Grounding Morality and the Euthyphro Dilemma
My recent post on the problem of evil stirred up quite a bit of discussion. One issue that I brushed over in my post, but which came up repeatedly in the comments, was that theism is no better than atheistic materialism at explaining how there can be objective moral standards due to the infamous "Euthyphro Dilemma" (ED).
Before getting to ED, however, let me state more explicitly why I think materialism has a problem grounding objective morality. It has to do with the peculiar nature of foundational moral principles (FMP's). (1) FMP's are necessary truths. (2) FMP's are substantive truths that describe general ideals. (3) The ground of these truths is not plausibly identified with anything physical.
Consider (1). Could there be a possible world in which it was morally permissible to torture babies to death for fun? If there is no such possible world, then the rule is necessary. Suppose for the moment that there is such a world. The only way in which it could be morally permissible to torture a baby to death for fun would be if that moral rule was trumped by a more fundamental moral rule. Now consider that rule: Is there any possible world in which exceptions to it are morally justified? If so, then they are justified by a still more fundamental moral rule. And so on. If we follow the analysis out, we'll eventually arrive at FMP's that are binding in all possible situations without exception. These FMP's must, therefore, be necessary truths.
Consider (2). Even though FMP's are necessary truths, they are not trivial tautologies like "A horse is a horse" (Of course! Of course!) or "If triangles have three sides then triangles have three sides". Instead, they are substantive truths because they pertain to how things categorically ought to be. In other words, they reflect ultimate, objective ideals. To assert a true FMP is to say that there exists a moral standard that is unequivocally and intrinsically good. By (1), this standard exists in all possible worlds.
Now, consider (3). As far as we can tell the physical world is not necessary. If the physical world is not necessary, then the intrinsically good standards grounding FMP's cannot be physical, nor can they supervene on the physical or be dependent on the physical in any essential way. Nor is the physical world in any obvious way a normative ideal. The only aspects of the physical world that it is even remotely plausible to think of as necessary are general and pervasive (space, time, causality, energy, gravitational fields, etc.). And none of those seems to be anything like a normative ideal.
As a result of (1)-(3), it seems quite clear to me that materialism has no obvious answer to the question of where objective moral standards come from. Theism, on the other hand, does seem to have a ready-made answer. For theists believe that God is a necessary being who intrinsically and essentially exemplifies to the highest degree all pure perfections. If such a being exists, then we have a necessarily existing, unequivocally good Ideal.
"Not so fast," the atheist chimes in. What about the Euthyphro Dilemma (ED)? Doesn't this show that God is of no use when it comes to grounding morality? If so, then aren't the materialist and the theist in the same boat as far as this issue is concerned?
Well, let's consider the matter. The so-called "Euthyphro Dilemma" derives from Plato's early dialogue, Euthyphro, in which Plato depicts a conversation between Socrates, then on his way to trial for impiety (two of the charges against him were denying the gods of the city and introducing new gods), and Euthyphro, a professional religious expert who considers himself an expert on matters pertaining to piety. Never one to pass up an opportunity to engage in philosophical dialogue, Socrates questions Euthyphro about the nature of piety. One of the proposals that Euthyphro makes is that piety is "what all the gods love". This, then, prompts Socrates to ask whether the gods love pious things because they are pious, or whether pious things are pious because the gods love them. The question is easily adapted to the theistic proposal on the grounding of morality:
(ED) Is God moral because he wills what is moral, or are moral things moral because God wills them?
ED asks for clarification on the relation between God and ultimate moral standards, and it poses a dilemma. If the theist takes the first option, then it looks like the ultimate ground of morality must lie outside of God. But then it seems that one could just bypass theism as far as the grounding of morality is concerned. If, however, the theist takes the second option, then morality looks to be arbitrarily dependent on God's will. And isn't that inconsistent with the necessary and thus non-arbitrary nature of morality as described above under (1)? Either way, then, it seems like theism does not provide a ground for morality.
There is a standard theistic answer to this dilemma, however. Notice that both halves of the question presuppose that either God or moral ideals must be explanatorily prior to the other. This is an assumption that theists reject. They believe that God intrinsically and essentially exemplifies all pure perfections to the highest possible degree. In other words, theists hold that God by nature is the ultimate moral ideal. As one biblical author puts it, God is love (1 John 4). (Indeed, love is arguably God's chief attribute; his other main attributes being corollaries of that one.) In any case, by rejecting the assumption that either God or moral ideals must be explanatorily prior to the other the theist effectively neutralizes the Euthyphro Dilemma.
I should make one more point before closing. Suppose we ask what makes God good? To ask that is to suppose that there is something distinct from God (a property, say) that makes him good. This the theist should deny. God is not good because he exemplifies something distinct from himself; rather, God is the Good, goodness itself in its concrete fullness. (Note: 'goodness' here does not denote an abstract entity.) If it be charged that this makes the concept of 'goodness' vacuous or unacceptably mysterious, I would point out that in order to pose the metaphysical question "What is the ground of moral goodness?" in the first place we must already have a pretheoretical understanding of what 'goodness' means, however vague and imperfect that understanding may be. To suppose, then, that the theistic answer somehow renders the notion of 'goodness' vacuous is to confuse the metaphysical question with an epistemic one (viz., "How do we know that our pretheoretical understanding of moral goodness is accurate?").