Some argue that real morals cannot possibly exist unless God exists. The common and I think proper response to this claim directs them to the Euthyphro dilemma. The Euthyphro was one of Plato’s dialogues where Socrates asks whether something is good because it pleases the gods, or is it pleasing to the gods because it’s good?
This is an interesting question isn’t it? Most of my readers I suspect tend to be monotheists so let’s change “gods” to “God” and consider each possibility mentioned:
1) Something is pleasing to God because it is good.
2) Something is good because it is pleasing to God.
Ok I tend to think the first prong is a contender. I tend to think it’s possible that something is pleasing to God because it is good. That position has been criticized, because it is claimed that means God can’t be omnipotent or something along those lines. That is they would argue, God is caged in by goodness, and can’t make evil into goodness and therefore is not omnipotent.
Ok my view here is to fall back to Alvin Plantinga’s exposition about God’s omnipotence when he was dealing with the problem of evil. That is we should first try to understand what we mean by “omnipotent.” If omnipotent means God is not bound by the rules of logic then none of this philosophical talk will help us understand the possibility of his existence. For example the problem of evil would go away since it at best portends to show that God’s traits contradict the possibility that he would create this world with evil. Of course, if God is not bound by logical rules (such as the rule of non-contradiction) then this argument is of questionable worth.
So by “omnipotent” I tend think God’s power is still bounded by the rules of logic. (If I am wrong so be it. He is then truly well beyond my understanding so I can only hope for the best.) This is why people who ask can God make a rock so heavy even he cannot lift it, are asking something of dubious relevance.
The other observation from this first view is that the good seems capable of existing independent of God. I do not deny that this first view explains how morality might exist independent of God.
Now let’s consider the second possibility. Something is good because it pleases God. In this situation there is a sort of relativism based on God’s subjective wants. This view is in line with what is called the divine command theory of morality. I tend to agree that this makes right and wrong a bit too arbitrary.
Now a popular philosopher and apologist, William Lane Craig, points out that this is really a false dichotomy. I think he is correct on that point. These two options are not the only possible two options. “Murray Macbeath (1982), submits that the horns of the ED are not exhaustive given the logical possibility of this scenario that represents Macbeath’s own view: God might choose actions because they maximize our happiness, which might be the reason why those commands are morally right, but God might not command them because they are right but because he loves us. Thus, both disjuncts of the ED would be false, and ought to be rejected anyway, Macbeath would say..” THEISTIC ACTIVISM AND THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA by DAVID BAGGET
But also as William Lane Craig says we can reject both options and say “God wills something because he is good. That is to say it is God’s own nature which determines what is the good.” Therefore morality is not arbitrarily based on God’s whims as the second prong suggests. But also the good is not external to God. It flows from God’s nature. This view of God and his nature date at least as early as Anselm.
I think William Lane Craig, Anselm and several other philosophers over the millennia are correct in pointing that the two prongs of the dilemma are not exhaustive. And I would say that this understanding of morality seems a very plausible one. I actually see no reason why I need to try to determine whether this third possibility or the first possibility holds. Clearly since I believe God created the world there might be very little difference.
What does the existence of this third possibility show? I agree that it shows that what is commonly referred to as the “Euthyphro Dilemma” is not a true dichotomy. So it’s not the case that the Christian must either accept that goodness is independent of God or arbitrary. So that much is good for the Christian.
However sometimes I think the “third option” argument gets pushed a bit farther than is warranted. This third (or 4th or 5th) possibility is sometimes used to argue that for real morality to exist there must be a God. I think this stretches things too far. After all these other possibilities do not logically eliminate the first possibility. Thanks to the first prong we can clearly conceptualize how real morality could exist independent of God. And just because there are other possibilities that does not mean the first prong is impossible, or even less likely.
In the end I think the “Euthyphro Dilemma” does indeed help us understand how real right and wrong might exist without God. It does not prove morality exists without God. But it does help us understand how real morality can exist without God.