Is it good because it is God’s nature? or is it God’s nature because it is good?

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The Euthyphro Dilemma is a Theology 101 problem, without a satisfactory answer. Posed in Plato’s dialogues, it is often formulated like this: “Does God command something is good because it is good, or is it good because God commands it”. Plato was writing from a polytheistic culture, so this is a variation (and translation) on the original writing, but it captures the spirit. Many theologies use their religion or their God to exclusively define morality, so it finds Euthyphro’s dilemma toubling for this reason: there is either an external standard of what is good, and God merely states that fact, else the good is whatever arbitrary thing God commands or happens to prefer; either God is irrelevant to goodness, else goodness is the result of God’s arbitrary whims and subjective preference.

The standard response, now, is that goodness emanates from God’s nature. God’s nature, then, is the ‘Greatest Being’ or whatever nature is described in whichever Book on the matter is correct. As a side note, it is fun to watch theologians in debate desperately try to talk about some abstract ‘Greatest Being’ and not engage on the topic of the Book they do believe in. But, even in this abstract God definition, with a nature that allows goodness to flow forth, is that an adequate solution to the Euthyphro dilemma?

No.

There’s a number of issues here, both epistemic and ontological i.e. ‘what is the nature of our access to knowledge of this goodness?’ and ‘what does this mean about the reality of goodness?’ respectively.

Imagine the epistemic problems as strategy problems for the theological debater: if their opponent asked for one moral principle or fact, how would they state and defend this knowledge? They could talk about the principle of a loving God (as a part of the ‘Greatest Being’ God), relying on their knowledge that the loving feeling humans have often leads to morally good behaviour. But, that’s not a case of us confirming morality from God with our sense, that is us proposing morality with our senses and getting God tied up in it.

In fact, the moral problem is even more complex when you take the theological definition of goodness seriously: moral noncognitivism is what theologians propose a secular world would have, and that really confuses the ‘Greatest Being’ definition of God. Here’s why: this definition has God as being the greatest in parameters that exist independently: knowledge, presence, power; all these things theologians also agree exist in the secular world. The pinnacle of moral goodness is not one of these parameters. Morality, then, becomes a parameter that God isn’t just the ‘Greatest’ example of, but also the sole definition of. And that self-referentiality leads to an ontological problem: it ends up falling to problems of the same nature as the Euthyphro Dilemma is tries to solves.

If God’s nature is the definition and maximal example of moral goodness, would morality be wholly different if God was wholly different? Surely, such a thing would be possible: God is not obeying an external standard in this theological model, but is the standard and thus could be other. God’s nature could be one supports getting really drunk, and then getting drunk becomes a moral virtue. Not just permissible, but a virtue. You can replace “getting really drunk” with any cliché or preferred vice: public nudity, premarital sex, gambling, war, voting for Brexit.

The point is that there is no logical way of getting a robust idea of what morality is, instead theologians have to rely on God’s nature being the arbitrary definition and standard of goodness, and then insist God’s nature is something we would be comfortable with (by avoiding talking about their Books). But it is still arbitrary. (“Is it good because it is God’s nature?”…)

Or it is not arbitrary? Perhaps God’s nature could not be other than it is, and, instead, there is some other standard of moral goodness to which God conforms. This would explain why God is loving, because this is an approximation of safeguarding wellbeing; in fact, a universally loving God would want to safeguard and maximise all wellbeing. But, the theologian is not appealing to the abstract of universal love, but specifically stating that a God has this trait. Because such a trait is good? (“… or is it God’s nature because it is good?”)

Even if the theologian takes the Kantian approach to morality, by saying that it can be derived from pure reason (a sort of super-brain computing moral Game Theory), that doesn’t resolve the problem. The problem is, to be exact, is that theologians want to argue that morality requires a God, so they can assert both objective morality and a God. The reason that this doesn’t resolve the problem is that, if morality can be derived from pure reason, there is no need for the actual computations to have been done. There would still be some abstract space against which proclamations about morality could be said to be right or wrong, which is all that is required to exclude God, and therefore moral arguments for the existence of God fail. To word that another way: if morality can be derived from pure reason, then that is a moral standard external to God.

Even if all the mechanisms the theologian tried to make were valid, there is a further question: why isn’t God the definition and standard of evil, instead of good? If we know evil as being the other end of the spectrum from good, but that doesn’t mandate whether good or evil should be the top of the ruler. As the theologian’s argument relies on surrender of moral knowledge to a God, how can we tell whether love is good or evil? Sure, it’s atop the ruler, with God. But is the top of the ruler good or evil? Without the veracity to say we can know something about morality without God, even on this front, we will never know a difference between good and evil.

In Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro asked what the anchor was in the relationship between God’s commands of goodness and goodness itself, and pointed out that any way around would not satisfy the theologians. Theologians decided it is not the commands or proclamations of God that matter, but God’s nature. Euthyphro, today, would be equally valid is asking today which is the anchor between God’s nature and goodness.

33 thoughts on “Is it good because it is God’s nature? or is it God’s nature because it is good?”

  1. In the bible, God does many things that are quite evil and many things that are good. His nature seems to be both. But regardless, you can always tell whether it’s actually good or not… whether he is doing them vs us doing them. The ‘honest’ apologist will admit that for God… good and evil are subjective as to who is doing the act. Whatever God does is good, even if it would be evil if we did such an action.
    Good is not from his nature in the bible. It’s by definition of whether he is doing it.

    1. Mikey-

      No wonder you hang so closely to your chicanery of decconnery. A petty man setting himself as judge as to what the Creator does…….calling it, and Him, by your own words, evil.

      Perhaps you should try reading Genesis again, unaided by the vapid influence of other atheists, Hello? What He created WAS good, very good even. Gee I wonder what happened.

      You are absolutely clueless as to what ‘good’ actually is. Not an insult, just the unadulterated truth.

      1. But allalt, you are forgetting His true goodness. For 120years He pleaded with EVIL done by people.

        How quick we forget and make false assumptions. And the 120? That’s our entire lifetime and then some.

        Get the picture?So don’t gripe about God. It’s always the fault of fools and whatnot.

      2. Cs, was your biblical God “good” in his action of killing David and bathshebas first child?

      3. mike-
        How many times do I have to tell you? There are no inequities in God.

        Was God unjust in sending the great deluge when the fountains of the great deep were unleashed, and the windows of heaven were opened, and the world which then was, was overflowed with water as He patiently waited for 120 years? Are you getting this? That’s your entire lifetime in which God proves His goodness.

        You ask the wrong questions, and ignore 10,000 answers already given.

        There are no defects in God. As I said a dozen times, the atheist or unbeliever is ignorant of scripture and ignores his own wickedness.

      4. Sorry cs, you’ve no ability to think for yourself or challenge what you believe or why or even if it’s correct or moral.
        I’m done talking to you. I’ll no longer respond to your comments on my or anyone elses posts.

      5. Sounds good mike. If you ever want your cleaned clock returned, just ask.
        God and His word have never lost an argument. The big dummies Goliath and company are still falling today.
        Tis the epitome of foolishness to assign evil to God, and it is no wonder that you have been conned with deconnery.

        Just a suggestion. If you spent more time seeking your own answers from God and scripture…………..

  2. @allalt

    There is nothing arbitrary about what is good when you have the title deed to the dictionary.

    When you can create a tree, coal, the sun, or the moon, command storms to cease, then by all means, challenge God as to His goodness. Until then, neither you or I have an imperfect view on what goodness exactly is.

    But don’t doubt it, He is perfectly good in everything He does. You and I? Eh, not so much.

      1. You are still at a disadvantage allalt, because you are defining what is good. At the very least, admit your dilemma, because it seems you do not even give God the courtesy of existing, thus falling short when trying to prove what is good..

        For instance, define ‘good’ against ‘perfect.’ God is perfectly good, so your argument is moo. God was perfect in opening the fountains of the great deep from below, and the windows of heaven from above. Water water everywhere. But please do not assume His defects, remember the 120 years……….

        His patience is often overlooked. He is good that way. And always perfectly equitable.

      2. I have made no efforts to define good in this post, and any attempts to define goodness on my part are irrelevant to the thesis.

      3. Sure you have neighbor. Your opening sentence.

        ‘Without a satisfactory answer…………’ So you must be the arbitrator of what is satisfactory.

        And in this, you have decided what is good.

      4. Back to my previous two points:
        I have not attempted to define goodness
        Any attempt to define goodness on my part is irrelevant to the thesis.

      5. So then it is equally irrelevant what you hold to?

        I can say without apology what hold to. Conscience is a killer. Way deep between bone and marrow where there is no hiding.

      6. And I’m certain you do not understand absolute Truth, so I guess we are even. 😉

  3. This is much like contemplating ones navel for the origins goodness. No! Wait! I’m mistaken once again. I know my navel is real. Apparently everyone has one and each can one has the same abilities for the wellspring of goodness.

  4. It completely depends on how you accept God. There is no proof that God exists neither is there proof that God does not. Thus, we are stuck in the centre of the two poles but according to what I believe people tend to view God through the lens of religion which is not always accurate. One must understand that the manuscripts and religious scriptures are all manmade and thus they may have been subjected to modulation or adaptation or even corruption through the ages. Plz read my article on “God and Humanity” (www.phoenixash2091.wordpress.com) to see what I think of God.

  5. You could defy goodness in how you treat others, if you were like Harvey weinstein in the way you treat women, you are thus treating women against what is said in the bible (‘Do undo others as you would have them do you)
    Or If the nature of goodness is ‘godly’ then that would make it manipulative, that a kind act would give you leverage over someone. Its a catch 22, e.g. is it good to sexually assault someone if you haven’t got someone just to fuck?
    Is there moral grounds to goodness? Yes there is, even if you go so far to question your own morality in love or sex or just your relationships with others.

  6. Hey Allallt, interesting read!

    A couple of observations here:

    You say “God’s nature could be one supports getting really drunk, and then getting drunk becomes a moral virtue. Not just permissible, but a virtue.” Therefore, even if the source of morality is God’s nature, it is still arbitrary. I don’t think this is valid. The classical Christian understanding, as Greg Koukl points out, is as follows: “God is not free to call what is wrong right, and what is right wrong. The text is clear: “It is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). The Psalmist writes, “No evil dwells with you” (Ps 5:4). God cannot sin.” In other words, God’s nature does define what is good, but it is impossible for Him to violate His own nature. Therefore, the moral grounding of God’s nature is not arbitrary and He would never decree that drunkenness is a moral virtue.

    You go on to write “Perhaps God’s nature could not be other than it is and, instead, there is some other standard of moral goodness to which God conforms.” This does not follow. The fact that God’s nature does not change does not logically necessitate a standard outside of himself to ground morality. The opposite is the case! The existence of an objective moral standard (if there is one) necessitates a perfect and unchanging source; God’s nature.

    I am curious to know – do you believe that morality exists objectively? I couldn’t tell from this article.

    1. You quote Greg Koukl as saying “God is not free to call what is wrong right, and what is right wrong”.

      The problem is that analysis is at least 1 layer too shallow. Why is getting drunk not a moral virtue?

      I’m happy to move on to my views about objective morality. What I’m not happy to do is not reach some sort of agreement on how effectively theism can actually explain morality before we move on. I would really prefer to set some sort of benchmark before we move on.

      1. Why is this too shallow? If a thing is contrary to God’s nature, it cannot be an objective moral virtue. “God” can be a loaded term for some people – but the point I am making here is not controversial. That is, I am not referring to any particular concept of God other than the one that can be logically deduced from the moral argument as formulated below –

        1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist
        2. Objective moral values do exist.
        3. Therefore, God exists.

        To demonstrate the point, we might substitute the word “God” for “objective moral standard”. Then the argument would read – “If a thing is contrary to the objective moral standard, it cannot be an objective moral virtue”. This, it seems to me, is logically unavoidable.

        We can also deduce that this standard is necessarily perfect and unchanging. Neither arbitrary or reliant on a standard outside of itself.

        Not sure what you mean by establishing a “benchmark”. Obviously, I think theism provides the only possible grounding for the objectivity of moral values and duties – some atheists would agree with this, and thus, they deny the 2nd premise. I am interested in hearing your position, but I don’t think any “agreement on how effectively theism can actually explain morality” is forthcoming. Does that mean we’re not moving on? lol. Best.

      2. Okay, so your defining God’s nature as morally good… That’ll be it’s own issue later on.
        But, in the mean time, why doesn’t God’s nature make drunkenness a moral virtue?

      3. No. God’s nature defines what is morally good.

        God is not free to violate His own nature.

        Feels like we’re going in circles here, Allallt. I’ve tried to be clear and direct in my responses, but I don’t think there has been a lot of give and take, lol. Take care.

      4. So… Why does God’s nature not make drunkenness a moral virtue?

        You haven’t answered that, yet…

        Or are you bowing out of the conversation?

  7. Maybe it would help to reframe the dilemma.
    Perhaps it would be clearer to ask: does God reflect, or does God simply act?
    Or: Is there some kind of sticky Karma which marks one’s soul, or is there simply God’s judgement?

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