Since Plato's Euthyphro, it has been problematic to try to provide a divine justification for normative claims. For if something is good merely because God loves it, then his love seems arbitrary and capricious and so unworthy of moral allegiance; while if God loves something because it is good, then he is responding to some independent standard of value rather than providing such a standard himself. I argue that the first possibility -- that something is good or valuable because God loves it -- becomes more plausible and appealing if we consider various ordinary and everyday examples of ways in which love can confer value on the object loved rather than responding to its prior loveability. This opens the way to provide some (limited) role for God as a source and ground of value.
Before I make a couple of comments, I want to make sure people are familiar with the issue typically labeled, “Euthyphro’s Dilemma.” Socrates once discombobulated an interlocutor (poor Euthyphro-how would you like to be immortalized for loosing an argument?) by spearing him on the horns of a dilemma regarding the nature of the gods and goodness. The dilemma is this: Are good things good because God commands them, or does God command good things because they are good?
If you answer in the affirmative to the first half of the dilemma, you have made the god’s commands arbitrary, saying they can command anything they want to and it would be deemed good. If you like the second half of the dilemma you have agreed to a position in which the gods are inferior to a higher standard of goodness to which they are bound.
As a Christian, how does one respond? Do we grab the horns and prepare to be philosophically impaled claiming we hold to Christian goodness on blind faith? There may be another way to handle the problem before the blood-letting begins.
An influential paper written on this very issue a few years ago was entitled (something like), “What Euthyphro Could Not Say.” The point of the article was that Euthyphro was successfully impaled on the horns because there was no third way out of the argument. In other words, if Euthyphro could argue that the dilemma was a false choice and that there was another way to see the issue, then he might have escaped Socrates’ famous question. But given the nature of the pantheon of Greek gods, Euthyphro did not have another theological escape valve. It appears that believers in the God of the Bible do.
The article goes on to point out that the best way to escape the dilemma is to argue that God’s very nature determines what is good. That way, God’s commands are not arbitrary because His good nature determines what He commands, and God is not beholden to something outside of Himself. Avoiding the arbitrary charge, God could not command, “torturing babies is good,” because it would go against the goodness of His character. Additionally, humans have a nugget of that goodness built into their natures, giving further accountability to what is good and not good. We know (morally speaking) that torturing babies is evil, and if God commanded it, we would still know it was evil. But because we were created with the image of God implanted within us, we share (on some analogous level) God’s sense of goodness.
Having touched on the dilemma, we can now talk briefly about the issue raised in the e-mail.
Does God Provide Some Level of Moral Grounding?
The proper notion of God provides the only source of moral grounding. Ultimately there are two sources of possible moral grounding-something human and something superhuman (beyond the physical-not Clark Kent). The variants of “something human” are multifold. Maybe morality is built into our DNA. Maybe morality is a kind of shared, communal experience. Maybe morality is a matter of personal choice. Maybe morality is a matter of pragmatism.
Though the DNA option is a popular one, it fails for the reason that a physical, descriptive state of reality can never produce a prescriptive injunction. Because something is the case does not mean it ought to be the case. Justifying the ought of morality takes more than describing the is of physicalism.
The other sources of moral grounding reduce to some flavor of relativism, be it cultural or individual. Even if a large culture develops a moral structure over time, there is nothing which binds other cultures to that ethic. For example, there is no moral justification for going to war against people like Hitler. So what if Hitler wants to commit genocide? Maybe that is just what his culture has decided to allow him to do. Even if Hitler attacks our country directly, that may be the moral value of their culture and who are we to impose our sense of peace on them? But if a culture wants to stop a maniac like Hitler, it has to believe that its moral code has some kind of trans-cultural authority. At that point we are beyond human sources of moral grounding.
It is a pretty major concession for a non-theist philosopher to grant that God plays some role in grounding morality. Good to know that God still plays some role in the modern, enlightened world…