I have never taken a philosophy course or even asked a philosophy question in my life, although I do have some experience with mathematics and some logic. So, permit me to ask a question that is not likely well thought out or even relevant to anything:

I was doing some leisurely reading on "The Euthyphro Dilemma", where Socrates (or somebody?) says something like:

"Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?”

Now, either way is supposedly a bad option for anybody who believes in an all-knowing, moral God. On one hand, if God wills acts that are morally good because they're good, then God is not as omnipotent as he/she may seem: There is indeed a third party above God that determines what is moral or not.

However, the other option does not, to me, seem so damning as it first seems. That is, it seems that God "has an out" here. Suppose it is the case that things are morally good simply because they are willed by God. It is at this point where somebody may say, well, then morals are simply arbitrary and made up.

But what if God responds to this accusation by saying, "I decided that X was moral because of Y. And I decided that Y was moral because of Y+1. And Y+1 is moral because of Y+2, etc.", ad infinitum. In essence, you can never claim that God has made a truly arbitrary choice, as God can point to an endless chain of reasoning. And choosing this endless chain of reasoning could also be justified by an endless chain of reasoning.

The only way I see that this can be resolved is if for some reason there is some chain of reasoning which itself cannot be further justified by any other chain of reasoning, in which case we can finally pin down God and call his choice of X being moral as arbitrary.

Does anybody have any ideas on this?

Thank you for your time, and once again I apologize for what is likely a not very well-informed question. I don't even know which tags to apply to this thing...

  • 1
    In a lot of cases, an endless chain of justification is exactly what we want to avoid. Most philosophers wouldn't be satisfied with "well there's this endless chain of justifications so you can't question it" because for every n, you can say "well this isn't justified" and God would say, N+1 justifies it, and so on. There is no conclusive "this is why it's justified" and that's exactly what a philosopher wants to get at, not an infinite regress. There is the same problem with justifying statements about knowledge and logical inference, endless chains are generally not considered to be good. – Not_Here Aug 25 '18 at 3:16
  • It is exactly for God that this would not work. All-knowing and all-powerful God transcends any infinity, so one can simply short-circuit the chain (or even higher infinities like transfinite chains) and ask why all of it put together is justified, and God has to answer. It is the same sort of reasoning that is used to bypass infinite regress in one of the arguments for God's existence, the first cause argument. – Conifold Aug 25 '18 at 3:38
  • Interesting! So, you say we can force a reason out of God that itself has no supporting reason? Can you make this argument more clear? – Mark Aug 25 '18 at 3:40
  • Read the first cause argument, it is parallel to this. – Conifold Aug 25 '18 at 3:42
  • Thank you: If I'm trying to understand the suggested answers, does it come down to the following: God, which transcends infinities, could always offer a reason which does not need to be supported by any other reasons. That is, an all-powerful God would be able to offer a reason, whose justification itself is final, in that it does not get caught in the infinite regress of reasons. And it is at this point where God's choice on morality here is completely arbitrary. In fact, God must deep-down be indifferent himself, and truly be choosing morals randomly. – Mark Aug 25 '18 at 15:29

I agree that Euthyphro Dilemma makes it impossible for gods to produce morally binding values under polytheism, and thus seriously undercuts the Moral Argument for the existence of such gods.

But monotheism may not be undercut the same way by the Euthyphro Dilemma. Under the kind of monotheism defended by William Lane Craig:

...God's commands to us are not arbitrary, but neither are they based upon something independent of God. Rather, God himself is the paradigm of goodness.


So by this, are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good... which would imply a superior source of goodness that authorizes God to will them? No, since God wills what's in His own nature rather than something imposed, that's not the case.

Are they morally good because they are willed by God... which would mean that their essence is actually morally neutral? No, they are morally good because they reflect God's nature, and this is not changed by virtue of God's having willed them.

Still, philosophers have been busy arguing about this lately, and here are some additional words from William Lane Craig's blog on this subject:

[Podcast moderator Kevin Harris speaking to William Lane Craig] Jeremy Koons of Georgetown University has written a paper in a philosophical journal on the Euthyphro Dilemma. He claims that there is not a third option. He critiques Adams and Alston and yourself as well on the Euthyphro Dilemma – that it cannot escape the dilemma. He says, “The Euthyphro dilemma is often thought to present a fatal problem for the divine command theory (aka theological voluntarism).”


[William Lane Craig speaking, to end] Koons thinks that Alston is there contradicting himself; that Alston is claiming that God is good because he possesses these properties. I think that is misinterpreting Alston. Alston is very clear that these properties are good because they are properties of God. What Alston is simply saying is that we can give some descriptive content of wherein God's goodness consists. These properties are good because God has them, so what properties does he have? We can give a description. Koons himself, I think, undermines his argument later in the article when he distinguishes between what he calls “explanations-why” and “explanations-what.” I found this to be a very helpful distinction, and I think it clarifies Alston's view. He says this:

We must distinguish between explanations-why and explanations-what. Even if explanations-why come to an end [you reach some explanatory ultimate; in the theist's case God. You can't get any higher than God. That is your explanatory ultimate], and no further reasons can be given at this point, it does not follow that at this point there can be no further explanation-what. For we should still be able to explain what something is even if we can give no further explanation for why it is the way that it is.

I am amazed that he doesn't apply this to Alston's view of God! That seems to me perfectly correct. When you get to God you have reached the moral stopping point – the moral ultimate. There is no further reason why something is good. When you get to God you've reached the metaphysical and moral ultimate, the explanatory stopping point. But that doesn't mean you can't explain what goodness is or wherein the goodness of God consists. As Alston says, you can still explain to people that God is loving, kind, merciful, generous, and so forth. That would be an explanation-what, but not an explanation-why.


Between @Not_Here and @Conifold your bases are covered. But I think your question deserves an answer so I'll try to summarize.

First off any argument that relies on, an argument that relies on, ad inifintum isn't really a palatable answer because our limited physical and temporal capacities does not allow us to fully explore it. See also:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_regress https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCnchhausen_trilemma

But then again why should God have to justify his reasoning? If He is compelled to do so, wouldn't that just be another why of stating the first option? However by definition God is the highest authority and as such above reproach, in fact above our understanding of reproach, judgement, even of Reason itself. Maybe we should take another look at the dilemma: At first we see only two options, but when put to God He may see many, and while we may think His actions are arbitrary His reasons may escape us. So actually "The Euthyphro Dilemma" comes down to a fallacy, namely a false dilemma:


Permit me to add some of me own thoughts here. God is by (our) definition beyond our knowledge, more pertinently our reason, especially logic. So any attempts to apply logic to God is fundamentally flawed. But what if our definition is flawed? Can there be a way to apply Reason to God? We don't know, because we do know that Reason is flawed. (at least in a very particular sense):



and welcome to PSE.

A neat and nuanced statement of the dilemma and the exact problems it involves is the following :

Now, enter stage Plato's Euthyphro dilemma: are things good because God wills them or does God will them because they are good (Plato 1997)? 'The former!', declares the Divine Commandment Theorist. But then, famously, a secondary sub-dilemma opens up: does God have reasons for willing what He does? Or not? If so, the reasons for which God wills things are really the ultimate right-makers, and God Himself swiftly drops out of the picture; and if not, His acts of will looks like arbitrary whims. The sub-dilemma raises the general question of whether there are reasons for God's commandments. Suppose that God has reasons, whether or not we know those reasons. (Moses Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed , claims that God's reasons for some of the commandments are withheld from us because if we knew the reasons it would weaken our compliance with them (Maimonides 1958).) If God has reasons for willing D, or for willing some more basic dependency on which D depends, then His having those reasons is the ultimate explanation of D. And if God's reasons are just that consequentialism or deontology or whatever is true, and this non-divine moral fact is the deeper right-maker of M, then the Divine Commandment Theorist is spiked on a sub-horn and God has dropped out of the picture. God has become morally irrelevant. Moreover, the other horn seems unavailable: it cannot be that God simply has no reasons for willing the dependencies. That would make His acts of will 'arbitrary whims', in an uncontroversially bad sense. (Nick Zangwill, 'A way out of the Euthyphro dilemma', Religious Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1 (MARCH 2012), pp. 7-13 : 8.)

I have not given Zangwill's 'way out' because it is complex to state and I am not convinced by it. But check the article if you are interested.

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