Handout 1 - The Euthyphro Problem


The Divine Command Theory in ethics (DCT):

An act is morally obligatory if and only if God commands it;
an act is morally wrong if and only if forbids it; and
an act is morally permissible if and only God does not forbid it.

The Euthyphro Question:

“Is an action wrong because God forbids it or does God forbid it because it is wrong?”

The Two Possible Answers to the Euthyphro Question (the two "horns" of the dilemma):

(Horn 1):  “God forbids an action because it is wrong”

If the Divine Command Theorist takes this horn, she thereby admits that there is some standard of right and wrong that is independent of God's will.  She concedes that the wrong actions were already wrong prior to God's forbidding them.

(Horn 2): “An action is wrong because God forbids it”

The Divine Command Theorist must take this horn if she is genuinely to reduce ethics to religion.  But if she does, she is committed to three propositions that are difficult to swallow:

(i) Morality is Contingent.  So any action that is actually wrong could have been morally right, including, say, acts of torturing innocent children for fun.

(ii) God's Commands are Arbitrary.  If things aren't right or wrong or good or bad independent of God's commanding or forbidding them, then it seems God has no basis on which to choose what to command and what to forbid.  He has no good reasons for forbidding the things he forbids.

(iii) God's Goodness is Trivial and Therefore Not Praiseworthy.  If whatever God prefers is thereby automatically best, then the fact that God always prefers the best is a trivial fact, true merely by definition.  But then His always preferring the best does not make Him praiseworthy.

As the philosopher G.W. Leibniz observed in his Discourse on Metaphysics (1686):

So in saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but sheerly by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory.  For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary.