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The long defended claim of Christian apologetics is the idea of an objective morality only being possible with God. It is at this point where an atheist/agnostic will bring up the Euthyphro Dilemma. This dilemma asks a simple question: "Does God command something because it is good, or is it good because he commands it?"

The original purpose of this question is to dismiss Divine Command Theory. The idea is that if something is good because God commands it, then it truly is arbitrary. However, if God commands it because it is good, then morality isn't dependent on God.

Does this objection demonstrate that objective morals exist without God? If it doesn't, then does morality have to be arbitrary?

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  • Is this off topic? It seems to be in the realm of the nature of God and in the realm of apologetics. I'm not sure.
    – Luke Hill
    Oct 14, 2021 at 16:24
  • I definitely think it seems more like 'philosophy of religion', which sometimes fits here, but sometimes does not. This particular example, I think, does not fit here. Though it is a thought provoking question.
    – TKoL
    Oct 14, 2021 at 16:42
  • Does the Euthyphro Dilemma provide a reasonable basis that we can have objective morals without God? I imagine some may call it the natural law, which is inscribed on the hearts of all mankind!
    – Ken Graham
    Oct 14, 2021 at 16:44
  • I guess the question is then to be made: "Does the natural law exist apart from God? Or is it from God?"
    – Luke Hill
    Oct 14, 2021 at 18:20
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    I would nominate kicking this back to Christianity. It's not this site's purpose to answer philosophical questions specific to the Christian apologetics project. Oct 14, 2021 at 23:02

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Clarifying the question: how to know the good

Your question reflects the Euthyphro's dilemma as adapted by Christian philosophers / theologians, turning the question from the nature of piety & loved by God into a question on the nature of goodness & God's command. In both the Greek & Christian versions, the existence of God is not at issue, but on how to define piety / goodness in relation to God.

Euthyphro's dilemma has more to do with how we know the good, an epistemological concern: can it be known objectively in human nature without resorting to what only God knows?

One side of the dilemma answers YES, the position of moral realists, where there is an objective morality based on nature as opposed to socially constructed or individually constructed (subjective) morality. In the hands of Christian philosophers, this objective morality is renamed natural law to distinguish it from other laws in a hierarchy: eternal law, divine law + natural law, human law. This position is held by many Anglicans and Catholics including C.S. Lewis (see Problem of Pain, chapter 2).

The other side of the dilemma answers NO, where what God says is critically necessary to our understanding of piety or goodness. In the hands of Christian philosophers, this position is called the Divine Command Theory (theological voluntarism) held by many Protestants (especially Lutherans and Calvinists). This camp also does NOT believe in subjective morality but the objectivity is construed differently, basing it on God's commands rather than human nature. For this camp there is no natural law since it is conflated into divine law.

This epistemological issue of how to know the good is separate from how conscience informs us of what is right and wrong. Christians in both camps agree that our soul has conscience put there by virtue of our being created in God's image. Our conscience also operates similarly for both camps in that conscience is asked to acquiesce freely to a moral demand which ultimately comes from God.

The difference lies NOT in the operation of conscience but when Christians try to reflect philosophically on the question: how is goodness related to God's command? Can we enrich the concept of goodness apart from:

  • what we discover in our conscience (through the moral demands)
  • what we learn about God's nature from revelation (the Bible)

The YES camp (God command something because it is good) says: "yes, there is an additional source, through human nature (ontology) by virtue of the unity of the three transcendentals of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness." For the YES camp this brings enrichment and stability to our concept of goodness, where limiting our understanding of goodness to the limited information provided in the Bible contributes to the sense of arbitrariness. In the hands of Christian philosophers all 3 sources are harmonized, giving priority to revelation.

Can we have objective morals without God?

Supporters of natural law will say yes, and this can be the basis for well-meaning citizens constructing human laws cooperatively on the basis of objectively known human nature.

But Christian natural law supporters (such as Catholics) will immediately point out that natural law can take one only so far, to the level of pagan wisdom such as Aristotle and Plato. Christian goodness, happiness, and virtues require more than practicing Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. There are at least 2 areas where natural law on its own is not enough for a Christian:

  1. We need the Holy Spirit who infuses us with the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love that enable us to fulfill our inborn yearning for God as well as to enable us (by grace) to obey that law perfectly. Even in the natural realm, we need the Holy Spirit to infuse us with the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude: enter image description here

  2. Natural law doesn't point us to our supernatural destiny so that the choices made by saints, martyrs, and people who renounce worldly riches can be understood as rational. Only Christianity teaches that we are made for another world where there is a resurrection into a glorious body in a new heaven and earth. Without that knowledge it doesn't make sense to choose first the Kingdom of God.

Does the natural law exist apart from God? Or is it from God?

If we are happy to stop at the natural law level to attain the objective meaning of goodness (within the natural realm) when discussing ethics with non-Christians, agnostics and atheists, then yes, it can function apart from God.

But if people push further into the PURPOSE (telos) question or the ORIGIN question, we need God to explain why this natural law is embedded into our conscience and why we have conscience in the first place.

If we want answer to HOW to fulfill the demands of natural law (in light of our sinful nature which continually defeats us) we need teachings on Salvation and Jesus.

If we want answer to "Is natural goodness is all there is to life?", which is a MEANING OF LIFE question, then we need teachings on Resurrection, Heaven, and the Kingdom of God.

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  • What if natural law just exists? Like it’s a fundamental truth, similar to things like God or logic.
    – Luke Hill
    Oct 14, 2021 at 19:42
  • @LukeHill I hope my edit answer your question. Oct 14, 2021 at 20:16
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    What if there is no such thing as Natural Law ?
    – armand
    Oct 14, 2021 at 23:16
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    @armand. Yes... and I don't see how morality with/without a god can be objective. If there is morality to which a god must refer, I'm unclear as to how it could exist independent of a creating mind, rendering it subjective. If morality is god's creation, it is subjective morality and there is nothing to state that it becomes objective to humanity simply because we are less powerful than, or have been created by, a god. The Old Testament god is demonstrably immoral by most standards as this proves. Oct 15, 2021 at 5:29
  • @LukeHill I have thoroughly revised the introduction as it is now a Philosophy.SE question, providing a more explicit link and distinction between epistemology, human nature, conscience, natural law, revelation, and God. Hopefully this gives more material to answer your question, which contains some confusion. Oct 15, 2021 at 9:26
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This dilemma asks a simple question: "Does God command something because it is good, or is it good because he commands it?" The original purpose of this question is to dismiss Divine Command Theory. The idea is that if something is good because God commands it, then it truly is arbitrary. However, if God commands it because it is good, then morality isn't dependent on God. Does this objection demonstrate that objective morals exist without God? If it doesn't, then does morality have to be arbitrary?

First, the idea that if God commands something, then it is arbitrary doesn't work if you assume that God is goodness.

Similarly, the idea that if God commands it because it is good, then morality isn't dependent on God falls appart if God is goodness.

So, the argument rests on assuming that God is not goodness, which is debatable, assuming that God exists to begin with.

That being said, the argument is meant to falsify the idea that only the existence of God makes the idea of an objective morality necessary. That is, this idea is a logical implication: "God exists" implies "Morality is objective". As such, it says nothing of whether morality is objective if God does not exist. Thus, it does not address the problem at all. It merely falsifies the God solution proposed by Christians.

That being said, we can interpret morality as the code of conduct decided by a community and as such there is an objective element to it, but it is relative to each community. Further, this does not prevent individuals to develop their own moral code independently of other people. So, the idea of one unique objective morality seems extremely dubious at the very least. But this is not an obstacle for a community deciding on a moral code.

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