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The original statement of the dilemma is found in Plato's Euthyphro:

Just consider this question:—Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods? (10a)

According to Wikipedia, the question has been reshaped by philosophers and proponents of ethical monotheism to be:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

But I don't see why the question couldn't be generalized to:

Is what is morally good required by our ethical code because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is required by our ethical code?

Of course for many codes the answer will be, it's not morally good at all. But all of us hold ourselves (and, very likely, others as well) to some sort of ethical code and to the extent that we do what our code requires, we feel justified in calling our actions good. Is there some greater, abstract, ideal of good that is reflected in our ethical codes or do our codes themselves define the good?


Three notes:

  1. Many of the traditional solutions to the dilemma turn on some conception of a monotheistic God. I'm not sure how many, if any, will work for secular ethics.

  2. While it might be tempting to simply say that ethical codes define goodness, we are then forced to ask the meta-question:

    How can we choose one ethical code over another?

    Whatever criteria we pick will then, itself, be subject to the Euthyphro dilemma.

  3. Socrates and Euthyphro do not themselves resolve the dilemma. Plato, however, does assert the Form of the Good in other writings, which suggests that he would say our moral codes merely reflect goodness and are not themselves a complete picture of the Good.

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    I very nearly missed Plato week! That would have been a shame since my prize for being lucky in Aristotle week was Plato's Complete Works on Kindle. – Jon Ericson Jan 20 '12 at 19:19
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I don't think the dilemma applies to secular ethics, as it is a problem about the nature of God.

Is what is morally good required by our ethical code because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is required by our ethical code?

This is tautological-- the two are equivalent. This is a different state of affairs than the Euthyphro dilemma, where two ostensibly different notions are connected (the good, and God).

I do not overlook that you have anticipated this line of reasoning:

While it might be tempting to simply say that ethical codes define goodness, we are then forced to ask the meta-question:

How can we choose one ethical code over another?

Whatever criteria we pick will then, itself, be subject to the Euthyphro dilemma.

The question of how we choose one ethical code over another is the subject of meta-ethics, and the literature on this is enormous. However, if the criteria chosen is a secular one, it escapes the dilemma; there is no dilemma (for example) if one chooses a utilitarian ethics. If you disagree, I'd ask you to define what the two horns of the dilemma are.

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    That's a fair answer. One would presumably pick utilitarian ethics because it's useful. That's self-consistent. But I don't think Socrates saw the dilemma as "a problem of the nature of God". And I don't think it's possible to convince someone else that they should become a utilitarian unless they are already convinced that being useful is a "good" basis on which to build an ethical system. But I'll think about updating the question to pose the meta-dilemma. – Jon Ericson Jan 20 '12 at 22:11
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Returning to the question after a while, the term Euthyphro dilemma is generally used with reference to divine command theories, i.e. ethical theories where God is somehow involved in deciding whether actions are right or wrong. This can range from the caricature of pure voluntarism up to subtler theories where God is included as a source of moral knowledge.

When applied to DCT, the Euthyphro dilemma is often stated:

Is it wrong because the gods command it or do the gods command it because it is wrong?

An interesting article I recently read 'The "Mandate of Heaven": Mencius and the Divine Command: A Theory of Political Legitimacy' by A. T. Nuyen Philosophy East and West, Volume 63, Number 2, April 2013, pp. 113-126 suggests that Kant can be read as a type of divine command theorist who needs to resolve the Euthyphro dilemma. The main purpose of the article is to look at Mencius as someone who must resolve a Euthyphro dilemma with respect to the mandate of heaven.

Here, the dilemma is seen as as:

Is the rule legitimate because heavens says so or, or does heaven say so because he is qualified as a legitimate ruler (by the way he benefits the people)? (Nuyen 2013: 114).

Note that in the Mencian picture, most readers do not take "heaven" to be a synonym for God. Instead, what's being made of the Euthyphro dilemma is the question of which way the legitimation goes.

Thus, we can see at least one philosopher applies the term Euthyphro dilemma to a non-theistic case.

I don't think we are abusing the term if we ask the following question of legal positivists:

Do we make something illegal because it is immoral or do we consider it immoral because it is illegal?

Kant makes a similar accusation against the Rationalists in their definitions of good (in Lecture on Ethics).

Thus, I would tend to disagree that the Euthyphro dilemma is a problem only for theists (and particularly DCT). I would say it's a pretty heinous problem for pure voluntarists regardless of whether they are the medieval theologians that make God the arbitrary source of morality or legal positivists that make our wills the pure source of legality.

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