for an explanatory stopping point, a point from which objective values can measured, and if objective values do not exist apart from a transcendent source, then they cannot be grounded in anything but God.[7]   Finally, as in the case of Universe A, one may say you cannot be good in this universe for the right reasons; you must simply cower and obey a powerful creator.  This is unfortunately a gross misunderstanding of the theistic ethos.  In Universe C, motivation to do what is good comes from love, arguably the highest of ethical virtues.  One does what is good because she loves God; one does what is good in order to fulfill her purpose, to partake in and reflect the divine nature.  These two things, love for God, and bearing the image of God, culminate in the holistic experience of worship.  In this Universe C, all of life can be seen as a loving moral response to a creator who is truly good.


Socrates puts forth to us the challenge: "Are pious actions pious because the gods love them or does he gods love them because they are pious?"  I have demonstrated that in Universe A, where actions are good because they are willed/loved by God, found unstable ground due to the arbitrary definition of good.  I demonstrated in Universe B, where God is not necessary, the implausibility of objective moral values just existing apart from God as mere abstract concepts apart from persons.  I then offered a divine essentialism as sensible theistic moral realism, which answered the flaws of Universes A and B.  It is noted that any a priori rejection of a metaphysical system such as theism could dissuade acceptance of Universe C; if metaphysical open-mindedness is possible, then Universe C, divine essentialism, seems to be the most reasonable source for ultimate ethical value.


[1] This definition and example is a paraphrase abbreviated version from the that found in

William Lane Craig "The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality." Foundations 5 (1997): 9-12 - Article available online at http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/meta-eth.html [accessed 9/10/2001]

[2] Ibid - Craig argues that an atheistic account of ethics offers no explanation for moral duty/accountability.  If life simply ends in the grave, to the individual, it will make no difference whether one lived as a Stalin or a Mother Teresa.

[3] Michael Ruse "Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics" in The Darwinian Paradigm - Essays on its history, philosophy, and religious implications 268,269

[4] It is noted that this is not a novel position.  Plato and Aristotle followed an essentialist view of the good and theistic thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, and more recently by William P. Alston, Divine Nature and Human Language (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989) and Robert Adams Finite and Infinite Goods - a framework for ethics (New York: NY Oxford University Press, 1999) have equated the good with God.

[5] C.S. Lewis "On Ethics" Christian Reflections ch 4, 56.

[6] William Lane Craig God, Are You There? Five Reasons God Exists and Three Reasons It Makes a Difference (Norcross: GA, RZIM, 1999) 37.

[7] Ibid, 38.