The Reality of Divine Command Ethics and Euthyphro’s Dilemma

     The society we live in today is filled with differing views and opinions about the religious pluralism throughout the world. Of the many world religions, there is much debate over the issues surrounding each system of faith, and debates over the validity of the Christian faith seem to be at the forefront everywhere. In what follows, is a section of my undergraduate research paper in which I dealt with three issues surrounding the nature of morality when it comes to the God of the Christian faith.  Being a Christian myself, I am defending the claim that God from the Bible is in fact a morally sound agent who loves and cares for His creation. Please consider the following argument as it deals with heavy philosophical and moral implications.       

     One of the major attacks on God’s morality comes from a strong moral and philosophical angle. This objection takes in to consideration a theological theory known as “Divine Command Ethics”. Within the Christian circle, there are many scholars who hold to this view. Among a few would be Dr. William Lane Craig from Biola University, Dr. John Frame professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, and Greg Koukl the president of Stand to Reason. All three advocate the idea of Divine Command Ethics.

      Divine command ethics is a view that seeks to formulate the true basis for morality, namely, that it comes from God Himself. Consider what Dr. James Rachels, a moral philosopher who was University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has to say when defining this concept, “Essentially, this theory says that “morally right” is a matter of being commanded by God and “morally wrong” is a matter of being forbidden by God” (54). In other words, morality results specifically from what God commands.

     Rachels goes on to point out in his book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, that the concept of Divine Command Ethics “has a number of attractive features” (54).  One of these “attractive” features would be the solving of the problem of morality being objective. If God does exist, then there is no reason to think that morality is subjective because there is a higher authority giving morality a true objective grounding in reality.

     Another striking quality about Divine Command Ethics is the fact that it answers the question of why anyone should trouble themselves with morality in the first place. Again, just as Rachels states, “If immorality is the violation of God’s commandments, there is an easy answer: On the day of final reckoning, you will be held accountable” (54). If God does exist then that should be enough motivation for anyone to get their “act” together morally.

     Though the theory of Divine Command Ethics seems attractive at first glance, there seems to be an apparent fallacy within the theory itself that seems to present a problem for the Christian worldview.  As Rachels explains further, “The main problem was first noted by Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived 400 years before the birth of Jesus” (55). But what exactly is this problem?

     The predicament that Rachels is referring to has come to be known as “Euthyphro’s Dilemma”. Several hundred years before the Common Era there was a major philosopher named Plato and some of his writings were in the form of conversations that took place between another philosopher known as Socrates and other thinkers. “In one of these dialogues, the Euthyphro, there is a discussion concerning whether “right” can be defined as “that which the gods command” (Rachels 55).

      This discussion in Plato’s writings would eventually lead to a question that Dr. James Rachels and other skeptics use to show how God’s concept of morality is flawed. Consider how Gregory Koukl, a strong evangelical Christian and president of Stand to Reason states this problem in his own words, “Is a thing good simply because the gods say it is? Or do the gods say a thing is good because of some other quality it has? If so, what is that quality”?

     Rachels, being a skeptic of Christianity, takes these two questions and applies them in the same way that Plato did, but in this case to Christianity. Rachels point in doing this is to show that morality from the Christian perspective has no ground if ethics are commanded by God. So the problem is now presented as, “Does God make moral truths true or does he merely recognize that they are true” (Rachels 55). In other words, is morality good because God commands it, or does God command morality because He recognizes morality as good?

     Rachels, in his book, focuses on both questions and shows how the Christian, if asked these questions, cannot seem provide adequate answers. As for the question of if God commands morality because He sees that morality is good, if the Christian accepts this view then the implications are devastating. If God commands morality because it is good, then this means there is a higher standard to judge morality than God Himself. As Rachels states, “When we say that God commands us to be truthful because truthfulness is right, we are acknowledging a standard of right and wrong that is independent of God’s will” (57).

     Rachels actually makes a valid point here. If the Christian believes this to be true, then they are not staying true to the theological convictions of historical Christianity. In this circumstance, God would be an inferior being even to morality. Just as Koukl states and agrees with Rachels, “If the standard itself is absolute such that not even God can violate it, doesn’t this make the Almighty Himself beholden to a higher law? The sovereign becomes the subordinate”. The Christian in turn would be forced to give up the belief that, “you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him” (Deut. 4.35). If God recognizes that there is some kind of higher moral standard, then not even God is the final authority, there is something else co-eternal or even above God Himself.

     What about the second question that Rachels presents? Is morality good because God commands it? Even in this question the Christian appears to be caught by the powers of philosophical logic. On this view, morality is seen to be an arbitrary command. As Koukl states, “The content of morality would be arbitrary dependent on God’s whim”.

     Dr. Rachels continues in his book to give a great example of his argument. Rachels takes the example of child abuse and applies it, “God could make an instance of child abuse right—not by turning a slap into a friendly pinch of the cheek, but by commanding that the slap is right” (56). Most everyone would agree that child abuse is wrong and even if God commanded an act of child abuse to be “right”, people would still think it is wrong. If God could get away with what Rachels describes, then morality would be arbitrary and meaningless. This would go for any other concept of morality as well. Again, consider Koukl, “Though God has declared murder, theft, and debauchery wrong, it could have been otherwise had God willed it so. Any immoral act could suddenly become moral by simple fiat”.

     So it seems that an advocate of the Christian worldview is at a standstill at this point in the argument. Does Rachels make such a good argument that there is no answer to be given from the Christian on this issue? At first glance the apparent answer would be yes, Rachels does make a convincing argument that is logically consistent. In fact, it is such a good argument that Dr. Rachels is right. There is no way for a Christian to get out of this dilemma just by choosing one of these two options. What Dr. Rachels has not considered though, is the fact that neither of these two options describes Christianity in its true light.

     Rachels has missed the notion that within the Christian worldview morality cannot be seen as wholly separate from God rendering it arbitrary or higher in authority to God, but rather, God is the essence of what morality is. Consider what Koukl has to say concerning a new third option for the Christian to grasp, “The third option is that an objective standard exists. However, the standard is not external to God, but internal. Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness”. If morality is “rooted in God’s holiness” then it cannot be arbitrary because God cannot make moral whatever He wishes. It would go against God’s character completely. Morality also cannot be separate from God either because God is not separate from His own character. God’s perfect goodness is a personal trait that cannot be taken away from Him.

     There is, however, biblical evidence to support what Koukl is saying. One example comes from the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6. 17-18). This passage seems to suggest that there is no way in which God could possibly lie. This biblical passage puts a damper on Rachel’s argument that morality is arbitrary when God commands it. If morality where arbitrary to God, potentially God could deem lying as morally “right”. Since within the Christian worldview God cannot lie, He could not change His mind on the issue of lying as Rachels suggests in the example of child abuse.


2 Responses to “The Reality of Divine Command Ethics and Euthyphro’s Dilemma”

  1. October 1, 2009 at 11:37 PM

    If God cannot make moral whatever he wishes then God is not omnipotent. Also, in the Bible, God contradicts himself often (I could cite tons of passages and I know you could too) so it’s always disputable (even among Catholics and the multitude of Christian sects) what God characterizes as “right” and “wrong”.

    Rachels was simply pointing out the logical inconsistencies in the idea that morality comes from God using Plato’s proof by contradiction. Contradiction is a great way to prove things but it generally leaves people uninformed (this is true in math as well).

    Behind Rachels’ reasoning is the ultimate truth that morality is created by people. However, people don’t just make stuff up. It’s obviously not okay to make up the rule “I get to rape someone”. We create morality because we have to live together; we have to be able to trust each other. When someone feels justified in killing someone it’s not because they’re atheist or religious – that person convinced himself that it was okay to kill in that instance. He made it up.

    People need to face up to the fact that we’re social animals and that we created ethics and morality out of necessity. Basically, everything we did up until civilization was out of necessity. We’re modern animals – we’re what’s left of life after it begin eons ago. Did we get here by killing each other? No. Of course there’s in group / out group stuggles, but as a well, segments of society don’t break down because ultimately we all want to live to see tomorrow and we’re all equally confused as to why it’s all here. All we know is that angular momentum will carry us around and the Sun will come up tomorrow and we want to be there to see it with our loved ones.

    Personally, I don’t care if you’re like Richard Dawkins who derives great satisfaction from learning about the scientific processes that led to our current state; a spiritual attraction which led him to denounce religion all together. I don’t care if your favorite person is Jesus, Ghandi, or John Lennon. You have to admit that we evolved on this Earth and our ethics evolved just as our bodies evolved by different cells working together for mutual benefit. United we stand or divided we fall. Life is a game of survival and groups do better than individuals.

    How much clearer could I possibly be: if you’re going to be religious and be rational about it, you’ll have to be deist. “God” whether He’s out there or not, simply does not care about us. Even if this being did care, there’s nothing it could do to intervene in our affairs.

  2. October 1, 2009 at 11:40 PM

    There’s a couple typos in there but I’m too tired to go back and point them out. I recall that “as a well” should be “as a whole”. I apologize…now I go to sleep!

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