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The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro: "Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" (10a)

In monotheistic terms, this is usually transformed into: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?" The dilemma has continued to present a problem for theists since Plato presented it and it is still an object of theological and philosophical debate.

The dilemma

Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing the nature of piety in Euthyphro. Euthyphro proposes (6e) that the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) is the same thing as what is loved by the gods (τὸ θεοφιλές), but Socrates finds a problem with this proposal, since the gods may disagree among themselves (7e). Euthyphro then revises his definition to include only as pious what is loved by all gods unanimously (9e).

At this point the dilemma surfaces. Socrates asks whether the pious is loved by the gods because it is the pious, or whether the pious is the pious because it is loved by the gods (10a). In other words, which comes first in explanation: the pious being the pious, or the gods' love of the pious? Either the pious being the pious is that which explains why the gods love it, or the gods' love of it is that which explains why the pious is the pious. Socrates and Euthyphro both accept the first option: surely the gods love the pious because it is pious. But this means, Socrates argues, that we are forced to reject the second option: the fact that the gods love it cannot be what explains why the pious is the pious (10d). This is because both options together would yield a vicious circle, with the gods loving the pious because it is the pious, and the pious being the pious because the gods love it. And this in turn means, Socrates argues, that the pious is not the same as the god-beloved, for what makes the pious the pious is not what makes the god-beloved the god-beloved. After all, what makes the god-beloved the god-beloved is the fact that the gods love it, whereas what makes the pious the pious is something else (9d-11a). Thus Euthyphro's theory does not give us the very nature of the pious, but at most a quality of the pious (11ab).

To understand the difficulties the philosophers experience to come to terms with the adjective "ὅσιος", it is important to note that it carries a double meaning of "hallowed" and "profane": "hallowed" in the sense that what is "ὅσιος" is dependent on the divine, as opposed to "δίκαιος", which is justice as promulgated by human lawmakers, and "profane" in the sense that what is "ὅσιος" are actions which take place in the sphere of human relations, as opposed to "ἱερός", which refers anything religiously dedicated to the gods. Thus, the very term "ὅσιος" embodies the crux of the dilemma, viz., the attempt to separate "piety" from the divine sphere as something that can stand on its own in the human sphere.[original research?]

In philosophical theism

The dilemma can be modified to apply to philosophical theism, where it is still the object of theological and philosophical debate, largely within the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions. As Leibniz presents this version of the dilemma: "It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things."[1]

Explanation of the dilemma

The first horn

The first horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is right is commanded by God because it is right) is sometimes known as intellectualism or rationalism. Roughly, it is the view is that there are independent moral standards: some actions are right or wrong in themselves, independently of God's commands. As seen above, this is the view accepted by Socrates and Euthyphro in Plato's dialogue. The Mu'tazilah school of Islamic theology also defended the view, with some (e.g., Nazzam) maintaining that God is powerless to engage in injustice or lying.[2] Though Aquinas never explicitly addresses the Euthyphro dilemma, interpreters often put him on this side of the issue.[3] Aquinas draws a distinction between what is good or evil in itself and what is good or evil because of God's commands,[4] with unchangeable moral standards forming the bulk of natural law.[5] Thus he contends that not even God can change the Ten Commandments (adding that God can change what individuals deserve in particular cases, in what might look like special dispensations to murder or steal).[6] Among later Scholastics, Vásquez is particularly clear-cut about obligations coming prior to anyone's will, even God's.[7] Modern natural law theory saw Grotius and Leibniz also putting morality prior to God's will, comparing moral truths to unchangeable mathematical truths, and engaging voluntarists like Pufendorf in philosophical controversy.[8] Cambridge Platonists like Benjamin Whichcote and Ralph Cudworth mounted seminal attacks on voluntarist theories, paving the way for the later rationalist metaethics of Samuel Clarke and Richard Price:[9] what emerged was a view on which eternal moral standards (though dependent on God in some way) exist independently of God's will and prior to God's commands. Contemporary philosophers of religion who take this horn of the Euthyphro dilemma include Richard Swinburne[10] and T. J. Mawson[11] (though see below for complications).


This horn of the dilemma faces several problems:

  • Sovereignty: If there are moral standards independent of God's will, then "[t]here is something over which God is not sovereign. God is bound by the laws of morality instead of being their establisher. Moreover, God depends for his goodness on the extent to which he conforms to an independent moral standard. Thus, God is not absolutely independent."[12] 18th-century philosopher Richard Price, who takes the first horn and thus sees morality as "necessary and immutable", sets out the objection as follows: "It may seem that this is setting up something distinct from God, which is independent of him, and equally eternal and necessary."[13]
  • Omnipotence: These moral standards would limit God's power: not even God could oppose them by commanding what is evil and thereby making it good. As Richard Swinburne puts the point, this horn "seems to place a restriction on God's power if he cannot make any action which he chooses obligatory... [and also] it seems to limit what God can command us to do. God, if he is to be God, cannot command us to do what, independently of his will, is wrong."[14] This point was very influential in Islamic theology: "In relation to God, objective values appeared as a limiting factor to His power to do as He wills... Ash'ari got rid of the whole embarrassing problem by denying the existence of objective values which might act as a standard for God’s action."[15] Similar concerns drove the medieval voluntarists Scotus and Ockham.[16]
  • Freedom of the will: Moreover, these moral standards would limit God's freedom of will: God could not command anything opposed to them, and perhaps would have no choice but to command in accordance with them.[17] As Mark Murphy puts the point, "if moral requirements existed prior to God's willing them, requirements that an impeccable God could not violate, God's liberty would be compromised."[18]
  • Morality without God: If there are moral standards independent of God, then morality would retain its authority even if God did not exist. This conclusion was explicitly (and notoriously) drawn by early modern political theorist Hugo Grotius: "What we have been saying [about the natural law] would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him"[19] On such a view, God is no longer a "law-giver" but at most a "law-transmitter" who plays no vital role in the foundations of morality.[20] Nontheists have capitalized on this point, largely as a way of disarming moral arguments for God's existence: if morality does not depend on God in the first place, such arguments stumble at the starting gate.[21]

The second horn

The second horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is right is right because it is commanded by God) is sometimes known as divine command theory or voluntarism. Roughly, it is the view that there are no moral standards other than God's will: without God's commands, our actions would be neither right nor wrong. This view was partially defended by Scotus, in arguing that not all Ten Commandments belong to the natural law. Scotus held that while our duties to God (found on the first tablet) are self-evident, true by definition, and unchangeable even by God, our duties to others (found on the second tablet) were arbitrarily willed by God and are within his power to revoke and replace (which is why God was able to command the murder of Isaac, the spoiling of the Egyptians, and the adulterous marriage of Hosea).[22] Ockham went further, contending that (since there is no contradiction in it) God could command us not to love God[23] and even to hate God.[24] Later Scholastics like Pierre D'Ailly and his student Jean de Gerson explicitly confronted the Euthyphro dilemma, taking the voluntarist position that God does not "command good actions because they are good or prohibit evil ones because they are evil; but... these are therefore good because they are commanded and evil because prohibited."[25] Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both stressed the absolute sovereignty of God's will, with Luther writing that "for [God's] will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it"[26], and Calvin writing that "everything which [God] wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it."[27] The voluntarist emphasis on God's absolute power was carried further by Descartes, who notoriously held that God had freely created the eternal truths of logic and mathematics, and that God was therefore capable of giving circles unequal radii,[28] giving triangles other than 180 internal degrees, and even making contradictions true.[29] Descartes explicitly seconded Ockham on hating God: "why should [God] not have been able to give this command [i.e., the command to hate God] to one of his creatures?"[30] Hobbes notoriously reduced the justice of God to "irresistible power"[31] (drawing the complaint of Bishop Bramhall that this "overturns... all law").[32] And Paley held that all moral obligations bottom out in the "urge" to avoid hell and enter heaven by acting in accord with God's commands.[33] Islam's Ash'arite theologians, al-Ghazali foremost among them, all accepted voluntarism: scholar George Hourani writes that the view "was probably more prominent and widespread in Islam than in any other civilization."[34] Today divine command theory is defended by many philosophers of religion, though typically in a moderate form (see below).


This horn of the dilemma also faces several problems:

  • No reasons for morality: If there is no moral standard other than God's will, then God's commands are arbitrary (i.e., based on pure whimsy or caprice). This would mean that morality is ultimately not based on reasons: "if theological voluntarism is true, then God's commands/intentions must be arbitrary; [but] it cannot be that morality could wholly depend on something arbitrary... [for] when we say that some moral state of affairs obtains, we take it that there is a reason for that moral state of affairs obtaining rather than another."[35] And as Michael J. Murray and Michael Rea put it, this would also "cas[t] doubt on the notion that morality is genuinely objective."[36]
  • No reasons for God: This arbitrariness would also jeopardize God's status as a wise and rational being, one who always acts on good reasons only. As Leibniz writes: "Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful? Besides it seems that every act of willing supposes some reason for the willing and this reason, of course, must precede the act."[37]
  • Anything goes[38]: This arbitrariness would also mean that anything could become good, and anything could become bad, merely upon God's command. Thus if God commanded us "to gratuitously inflict pain on each other"[39] or to engage in "cruelty for its own sake"[40] or to hold an "annual sacrifice of randomly selected ten-year-olds in a particularly gruesome ritual that involves excruciating and prolonged suffering for its victims"[41], then we would be morally obligated to do so. As 17th-century philosopher Ralph Cudworth put it: "nothing can be imagined so grossly wicked, or so foully unjust or dishonest, but if it were supposed to be commanded by this omnipotent Deity, must needs upon that hypothesis forthwith become holy, just, and righteous."[42]
  • Moral contingency: If morality depends on the perfectly free will of God, morality would lose its necessity: "If nothing prevents God from loving things that are different from what God actually loves, then goodness can change from world to world or time to time. This is obviously objectionable to those who believe that claims about morality are, if true, necessarily true."[43] In other words, no action has its moral status necessarily: any right action could have easily been wrong, if God had so decided, and an action which is right today could easily become wrong tomorrow, if God so decides. Indeed, some have argued that divine command theory is incompatible with ordinary conceptions of moral supervenience.[44]
  • Why do God's commands obligate?: Mere commands do not create obligations unless the commander has some commanding authority. But this commanding authority cannot itself be based on those very commands (i.e., a command to obey one's own commands), otherwise a vicious circle results. So, in order for God's commands to obligate us, he must derive commanding authority from some source other than his own will. As Cudworth put it: "For it was never heard of, that any one founded all his authority of commanding others, and others (sic) obligation or duty to obey his commands, in a law of his own making, that men should be required, obliged, or bound to obey him. Wherefore since the thing willed in all laws is not that men should be bound or obliged to obey; this thing cannot be the product of the meer (sic) will of the commander, but it must proceed from something else; namely, the right or authority of the commander"[45]. To avoid the circle, one might say our obligation comes from gratitude to God for creating us. But this presupposes some sort of independent moral standard obligating us to be grateful to our benefactors. As 18th-century philosopher Francis Hutcheson writes: "Is the Reason exciting to concur with the Deity this, 'The Deity is our Benefactor?' Then what Reason excites to concur with Benefactors?"[46] Or finally, one might resort to Hobbes's view: "The right of nature whereby God reigneth over men, and punisheth those that break his laws, is to be derived, not from his creating them (as if he required obedience, as of gratitude for his benefits), but from his irresistible power."[47] In other words, might makes right.
  • God's goodness: If all goodness is a matter of God's will, then what shall become of God's goodness? Thus William P. Alston writes, "since the standards of moral goodness are set by divine commands, to say that God is morally good is just to say that he obeys his own commands... that God practises what he preaches, whatever that might be"[48], and Hutcheson deems such a view "an insignificant Tautology, amounting to no more than this, 'That God wills what he wills.'"[49] Alternatively, as Leibniz puts it, divine command theorists "deprive God of the designation good: for what cause could one have to praise him for what he does, if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well?"[50]. A related point is raised by C. S. Lewis: "if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the 'righteous Lord.'"[51] Or again Leibniz: "this opinion would hardly distinguish God from the devil."[52] That is, since divine command theory trivializes God's goodness, it is incapable of explaining the difference between God and an all-powerful demon.
  • The is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy: According to David Hume, it is hard to see how moral propositions featuring the relation ought could ever be deduced from ordinary is propositions, such as "the being of a God".[53] Divine command theory is thus guilty of deducing moral oughts from ordinary ises about God's commands.[54] In a similar vein, G. E. Moore argued (with his open question argument) that the notion good is indefinable, and any attempts to analyze it in naturalistic or metaphysical terms are guilty of the so-called "naturalistic fallacy".[55] This would block any theory which analyzes morality in terms of God's will: and indeed, in a later discussion of divine command theory, Moore concluded that "when we assert any action to be right or wrong, we are not merely making an assertion about the attitude of mind towards it of any being or set of beings whatever".[56]
  • No morality without God: If all morality is a matter of God's will, then if God does not exist, there is no morality. This is the thought captured in the slogan (often attributed to Dostoevsky) "If God does not exist, everything is permitted." Divine command theorists disagree over whether this is a problem for their view or a virtue of their view. Many would argue that morality does indeed require God's existence, and that this is in fact a problem for atheism. But divine command theorist Robert M. Adams contends that this idea ("that no actions would be ethically wrong if there were not a loving God") is one that "will seem (at least initially) implausible to many", and that his theory must "dispel [an] air of paradox."[57]

Attempts to resolve the dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma has troubled philosophers and theologians ever since Plato first propounded it. While both horns (and their aforesaid consequences) have had their adherents, the Natural Law Theory probably being the more popular, some philosophers have tried to find a middle ground and, in doing so, maintained a non-arbitrariness to a none-the-less religious morality.

False-dilemma response

Christian philosophers, starting with Thomas Aquinas have often answered that the dilemma is false: yes, God commands something because it is good, but the reason it is good is that "good is an essential part of God's nature". So goodness is grounded in God's character and merely expressed in moral commands. Therefore whatever a good God commands will always be good. Which is to say that God is good by definition- in a way he has no choice because it is simply in his nature to be that way. And he commands others to be good as well. But this still raises the question: why is he good? Is the theory saying that there is an objective code of morality and for some reason he must be in alignment with it? If so, how did that code come to exist? Didn't God make the code, as he made everything else, including time, empty space and other non-physical things?

Fr. Owen Carroll notes that the medieval philosophical tradition Realism, to which Aquinas belonged, assumes that the model that God used when creating the universe was within Himself so that the goodness of this world reflects and participates in some limited way and extent in the infinite goodness of God's own divine nature. The position of the opposing school of Nominalism maintains that the model that God used when creating the universe is outside of God and thus the goodness of this world is alien to the goodness of God Himself. The moral consequence of the latter position is that whatever God wills is good, even if it is inherently contradictory and morally arbitrary according to human reason. Thus if God wills the damnation of any individual person the entirety of his creation is good simply because God wills it. From this perspective the definitive human virtue is an unquestioning obedience to the divine will, even if that divine will commands one to perform an act which God will then immediately condemn as evil and meriting eternal damnation. One might note that one would seem to be left with no objective standard by which to judge what is and what is not God's will. Any claims to immediate divine inspiration as imparting a knowledge of the divine will is ultimately authoritative only for the claiment and those who choose to believe him and it has to be assumed that any such claim is subject to the usual subconscious psychological forces that underlie and distort the human subjective consciousness, i.e., what traditional Christian ascetic tradition designates as the 'passions'. Fr. Carroll notes that the position that whatever God wills is good simply because God wills it is more common and historically prominent in Islamic theology and philosophy, but enters and influences Western theology and philosophy through the influence of contemporary medieval Islamic philosophical writings on Nominalism.

Some followers of the Realist approach, following Aquinas and earlier readers of Plato such as Plotinus, say that "God" is in whole or part the definition of goodness itself. John Frame and others say this avoids the naturalistic fallacy because the source of God's whims or commands is in some way the definition of good for everybody. This view led Anselm of Canterbury to say that God exists outside of all motion or change and does not really feel passions such as love. It only seems that way to our finite minds. Aristotle had proposed in his Metaphysics a similar view of Gods who feel no emotion towards the world or their worshipers, but inspire imitation.

Gnosticism and other dualistic schools similarly postulate that God is identical with goodness, which turns the dilemma into a tautology, equating the God of the universe and creation as the demiurge with the gnostic God as the true God or God of Good.

Others contend that it is also a fallacious argument, because the conclusion contains a premise (that God is in fact 'good'), making it logically flawed. This is commonly answered by noting that the statement is one of two offered conditionals, not an assumed premise.

Necessary and contingent moral values?

Some modern philosophers have also attempted to find a compromise. For example, Richard Swinburne has argued that moral values fall into two categories: the necessary and the contingent. God can decide to create the world in many different ways, each of which grounds a particular set of contingent values; with regard to these, then, the divine command theory is the correct explanation. Certain values, however, such as the immorality of rape, murder, and torture, hold in all possible worlds, so it makes no sense to say that God could have created them differently; with regard to these values, the first horn of the dilemma is the best explanation.

Different meanings of "moral"

In developing what he calls a "modified divine-command theory", R.M. Adams distinguishes between two meanings of ethical terms like "right" and "wrong":

  1. the meaning that atheists conceive (which in fact Adams explains in roughly emotivist terms)
  2. the meaning that has its place in religious discourse (that is, commanded or forbidden by God).

Because God is claimed benevolent, the two meanings could coincide; God is, however, free to command other than he has done, and if he had chosen to command, for example, that murder was morally right, then the two meanings would break apart, effectively choosing the second horn of the dilemma: God just happens to command what would be good in any case ("eutheism"), but allowing for a hypothetical scenario where God decides to become malevolent ("dystheism").

See also

  • Ethical dilemma
  • Morality
  • Ethics in the Bible


  1. Leibniz, Gottfried. "Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice" (1702?), in Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters, ed. Loemker (Dordrecht: Klumer, 1989) p. 561
  2. Wolfson, Harry. The Philosophy of the Kalam, p. 579
  3. Haldane, John. "Realism and voluntarism in medieval ethics", pp. 40; Irwin, Terence. The Development of Ethics, Volume I. pp. 553-556
  4. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae 2a2ae 57.2
  5. ST 2a1ae 94.5
  6. ST 1a2ae 100.8
  7. Pink, Thomas. "Action, Will, and Law in Late Scholasticism" (2005); see also Irwin, Terence. op. cit., Volume II. pp. 6-10
  8. See esp. Grotius, Hugo. The Rights of War and Peace, 1.1.10 and Leibniz, op. cit.; see also Leibniz's "Opinion on the Principles of Pufendorf", in Political Writings (ed. Riley), pp. 64-75
  9. Gill, Michael. "The Religious Rationalism of Benjamin Whichcote", esp. pp. 272-74;; Mackie, J. L. Hume's Moral Theory, chs. 2, 8; Gill, Michael. British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics
  10. Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism (pp. 209-216); "God and Morality" (2008)
  11. Mawson, T. J. "The Euthyphro Dilemma" (2008)
  12. Murray, Michael J. & Rea, Michael. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge 2008), pp. 247
  13. Price, Richard. A Review of the Principal Questions of Morals, ch. 5
  14. Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism, p. 210
  15. Hourani, George. "Two Theories of Value in Medieval Islam", p. 276
  16. Haldane, op. cit. pp. 42-43
  17. See Adams 1999 pp. 47-49 for detailed discussion of this problem. See also Suárez, De legibus, ac Deo legislatore 2.6.22-23.
  19. Grotius, Hugo. op. cit., Prolegomenon, 11
  20. Kretzmann, p. 423, in Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions
  21. Oppy, Graham. Arguing about Gods, pp. 352-356
  22.; The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus pp. 312-316; see Richard Cross's Duns Scotus for the view that our duties to others "hold automatically [i.e., without God's commands] unless God commands otherwise" (p. 92).
  23. William of Ockham. Quodlibeta 3.13
  24. William of Ockham. Reportata 4.16; see also Osborne, Thomas M., Jr. "Ockham as a divine-command theorist" (2005)
  25. D'Ailly, Pierre. Questions on the Books of the Sentences 1.14; quoted in Wainwright, William. Religion and Morality, p. 74, quoting Idziak 63-4; see Wainwright p. 74 for similar quotes from Gerson
  26. On the Bondage of the Will, §88
  27. Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.23.2
  28. Descartes, René. CSM III 25
  29. CSM III 235
  30. CSM III 343
  31. "Of Liberty and Necessity" 12
  32. "A Defense of True Liberty", 12f
  33. Principles 2.3
  34. Hourani, George. "Two Theories of Value in Medieval Islam", p. 270
  36. Murray, Michael J. & Rea, Michael. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge 2008), pp. 246-47
  37. Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics (1686), II
  38. Murray & Rea, pp. 246
  39. Alston, William P. "What Euthyphro should have said", p. 285
  40. Adams, Robert Merrihew. "A modified divine command theory of ethical wrongness" (1973), 320
  41. Morriston, Wesley. "What if God commanded something terrible: a worry for divine-command meta-ethics" (2009), 249
  42. Cudworth, Ralph. A Treatise concerning eternal and immutable Morality, 1.1.5
  43. Murray & Rae, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge 2008), pp. 246
  44. Klagge, James C. "An Alleged Difficulty Concerning Moral Properties" (1984), pp. 374-375
  45. Cudworth, 1.2.4
  46. Hutcheson, Francis. Illustrations on the Moral Sense, I
  47. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan 31.5
  48. Alston, p. 285
  49. Hutcheson, Francis. An Inquiry Into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue; In Two Treatises 2.7.5
  50. Leibniz, Gottfried. Theodicy, 176
  51. Lewis, C. S. "The Poison of Subjectivism", p. 79
  52. Leibniz, Gottfried. "Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice", p. 561
  53. Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature,
  54. Wierenga, Edward. "A Defensible Divine Command Theory", p. 397
  55. Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica, chs. 1, 2, 4
  56. Moore, G. E. Ethics, p. 79
  57. Adams, Robert M. "Divine command metaethics modified again" (1979), p. 77

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