by Bob Wheeler

Socrates drinking the hemlock

Socrates drinking the hemlock


What we have been advancing so far has often been called the “Divine Command Theory of Morality,” and to those of who are Christians the truth of the theory might seem obvious. If God exists, if He is both our Creator and Judge, then why wouldn’t His will be normative? After all, He is the One in charge.

There have been philosophical objections to this theory, however, and it might be worth our while to consider two of the better known ones. The first comes from a well-known dialogue of Plato’s called Euthyphro, and is the objection is sometimes referred to as “Euthyphro’s Dilemma.” The dialogue takes the form of a discussion between Socrates and Euthyphro, who had recently accused his father of having committed murder. Socrates questions whether it is proper for a son to prosecute his own father, and in reply Euthyphro points to some of the examples of the Greek gods, specifically Zeus imprisoning his father Cronos, and Cronos castrating his father Uranus. This then opens a discussion about the nature of morality, and how we know right from wrong.

When challenged by Socrates, Euthyphro defines “piety” as “that which is dear to the gods,” and “impiety is that which is not dear to them” (6e). Socrates points out an obvious difficulty with this definition: in Greek mythology the gods often quarreled with each other, suggesting that they were less than perfect. The gods disagreed among themselves about what was good and desirable. Socrates suggests altering the definition somewhat by adding an important qualification: “What all the gods hate is impious, and what they love pious or holy; and what some of them love or others hate is both or neither” (9d). Euthyphro quickly agrees. Socrates then poses the dilemma: “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” (9e-10a). Socrates pushes Euthyphro into stating that something is loved by the gods because it is holy, and not the other way around. This implies a standard of morality that exists independently of the gods. When Socrates pushes Euthyphro once more to state what holiness or piety is, Euthyphro admits that he is stumped.

The same objection was raised in a slightly different way by the 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant says that a model “can in no way supply the prime source for the concept of morality. Even the Holy One of the gospel must be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognize him to be such . . . But where do we get the concept of God as the highest good? Soley from the Idea of moral perfection, which reason traces a priori . . .” (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Chapter II). In other words the only reason we think that God is good is because we already have a notion of what “good” is, and we are measuring God by that standard. If that is the case, then, we did not get our definition of “good” from God, but from some other source.

The problem with Plato’s (and by extension Socrates’) argument is that it takes place in the context of polytheistic religion, which featured a motley assortment of gods who engaged in all sorts of disreputable behavior, just as human being do. Socrates was quite right in pointing out that they could not serve as moral examples for us. But Christianity posits the existence of only one God, a God who is perfectly just and holy.

The Bible begins by stating a positive fact about God himself. In a dramatic scene on Mt. Sinai God reveals Himself to Moses and proclaims, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth . . .” (Ex. 34:6; NKJV). Mercy, grace, longsuffering, goodness and truth are all a part of God’s own moral character.

Not surprisingly, then, this is what God requires of us:

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God?”

(Micah 6:8)

And thus if we ask the question, where do we get our a priori notions of morality, the answer is that “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Rom. 2:14,15). We often accuse others of wrongdoing; and when accused by others we feel compelled to excuse ourselves. But how did we get the idea of right and wrong in the first place? The answer is that God himself has written His law within our hearts, giving us a conscience by which we may know, at least in a rudimentary form, what is right and what is wrong.

Kant’s problem is that he wants to start with himself as an autonomous being and then sit in judgment on God. But the plain fact of the matter is that God existed first, from all eternity, and is infinitely greater than Herr Professor Kant. God is the one who created reality; God is the one who determines morality. We exist for His purposes, and He will ultimately be our Judge; not the other way around.

Thus “Euthyphro’s Dilemma” is no real dilemma at all. Right and wrong are decided by our Creator, and are ultimately based on His own moral character. Furthermore, He has engraved His law upon our consciences and revealed it to us in written form in the Bible, so that we are without excuse.

“He has shown you, O man, what is good . . .”