Euthyphro’s Dilemma: Why Atheists & Theists are Stuck in the Same Ethical Boat

A few weeks ago I had a Facebook post about the immorality of homosexuality come up on my feed.  This actually isn’t that uncommon for me.  Growing up I went to a small Christian school that proudly identified as ‘fundamentalist’… but that’s a whole other story.

What sparked my interest in this particular post was the claim that accepting homosexuality creates a slippery slope.  “What’s next???  Bestiality?  Child Marriage?”  Her angle was that there was nothing separating homosexuality from accepting everything else.  The only way out is an ‘absolute moral source’, by which she meant God.  Morality needs someone to dictate what is and is not right or good.

Oddly enough, this idea is also prevalent with Atheists (with a capital ‘A’).  A moral law needs a ‘law giver’.  However, here they take a nihilistic track after they deny that any gods exists.  No god = no lawgiver = no moral law.  It’s a somewhat old story now, but these kind of nihilistic atheists had a huge influence on Leah Libresco, an atheist blogger turned Catholic.

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Now there are only a very few things philosophers have ‘figured out’ over the past few millennia, but this is certainly one of them: Atheists and theists are in the same boat when it comes to thinking about ethics.  God, if He does exist, is at best a guide and judge.  Theists, atheists and everything in between instead have to figure this shit out together.  Ethics, like mathematical and/or sociological laws, is reflected in a priori truths and the facts of the world we live in, including what kinds of things humans are like.

Now of course this doesn’t imply God doesn’t love us, or helps us out or is some ultimate judge.  In fact, I don’t really care to talk about whether God exists, or even if she’s good, bad or ‘beyond’ such.  Instead, what I want to get across here is that the source, justification, or foundation of ethics is separate and independent from God.  Ethics is a topic which both atheists and theists must come at from the same angle.  Therefore, if you want to learn what is right or wrong, you need to ultimately look outside of god, religion, and revelation.


In the 3000 yr old tradition of Philosophy, the discussion about God and ethics was pretty much finished with Plato in the Euthyphro Dialogue.  Socrates asked a pair of exhaustive and mutually exclusive questions:

-Is something right because God commands it?
-Or does God command something because it’s right?

This is basically a chicken or the egg kind of question, and philosophers refer to it as a horned dilemma.  In more explicit terms:  1) Is giving to the poor or not murdering others right because – and only because! – God happens to command it?  Or 2) does God realize that these things are right and then decides to command it of us?


Socrates “Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

Again, this is is a question about what ‘right’, ‘good’, and other moral terms actually are.  What is their foundation built on?  What justifies them?

The first question basically asks if God is the foundation of ethics, like both my Christian friend and various internet nihilistic Atheists argue.  When you say something is ‘right’ or ‘good’ you’re merely saying ‘God commands it’, ‘prefers it’, or ‘it flows from His nature’, etc.  That’s it.

The problem with this is that ethics becomes completely arbitrary.   God could have commanded genocide or rape and that would be the end of the moral story since morality is nothing more than what He commands (or prefers, or ‘flows’, etc)

The second question basically asks if God references some other ‘reason’ or ‘grounds’ outside himself for His commandments.  It flips the concepts around.  This is what actual lawmakers do.  They make laws and then justify them with things like greater well being, autonomy and liberty, and so on.  So like ideal teachers, parents and legislators, God instead commands and loves what is already right and good, independent of his commanding/loving it.  God has, in a sense, figured out ethics already (being omniscient and whatnot) and then tells us about it.

This second option is what I am arguing must be the case.  What grounds ethics, whatever it is, is independent of God.

Secular philosophy (and by ‘secular’ I don’t mean ‘atheistic’, I mean ‘takes no stance on religion’) has tons of meta-ethical answers for what these ‘reasons’ might be, i.e. what the foundations of ethics are.  For instance, there are naturalistic answers, which focus on what kind of things we are as humans.  For instance, we are thinking, suffering, social, curious animals.  And then there are non-naturalistic answers, which range far an wide and rely on epistemic considerations, like intuitions (check out reflective equilibrium).

However, parsing through all these options will have to wait.  Right now the issue is whether God can ground ethics.  Let’s see if the hardcore Theist or Nihilistic Atheist has any reply to Socrates’ dilemma.

“But why not just bite the bullet, as some theists do, and accept that God is arbitrary and doesn’t have any reasons for his commands?   After all He still created us and loves us!”

Here are five reasons why that answer doesn’t help:

  • If ethics is nothing more than God’s commands, then God could have easily commanded or liked murder and rape instead of compassion and friendship.  Compassion, rape, etc are not intrinsically good or bad.  They have no real value themselves.  It is merely that God willy nilly likes them and He could have liked anything else.
  • If murder isn’t actually bad, why is anything at all bad?  God could have made a world without bad things, including disobedience, and therefore making  sin not a bad thing.  And note, it isn’t that murder etc wouldn’t happen… it is that it wouldn’t be a bad thing. However, God did 1) choose to create sins, and 2) decide to make sins punishable things.  This means that God’s salvation from the punishment of sin is really His saving us from Himself.  Praising  God for saving us is then like praising the arson who intentionally set the fire in order to be the hero.
  • Further, saying “God is good” becomes meaningless.  If right/wrong simply is God’s commandments, then calling God good only says “God does what He commands”.  How convenient for Him!  If ethics ‘flows’ from God’s very nature in some way, then calling God good means nothing but “God is what He is”.  A similarly pointless and un-praiseworthy utterance.
  • But God created us?  Don’t we owe Him obedience?  No.  Creating something doesn’t mean you get to use it however you want.  For instance, you’d quickly rebel if you found out some alien race had engineered and farmed you for food.  Realizing they are your ‘creators’ doesn’t mean you should obey their commands or like what they like.  Further, the claim we “owe obedience” is a moral claim.  You then go back to start and ask if God arbitrarily commanded us to owe Him obedience or whether there is a moral nature outside of God.
  • But God loves us?  Similarly, being loved by someone doesn’t mean you have to obey them.  Especially if their commands are arbitrary.  But you might say that God knows what is in our best interests.  If so, then we have reason to listen.  But, if so, then something ‘being in our best interest’ is prior or antecedent to God’s liking/commanding it!  God merely recognizes what is good and then forms His guiding commands.

“But, still the theist and atheist might be in different boats.  God is necessary for finite humanity to ‘figure out’ morality and ethics.  Revelation is the only way to learn right and wrong!” 

  • This might make sense if there was only one ‘revelation’ going around. But since this isn’t the case we need some means to decide which revealed moral laws are the right ones.  We simply cannot confirm one revealed moral truth is true and another false if all we have are the revelations we deciding between.  We need something outside of revelation and common to us all to judge between competing revelations – like reason and experience.
  • If there wasn’t any means outside of revelation, then disagreement between people of other religions would mean nothing more than stating what their respective gods happen to like or command something different.  After learning what the other person’s god commands there is nothing more to discuss.  In contrast to this, even the fundi-est Christian will engage in moral debates and give moral reasons outside of “it’s in the Bible” to convince others.
  • Lastly, if revelation is the only path to any knowledge of ethics and God then saying ‘God is good’ would mean nothing more than ‘God tells us He’s good’.  We then never know if God is actually good or trustworthy. We’d never be able to assess His goodness apart from what He tells us about it.


The point of this essay is not to bash Christians.  Only some Theists take such a narrow, conservative view on ethics as to claim God is the only possible grounds for it.  And even fundamentalist theists, like my friend from the intro,  lose nothing important by saying God doesn’t arbitrarily dictate ethics, but bases his commands on reasons for X actually being good.  Further, again, I’ve said nothing concerning whether God exists, loves, rewards, guides, and so on.

In later essays I hope also to write more about the atheist/nihilist side of this debate.  Further, I’ve already written about different sides in the Cultural Relativism debate.  However, I think a lot of the reason nihilism is so popular among atheists is because they associate God with ethics in the way my Christian friend does.

So to conclude, all I’m trying to say is that we – both atheists and theists alike – are in this shit together and we need to use reason and experience to learn what is right, good and virtuous.  Ethics is really, really difficult and we need to figure it out like all the other puzzles of the world.

There aren’t any easy answers.  So if you’re a Christian you still have to decide what is right and wrong yourself.  And if you’re an Atheist, just because there is no God doesn’t mean the value of compassion and the harm of murder is up in the air or to your own personal preferences.  The choices are simply not between fundamentalist theology and atheistic nihilism.

Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University)
DSC_0484Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology and has been running around the world ever since. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philosophy Curriculum for Camp Quest, Inc.  Paul has a MSc in Comparative Education from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on ethno-religious identity and conflict, and has spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship.  He has also worked with research organizations at the UN and in DC, as well as schools abroad in Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.

22 responses to “Euthyphro’s Dilemma: Why Atheists & Theists are Stuck in the Same Ethical Boat

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  5. From the Catholic POV, here’s what’s wrong with the Euthyphro dilemma: the idea “the gods” come with certain assumptions that don’t apply to our idea of “God”. And it is these assumptions which create the dilemma in the first place. As an example, the gods’ commands become arbitrary because the purpose of their creation of humans was arbitrary in the first place. The gods created humans for their own joy, which meant the commands could change with whatever whims caused their joy. In the case of God, his creation had a fixed purpose which demands fixed beneficial actions (what we term good).


    • First, Socrates, via Plato in the Dialogue, covers the differences between “the gods” and the idea of a singular “God” before introducing the Dilemma.

      Second, where comes this ‘purpose’ you speak of? How are these ‘fixed’ benefits fixed? Any which way, it’s still a choice of arbitrary decisions from God or else some reasons independent from God. The Dilemma is preserved.


      • My basic point is that you can only claim God’s commands to be arbitrary, if there is no limiting factor on his choices of actions to command. This is the case with the Greek gods, because, for the Greeks, humans were just the gods’ toys.
        However, with the Catholic God (and even perhaps the theist’s God), the choices of actions to command is limited. One such limitation is that God created humans (and the universe) with a telos in mind. Given this end, there are things that are absolutely good and bad for humans. Actions which accomplish the end and actions which hinder it.
        At this point, one would say that the standard of goodness then is the telos, which is independent of God. Yet since the telos is created by God himself, then we cannot say the standard of good and bad are independent of God.


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