I’m not religious. I don’t think morality comes from God, gods, or any religious precept. But often, when I see debates on whether or not morality can only come from God or religion, an atheist philosopher will mention the Euthyphro dilemma, state or imply that the question was conclusively handled over 2300 years by this Plato narrative, and move on as though the matter was settled. However, I’ve never particularly felt that this narrative really settled anything.
Just to review, the Euthyphro dilemma asks the following question. Is what is morally good, good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? This is a question Socrates asks of a man named Euthyphro in the book named, conveniently enough, ‘Euthyphro’, written by Plato. In the story, Socrates and Euthyphro agree that the answer must be that God, or in their case the gods, command it because it is good.
The answer accepted by Socrates and Euthyphro is often thought to be problematic for Abrahamic theology, since it implies that God is not omnipotent, that he would be subservient to a moral law that he does not control. I fully understand the theological difficulty with this answer. It does seem like it should be unacceptable to an orthodox Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
What I don’t understand is the problem with the other answer, the idea that something is good because God commands it. In the articles I’ve read about this, the concern is that this would make morality arbitrary, subject to God’s whim. If God commanded that rape and murder were good, the argument goes, that wouldn’t make rape and murder good, would it?
My response is to explore how do we know that rape and murder are not good. Of course, most of us are horrified by these actions, so that seems to be an excellent reason. But why are we horrified by them? If God exists and he created us, the universe, and everything, then it stands to reason that this visceral revulsion we have toward rape and murder was put there by him. If God is the omnipotent creator of everything, then by definition, everything is his whim, including our deepest moral convictions.
Now, personally, I think it’s unlikely that God is there (except perhaps as a synonym for nature). From what I can see, morality is a cultural framework built on top of common pro-social instincts. Instincts that our species, as social animals, evolved for cooperation. Cooperation that enhanced our survival prospects. But if I thought God was there, and that he was indeed the creator of all, I wouldn’t have a problem with the good-is-good-because-God-says-so answer. A philosopher once told me that by accepting that answer, I was “biting a bullet”. Well, it doesn’t seem like much of a bullet to me.
You could argue that God’s commandments don’t always match the feelings he purportedly put in us, and I think that inconsistency is indeed a dilemma for believers who hold to scriptural inerrancy. But my understanding is that this is not the central argument of the Euthyphro dilemma.
So, my question is, what am I missing? What does the Euthyphro dilemma actually prove? Does it prove anything? Or is it just a demonstration that people have been struggling to find the basis of morality for at least 2300 years?