Digest of terms

Euthyphro dilemma

derived from Plato's dialogue of that name, the issue concerns the meaning of 'good' and the status of moral values. Should actions be regarded as good simply because commanded by God or the gods (divine command theory), or does God command them because they are good irrespective of his commands. It is argued that according to the first horn of the dilemma, moral criteria are ultimately subjective and arbitrary, since God could command anything ('God is good' would mean the circular claim that 'God commands what God commands', with no independently valid criteria of moral meaning or truth); according to the second horn of the dilemma the quality of being good is in principle independent of God's commands. The former safeguards divine omnipotence at the expense of meaningful moral character; the latter his character at the expense of his power - he has no option, if he is good, but to command what actually is good irrespective of his command.

The dilemma occasioned much debate in both Christian ethics and Muslim ethics, with defenders on both sides. Crudely, in very general terms, Christian theology tended to favour views of the autonomy of ethics (or at least of basic ethical standards) from God's will, and this is also the dominant view in contemporary moral philosophy. Muslim theology, by contrast, eventually came out in favour of a divine command theory. The notion of the autonomy of ethics connects with natural law theory, and at least in part prioritises reason, and may be conscience and intuition, over putative revelation - another theological ground for doubt in its regard.

This website uses cookies to improve your user experience. By using the site, you agree to our use of cookies. For more information about how we use cookies click here.