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The Euthyphro Regress: A Defense of the Moral Argument

I would like to provide a more convincing way of discussing the moral argument for God’s existence.  The argument is typically formulated as:

  1.  If objective moral facts exist, then God exists.
  2. Objective moral facts exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I’ve always found the moral argument for God’s existence extremely tricky to defend.  But recently it has occurred to me that we should take a cue from our atheist friends.

First off,  I think it is not always clear what is meant by “objective moral facts”.  What the theist means is that a certain set of moral facts necessarily exist and remain true, regardless of what one might think.

Here I am in dialogue with atheists who are not willing to abandon the objectivity of moral facts. Such atheists are restricted to attacking the first premise of the argument, if they are to avoid the conclusion.  Very often, these atheists will pull the rug out from under the theist by employing the old Euthyphro dilemma.  If this tactic turns out to be successful, it shows that God is not necessary for objective moral facts, which would in fact undercut the first premise.  However, I think the Euthyphro dilemma does no such thing.  In fact, I think the dilemma proves even more problematic for the atheistic moral objectivist.  But first I think it is important to clear up some common misunderstandings about the moral argument.

1.       How the Moral Argument is Commonly Misunderstood:

The moral argument deals with metaethical concerns rather than applied ethical or normative issues.  That is to say, the argument is about the fundamental nature of moral properties, facts, judgments, and the like.  It is not a theory, nor does it tell us the exact implications of how we ought to live, or even how we are to reason about moral values.  I think that the moral argument is most commonly misunderstood insofar as it is thought of as an applied or normative argument.  At least that is what atheistic responses tend to indicate to me.

A: Confusing the moral argument for an applied ethics argument.

To be clear, it is entirely possible and reasonable to think that an atheist could live a moral life despite lacking a coherent metaethical foundation to his world-view.  Thinking that the moral argument is an attack on the moral character of atheists is one of the most common misunderstandings of the argument.  This is particularly unfortunate because it often occasions hurt feelings and indignation on the part of the atheist.  I think that this happens because atheists misunderstand the moral argument as concerning applied ethics, or whether certain people have the ability to live consistently according to a moral code.

Ed Feser, in his recent book The Last Superstition, brings some clarity to this issue:

. . . [Secularists] assume that the very existence of their own passionately held moral beliefs is sufficient evidence that atheism is compatible with morality.  But it is no such thing.  The question isn’t whether an atheist has or can have various moral values or a morally decent character (apart from his irreligiousness, of course. . . a very serious vice).  Of course he can.  The question is whether morality can be given an objective rational foundation on atheistic or naturalistic premises, and the answer is that it cannot.  An atheist or naturalist can believe in morality – that is a psychological fact – but he cannot have a rational justification for his belief – that is a philosophical fact.  For the premises required to ground morality also entail a theistic and generally non-naturalistic view of the world” (Feser 2008, 220-221).

The moral argument demonstrates that the very possibility for atheists and theists alike to live moral lives is grounded in the existence of an omniperfect Being—a Being who has infused creation with a certain moral structure to which all things are ordered and by which all moral creatures are obligated.  Ironically enough, the fact that atheists can be moral is, for the theist, evidence that there is a God who is sustaining the moral order of the universe.

B:  Confusing the moral argument for a normative ethics argument

This confusion is a little less common than the first, but I think it is much more difficult to straighten out.  This is the response that there are many non-theistic normative moral theories, e.g. utilitarianism, contractarianism, emotivism, ethical egoism, various forms of deontology, etc.  There are likely an infinite variety of non-theistic moral theories, and so the objector invites the theist to wade through each one of these theories to point out why those theories cannot ground objective moral beliefs.  This is a seemingly Sisyphean task, so the atheist can relax while the theist performs the impossible.  However, this is just another confusion of what the moral argument seeks to establish.  The moral argument is not an argument for a particular theistic moral theory, like divine command.  Nor does it pertain to any particular set of moral beliefs.  Instead, it implies the claim that no matter the theory, if the facts and related propositions expressed by those theories are to be objectively determined, then there must be an absolute, unchanging, perfect, and purposive foundation of morality.

The theist argues that the natural world is not up to the task.  We look around at the world of man and the world of nature and recognize that things are not the way they should be.  The world is broken, fallen, and in flux.  People are inconstant, capricious, and self-centered.  What in nature can serve as the anchor point for morality?  “We’re evolving, we’re progressing!” one might say.  Are we?  How do you know in which direct progress is?

2.       A Euthyphro Dilemma for the Atheist, or The Euthyphro Regress

A:  The Background

The Euthyphro dilemma has its origins in Plato’s dialogue The Euthyphro.  According to this splendid little dialogue,Socrates unleashed this dilemma against a feckless young Athenian, Euthyphro, who wanted to bring up charges of murder against his father.  In accusing his father, was Euthyphro acting pious or impious?  Euthyphro seemed to think he knew what the gods loved–that they would love his sense of justice, and honesty.  However, Socrates compelled him to think about the matter a little more deeply. After some good Socratic questioning, and through a brilliant dilemma, it became apparent that Euthyphro clueless about piety.   Since Socrates first formulated it, this dilemma has taken on its own life.  It is now the most common rebuttal to divine command morality.  James Rachels, in his introductory ethics text The Elements of Moral Philosophy posses the dilemma this way:

Is conduct right because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right? . . .  Socrates’ question is about whether God makes the moral truths true or whether he merely recognizes that they’re true” (Rachels 2010, 50-51).

According to Rachels, if God makes moral truths, then several untoward consequences seem to follow. First, it makes the concept of morality mysterious.  God becomes a black box explanation for how moral truths can exist, i.e. this is a kind of “God of the gaps” argument for moral truths. Second, it makes moral truth arbitrary, because God is not appealing to any moral truths when he makes the truths that he makes.  If God makes moral truths, then it is not morally wrong to rape prior to God’s command against it.  So when God made the command not to rape, He couldn’t have been appealing to any intrinsic truth to the wrongness of rape.  There is no reason for why he couldn’t have commanded otherwise . Third, such an analysis of morality seems to lose sight of the real reasons that we understand moral truths.  We don’t think of murder as wrong because God commands it.  We think it is wrong because of all of the harm murder inflicts on innocent people (ibid.).

The alternative is that God recognizes moral truths.  If this is so, then objective moral truths exist independently of God, and the moral argument is unsound.

The theist is not without reply.  William Lane Craig’s considered response is as follows:

 . . .[O]ur moral duties are constituted by the commands of an essentially just and loving God. . . Since our moral duties are grounded in the divine commands, they are not independent of God.  Neither are God’s commands arbitrary, for they are the necessary expressions of his just and loving nature.  God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial, and so forth, and his commandments are reflections of his own character.  God’s character is definitive of moral goodness; it serves as the paradigm of moral goodness. . .  If the non-theist should demand, “Why pick God’s nature as definitive of the Good?” the answer is that God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, and a being which is the paradigm of goodness is greater than one which merely exemplifies goodness.  Unless we are nihilists, we have to recognize some ultimate standard of value, and God is the least arbitrary stopping point” (2008, 181-182).

Craig’s approach can be classified as escaping the horns of the dilemma, one of the three possible ways of rebutting a dilemma (the other two possible responses require proving each horn of the dilemma false, called “grasping the horns”, or by providing a counter-dilemma). Craig offers us an explanation for why God’s commands are not arbitrary.  When we reason about the good, we are not reasoning independently from God.  We are reasoning about God’s essential nature, even if we don’t recognize that we are doing so.   Craig relies on the Anselmian conception of God, i.e. a greatest conceivable being.  If there is such a being, it seems reasonable to think such a being would be the paradigm of moral perfection.   In the following reflection, I hope to buttress Craig’s remark that. . . “God is the least arbitrary stopping point” (ibid.).

B: The Euthyphro Regress

If atheists are going to spring the Euthyphro dilemma on the theist, then fair is fair, theists should be permitted to let the same dilemma loose on the atheist.  Let’s see who can handle the dilemma the best.

Are moral values and duties the product of personal choices on the part of an individual human person, or does an individual discover them as independent facts of reality?  If it is the former, then morals are not objective, but arbitrary and subjectively relative.  Atheists like Nietzsche and Sartre held to this position, but most atheists find the way out of the moral argument unsatisfying.  They don’t want to have to deny the objectivity of morality, they just want to deny that it depends upon God.  So the solution would have to be that moral values and duties are discovered, or recognized by an individual and those moral values and duties are explained by some other aspect of reality—something independent of individual human persons.  The atheist, at this point, might think that he has successfully navigated around moral subjectivism, while avoiding God as the foundation for moral objectivity.  But now it’s time for a reiteration of the Euthyphro dilemma!

What is this non-subjective producer of moral facts?  What is a level-up from individuals?  Is it the local community, the region, the nation, the world?  At each potential stopping point, we must reapply the dilemma.  Say it’s based upon the consensus of one’s national culture.  Does the culture make moral values, or discover them?  If one’s culture picks them, then we only have cultural relativism, not objective morality.  If the culture is just really good at discovering objective morality, then objective morality is independent of cultural consensus.  So let’s imagine that the atheist shifts away from human constructs towards biological/physical explanations.  But biological evolution could have been otherwise, so it would seem to be an arbitrary producer of moral facts.  Furthermore, evolution, according to most atheists, is purposeless and not intelligently directed.  So why think any resulting moral beliefs would be anything other than accidents of a process indifferent towards accurately producing moral facts.  But if biological evolution has come to produce beings that recognize moral truths, then moral truths are independent of biological evolution itself.  So biology won’t get us there, otherwise we’d just have evolutionary moral relativism.  What about physical nature itself?  This is just as problematic for the atheist, who holds that the universe is ultimately purposeless.  Even if it were the case that the physical constants of the universe had to be what they are, there is no reason to think that such supposedly necessary constants make morality any less arbitrary.  The universe does not seem to be the kind of thing that can give itself purpose, so the constants might necessarily be what they are, but the resulting moral values that happen to emerge are nothing more than an accidental side-effect at best.  And since most atheists reject final causality out of hand, it is impossible for such atheists to ground moral purpose in the physical constants whether or not they are necessary. Even more problematic is the fact that most atheists are pre-committed to the currently sexy theory of the multi-verse.  They commit to the theory, despite the lack of empirical evidence, in a futile attempt to escape the implications of fine-tuning.  But in so doing, they undermine any reason to think non-arbitrary moral facts could emerge from a set contingent constants that vary from one universe to the next.

So now we move beyond the physical universe, should we keep reiterating the dilemma ad infinitum?   But that is just to reject that there could be an objective standard for morality.  Another option is that we are led to some kind of atheistic Platonic moral realism, i.e. that moral values are real abstract objects that we can apprehend.  There are a few serious problems with this view.  First, abstract objects do not seem to have causal powers to obligate concrete people, yet moral facts seem to obligate us.  Second, there is far less scientific evidence for the existence of Platonic forms than there is for God, so if the atheist prefers atheistic Platonic moral realism to theism, the atheist is using special pleading.  There would be a double standard of skepticism towards God, but not to “the form of the Good” whatever that might be.  And third, there are excellent Aristotelian objections to this naive form of Platonism, which indicate that form is not a substance in and of itself (to be fair Plato thought of these objections too, cf. The Parmenides).  The most prominent of these problems is the so called “third-man” argument.  The third man argument draws out yet another regress between the abstract universal forms and particular expressions of those forms.  If any particular action is good, it would be good insofar as it is comparable to the form of the Good per se.  But the good action and the good itself are comparable only if there is a third essence common between them.  Repeat ad infinitum.  Needless to say, I think there is a form of the Good, but that it must be a substantial form that both obligates moral creatures and orders all things to It. . . You might guess what one word I would use to describe this substantial “form of the Good”.

The atheist is caught.  If the atheist wants to argue for the objectivity of morals, then the he must argue for a terminus to my “Euthyphro regress”. This means that the atheistic moral objectivist will have to argue that there is an escape from between the horns, an option which he so readily denies to his theistic counterpart.  And he will have to say that this escape occurs within the natural order, or in some Platonic form.  But I have given good reason to think neither will succeed.

I think Craig is right when he says that God is the least arbitrary stopping point.  If God exists, then as the greatest conceivable being, God would be the essence and substance of goodness, and not just an abstraction or reflection thereof.  Thus theism is perfectly consistent with a terminus to this “Euthyphro regress”.   Rather than being deadly to the first premise of the moral argument, I think we can see that the Euthyphro dilemma makes the first premise of the moral argument more reasonable than the alternatives.  So if the atheist is to escape the conclusion of the moral argument, he will have to reject the objectivity of morality.


Craig, W.L. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Faith and Apologetics. 3rd ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Feser, E. 2008. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. South Bend, Ind: St. Augustine Press.

Rachels, J. and Rachels, S. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 6th ed. Burr Ridge, IL: McGraw Hill. (Not the latest ed.)