Euthyphro’s dilemma

January 15, 2006 at 11:03 pm Leave a comment

In one of his famous dialogues, Plato records an imagined conversation between his teacher, Socrates, and a man named Euthyphro. During this conversation, Socrates tries to get Euthyphro to define for him the nature of piety, or holiness.

After a couple false starts, Euthyphro comes up with a definition that seems workable.

“I would certainly say,” he tells Socrates, “that the holy is what all the gods love, and that the opposite, what all the gods hate, is unholy.”

Socrates responds, “Perhaps we shall learn better, my friend. For consider: is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?”

Euthyphro’s dilemma is simple: He has to decide whether an action is right simply because the gods say it is, or whether the gods say an action is right or wrong for some objective reason.

Though Christians don’t recognize a plurality of gods, the question applies to us, too: Are right and wrong determined solely by God’s fiat? Or is there an objective moral code that exists independently of God?


I suggest that the latter answer must be true—right and wrong have objective definitions independent of God. After all, if we answer that morality is determined by God—that God makes up the rules—then we imply that God’s choice of right and wrong is arbitrary. Good and evil refer to nothing more than what God likes (or doesn’t like). Had God decided He “liked” murder, he could have made murder “right.” Consequently, the idea that God is “good” is meaningless—it simply means God does what He likes to do.

For this reason, it must be that the definitions of right and wrong exist independently of God, even while they are internalized in God. In other words, when God says an action is right or wrong, He does so based on some objective criteria outside Himself. While God does not “play by the rules” of another lawmaker, he does operate on truth that exists apart from Himself.

To answer Euthyphro’s dilemma, then, right actions are decreed by God because they are right, not right because they are decreed.


Do you agree with my take on the matter? If so, how would you answer Socrates’ original question, in which he asked Euthyphro to tell him what makes an action “holy,” or right? In other words, if right and wrong have definitions independent of God, what might those definitions be?


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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