Among the issues debated between theists and atheists is the question of God’s relation to ethics.  Many theists, including myself, maintain that without God there is no foundation for ethics.  Not only does atheism fail to provide any ultimate motivation to live virtuously but the very concept of moral goodness is undermined.  Atheists, of course, beg to differ, insisting that the concept of goodness can be adequately understood in terms of natural facts about the world, such as pleasure or human survival.  And as for moral motivation, most atheists seem to maintain that the goal of making this life the best it can be provides sufficient grounds for good behavior.

Not only do atheists (typically) maintain that ethics (both the concept of the good and the incentive to live rightly) is possible without God, they also often argue that God actually undermines ethics.  That is, they claim, ethical theories that appeal to God are problematic at best and incoherent at worst.  And it’s interesting to see how often they trot out a 2500-year-old argument, originating with Socrates (who, ironically enough, was himself a theist).  The argument, commonly known as the “Euthyphro dilemma,” originally took this form:  Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is something pious because the gods love it?”  Transposed into the context of a theistic (rather than polytheistic) divine command ethic, the dilemma looks like this:

1. Does God command X because it is good


2. Is X good because God commands it?

 The question might appear trifling, but it does have some bite to it.  If we opt for (1), then something besides God’s commanding a behavior makes it good.  That is, the standard for goodness is not God’s commands, which seems to flout the notion that God is the foundation of ethics.  On the other hand, if we go with option (2), then this prompts the question why God commanded X, so it is really no answer at all.  Now, one could insist that this “why” question admits of no answer and that God’s commands are ultimately arbitrary.  But, then, this implies that God could just as well have commanded that we rape, murder, and steal from one another and, consequently, such behaviors would have been just as moral as kindness, compassion, and generosity are now.  This seems absurd, so option (2) is no more appealing than option (1).

The theist appears to be stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place here—specifically the options of admitting either that God is not the foundation of ethics or that God’s commands are arbitrary.   Is there a way out for the theist who insists that God is foundational to—or in any way crucially related to—ethics?  Many atheists and agnostics believe this argument to be devastating.  But, really, the solution is quite simple (as evidenced by the fact that in every one of my philosophy classes in which this argument is discussed some student solves the riddle on his or her own, or else with just a little Socratic leading by yours truly).  Can you figure it out?  See if you can do so before reading the next paragraph.

The best response—as I see it anyway—is to take the approach of Thomas Aquinas, among many others, and go with option (1) but to qualify this in an important way.  Yes, God commands what he does because those things are good, but the standard for goodness is not something external to God.  Rather, the divine nature is the moral standard.  It is the character of God which determines how God commands us to behave.  This explains why Scripture often uses the term “godly” and “godliness” as synonyms for moral goodness or piety.  They are one and the same thing.  To be moral is to reflect the moral nature of God.  So each divine command is essentially a specific application of the general command to morally imitate God.  Moreover, given this approach, divine commands are not properly conceived as the source of goodness but rather they serve the function of making the standard of goodness known.  That is, the role of divine commands is epistemological, whereas God’s character is the ontological ground of ethics.

Of course, atheists and many others will object that defining moral goodness in terms of the divine nature begs the question, Why call God’s nature good?  But this question could be asked about any proposed ultimate standard for ethics (e.g., pleasure, human survival, universalizability, etc.).  If there is indeed a moral standard, then its goodness must be fundamental, absolute, and inexplicable.  The nature of God is far superior to any alternative proposal because God is a being, not a mere concept or ideal.  Moreover, this Thomistic approach has the additional virtue of paralleling the foundation of ethics to that in theistic ontology and epistemology, where we understand God to be the ground of all being and of all rationality, respectively.  (I would even extend this, perhaps more controversially, to the realm of aesthetics, and propose that God is the ground of all beauty.)  Here we see another dimension of the conceptual coherence of theism.

7 Responses to “Solving the Euthyphro Problem”

  1. Matt


    I agree that the Thomistic account best answers the Euthyphro Dilemma concerning the metaphysics of goodness. But what about how we know the good? I’m a grad student in philosophy at a secular school and most of my classmates are atheists. When we discuss things like this, they ultimately bring up epistemology. They may concede that God is the grounding for good, but how do we know the good in the particulars? Christians throughout history have disagreed on the particulars of ethics. For instance, we’ve disagreed on slavery, pacifism vs just war, whether to burn heretics at the stake, etc. So they argue that if God is the grounding of our ethics, He should have made it so that we could know the good in particular actions. I think the best answer should be something concerning the effects of sin on our cognitive capacity to know the good, but then my atheist friends don’t much like the concept of sin at all. Its frustrating when you try to debate someone who has vastly different presuppositions and won’t admit that they even have presuppositions. I think that they come from the ‘presumption of atheism’ mindset or maybe even scientism. Anyway, I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work!

  2. Jim Spiegel



    Good question about the epistemological difficulties regarding many ethical issues. I think this problem can be conceived as a species of the so-called problem of “divine hiddenness.” There are many ways in which God could have made certain truths about his nature and the good clearer to us. And this requires an explanation. Without delving into details (perhaps I can do so in a future post), I would say that most of the problem is due to our sin and its cognitive consequences, as well as the fact that sin generally makes the world more confusing and creates innumerable moral dilemmas that would probably be difficult even for a sinless mind to work through.

    As for the fact that your atheist friends don’t like the concept of sin, that’s to be expected. While I have known atheists who do believe strongly in the reality of sin—and even, in one case, total depravity!—many find this to be offensive and unnecessarily negative. And when you don’t share this presupposition about human nature, this places certain limits on how far you can get in a discussion about ethics.

  3. Matt


    That’s a good point. Looking back on these conversations, I see now how often we begin talking about one problem (moral grounding) and shift to a totally separate problem (divine hiddenness) without even realizing it!

  4. Landon Hedrick


    Jim, you wrote: “Why call God’s nature good? But this question could be asked about any proposed ultimate standard for ethics (e.g., pleasure, human survival, universalizability, etc.). If there is indeed a moral standard, then its goodness must be fundamental, absolute, and inexplicable. The nature of God is far superior to any alternative proposal because God is a being, not a mere concept or ideal. ”

    Now you have me interested. This is a common response to the Euthyphro dilemma, and I would indeed ask why we should call God’s nature good. Julian Baggini reformulates the dilemma in his book “Atheism: A Very Short Introduction”:

    “Is God good because to be good just is to be whatever God is; or is God good because God has all the properties of goodness? If we choose the former answer we again find that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be, even if God were a sadist.” (p. 39)

    Of course, the response I would expect to Baggini’s dilemma is that God is necessarily what he is. There is a good line of dialogue to pursue there. But what I’m most interested in at this point is how you justify the claim that “The nature of God is far superior to any alternative proposal because God is a being, not a mere concept or ideal. ” Why does the fact that God is a being entail that your alleged ground for goodness is better than all other accounts (and not just better, but “far superior”)? How do you justify that?

  5. Dan Newcomb



    Thank you for your explanation. It seems like I have seen this argument/dilemma brought up on many blogs lately.

    You mentioned Ontology which reminded me of St Anselm and his famous Ontological argument. Is that still a valid argument for the existence of God in your opinion? It seems to be to me but I am only a traveling salesman. Besides, I am pretty convinced of God’s existence anyway as I cry out to Him often for help and He often does! (this is not really piety at work, I suppose, just the common salesman’s desperation).

  6. Jim Spiegel



    Excellent question. You ask “Why does the fact that God is a being entail that your alleged ground for goodness is better than all other accounts (and not just better, but ‘far superior’)?” My justification lies in a number of considerations, including my essentially Anselmian conviction that it is better to be than merely to be conceived. Probably you’ll contest this, but I think Anselm’s intuition is quite right here. By the way, I’m also convinced by the ontological argument (or a version of it) that he builds on this intuition which, by the way, further reinforces the reasonableness of the Thomistic approach to the Euthyphro problem (notwithstanding the fact that Aquinas was not persuaded by Anselm’s theistic proof).

  7. Ieuan Cox


    This debate should not be split into atheist Vs theist, a proper understanding of the Euthyphyro dilemma would tell you that both Euthyphro and Socrates (who gave the view that you are now portraying as that of an atheist) assumed that god/ gods existed.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)