The Euthyphro Dilemma

David Taffel once wrote that in regards to the dialogues of Plato, it stood “alongside the Bible and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as foundational texts of Western civilization” [1]. The important works of Plato collected under the name The Trial and Death of Socrates give us a vast insight to the philosophy and vivid depiction of his fervent mentor, Socrates. These such works being: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.

The particular area of interest here would be Plato’s earlier dialogue Euthyphro, depicting Socrates and his approaching trial for impiety and corrupting the youth. In this dialogue, Socrates is conversing with a theologian named Euthyphro, who claims to know the nature of “piety” or “holiness.” Socrates questions him on the subject: “Good heavens, Euthyphro! And have you such a precise knowledge of piety and impiety, and of divine things in general [ … ] I adjure you to tell me the nature of piety and impiety, which you said that you knew so well, and of murder, and the rest of them.” [2] Euthyphro replies:

Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any other similar crime – whether he be your father or mother, or some other person, that makes no difference – and not prosecuting them is impiety. And please to consider, Socrates, what a notable proof I will give you of the truth of what I am saying, which I have already given to others: of the truth, I mean, of the principle that the impious, whoever he may be, ought not to go unpunished. For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most righteous of the gods? [3]

After some further discussion, Socrates is not satisfied with Euthyphro’s answer (“I would rather hear from you a more precise answer, which you have not as yet given…”). Thus, Euthyphro elaborates his answer to say that “[p]iety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” Throughout even more discussion of this definition, Socrates later at once agrees and considers Euthyphro’s definition throughout an inquiry. Socrates thus makes the following point: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved by the gods” [4].

The troubling answer to this point comes to:

  • Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?
  • Euthyphro: Yes.
  • Socrates: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?
  • Euthyphro: No, that is the reason.
  • Socrates: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?
  • Euthyphro: Yes.

What is wrong with Euthyphro’s answer? Why is thence called The Euthyphro Dilemma?

The Problem Stated

The problem can be re-stated as a matter of religious moral inconsistency: “Is something good because God wills it? Or does God will something because it is good? If you say that something is good because God wills it, then what is good becomes arbitrary. God could have willed that hatred is good, and then we would have been morally obligated to hate one another. But if you say that God wills something because it is good, then what is good or bad is independent of God” [5]. If we were to have the following argument:

  • (1) If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  • (2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  • (3) Therefore, God exists.

The proposition that “moral values and duties exist independently of God” explicitly contradicts the first premise. Bertrand Russell even argues for our problem in this way:

[I]f you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God. [6]

Paul Copan (2004) responds by saying that “[a]lthough God’s commands may serve as a partial guide to living rightly [ … ] God’s character is the more ultimate and underlying reality. Indeed, the final resolution to the Euthyphro dilemma is that God’s good character/nature sufficiently grounds objective morality” [7]. Without this recognition of “divine goodness”, we would neither be

  • (a) moral beings or
  • (b) have the capacity to recognize objective moral values.

In Copan’s essay (see note [7]), he offers six responses for this supposed “dilemma” for God’s character and moral duties. They can be summarized with the following points:

  • (1) “Without God, moral properties would never be instantiated or realized” (120).
  • (2) “[T]he naturalist [ … ] herself cannot escape a similar dilemma; her argument offers her no actual advantage. [ … ] Further, we can ask the naturalistic moral realist: ‘Are these moral values good simply because they are good, or is there some independent standard of good to which they conform?'” (120-121)
  • (3) Supposing that “God does not exists and that we have a Platonic form of the Good from which all values derive [ … ] [a]t this point it would be silly to ask, ‘Why is the Good good?'” (121)
  • (4) “God, who is essentially perfect, does not have obligations to some external moral standard; God simply acts, and what he naturally does is good.” (121)
  • (5) The idea “that God could be evil or command evil is utterly contrary to the very definition of God; otherwise, such a being would not be God and would not worthy of worship” (122).
  • (6) “[T]he acceptance of objective values assumes a kind of ultimate goal or cosmic design plan for human beings, which would make no sense given naturalism but makes much sense given theism” (122).



  • [1] David Taffel in The Trial and Death of Socrates, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Barnes and Noble: 2004) vii.
  • [2] Ibid., pp. 4-5
  • [3] Ibid., p. 5
  • [4] Ibid., p. 10
  • [5] William Lane Craig, On Guard (David C. Cook: 2010) p. 135
  • [6] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (Simon and Schuster: 1957) p. 12
  • [7] Paul Copan, “A Moral Argument” in To Everyone An Answer, ed. Francis Beckwith, J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (IVP Academic: 2004) p. 121

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