Challenge: Either God Isn’t Good, or He Isn’t Sovereign

Posted: March 8, 2011 by Amy Hall in God is Real, Weekly Challenge

This might not be what you’re expecting. It’s not the problem of evil, but another problem–one known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. How would you respond to this challenge?

Why does God say something is good? There are only two possibilities. First, it could be that a thing (or an action) is good just because God says it is. In other words, He declares something to be good, and therefore it’s good, and we should do it. He could have just as easily declared it to be bad, and then it wouldn’t be “right” for us to do it. But if it’s arbitrary, it’s not really good, is it?

The second possibility is that God knows that a thing actually is good, so He says it’s good. But if that’s the case, then God is using another standard by which He can recognize what “good” is. That would mean there’s a standard above God, meaning there’s something greater than God that He has to conform to in order to be good.

Which do you choose?

So what do you think? Tell us how you’d go about talking this through with someone. And stay tuned for Brett’s answer on Thursday.

  1. I think the important thing to note is that those aren’t the only two options. I don’t choose either option. Instead, I say goodness is grounded in God’s holy character, which He’s always consistent with. If it’s grounded in Him, goodness is not independent of Him, and if He’s always consistent with His character, morality isn’t arbitrary. Saying “rape is wrong” isn’t some arbitrary command, it goes against His immutable character. So morality isn’t independent of Him nor is it arbitrary.

    Now the opponent will turn around and use the dilemma on God’s character: is His character the way it is because that’s just how it happens to be, or is it good because it conforms to a standard of goodness outside of Himself? The first one asks if God’s character is arbitrary itself. It could have been different than what it is. He could have been cruel and unjust, and that would have been considered good. The second doesn’t need explanation, it sounds a lot like the second horn of the first argument. In a sense I think the second horn is already responded to. God’s character is the good, so it’s not outside or independent of Him. For the first horn we would probably need to argue that God’s character is necessarily what it is. Perhaps using using the whole “greatest conceivable being” semantics in the ontological argument. Admittedly, I wouldn’t know how to go about doing this, so there’s a weakness in my argument there. Maybe someone else here has insights.

    • Dave Jones says:

      I would point out that persons and moral standards are different kinds of things. When God adheres to a moral standard, he isn’t diminishing his position any more than adhering to the law of non-contradiction would diminish him.

  2. LukeN says:

    It looks like you pretty well covered it. As for the first horn the second time around, I agree that that would need to appeal to the necessity of God’s being; however, I think that we might be able to go the direction of eternality and necessity themselves.

    Eternality is basically the absence of time (and chronological terms).

    God’s being is eternal.

    Therefore, God’s being subsists without beginning or ending (chonological terms).

    If something is necessary for something else, then the something else cannot exist if the necessary thing does not exist.

    God’s being is necessary to the existence of something else.

    Something else exists.

    Therefore, God’s being exists necessarily.

    Therefore, there is not a state of affairs nor a “time” in which God’s being does not exist.

    If God’s being is both necessary and eternal, a counterfactual to His being is not possible.

    “Cruel” and “unjust” are counterfactual to God’s being.

    Therefore, “cruel” and “unjust” are not possible.

    This possibility is necessary for the first horn of the second round.

    Therefore, the first horn of the second round cannot stand.

    Does this make sense?

  3. Adam Tucker says:

    I think Luke is on the right track, and Kyle hit the initial response. I think applying the dilemma to God’s character results in a couple of problems. One, there has to be some metaphysical stopping point. Otherwise, the dilemma could be applied to any explanation given ad infinitum resulting in an infinite regress of causes (which is impossible), and no knowledge would ever result. Secondly, it can be demonstrated, as Luke was eluding to, that God is the necessary, uncaused cause of all that begins to exist (i.e. everything else). That means God is pure actuality with no potential for change and He possess every perfection in an unlimited way. His creation possess goodness and strives for the good in limited ways. As creator, God must be goodness itself as the source of the finite good in creatures. Given that evil is an absence of, or privation of good, God can’t be evil since God doesn’t lack anything and cannot change.

    I think an interesting thing to note is that the dilemma applies to the atheist just as much. Paul Copan points this out in great detail. We could just as easily ask the atheist if his standard of good is just arbitrary or if it is being compared to a standard beyond himself. If it’s arbitrary then it’s essentially meaningless in a conversation about objective morality. If it’s found in a standard beyond himself, well, we welcome him to our camp with open arms!

  4. Elliot Neff says:

    Another way of rephrasing the Euthyphro Dilemma, as many Atheists will say, is “Is it moral because God says so, or does God say so because it’s moral?” To be honest, I think this is a false dilemma.

    Any individual is right in recognizing that God, being by definition the greatest conceivable being, cannot be controlled by something outside of Himself. So, in any case, God must be sovereign.
    Now the question remains, “Is God good?” The main objection here I think is the argument that God’s judgements are capricious and unjustified. I really do not have much to say in response to this objection because I think it can be dealt with rather quickly. I will answer it directly by simply saying that certain things are moral because that’s the way God is– it is His nature. And this, I think, is all we need to demonstrate that the Euthyphro dilemma is not really a dilemma at all.