I’ve been reading up on divine command theory – the idea that our ethical obligations are rooted somehow in our relationship to God – and although I am not finding it exactly convincing on a fundamental level, there are some interesting points I think worth sharing. Anybody who participates in atheism discussion on the internet will run across the Euthyphro dilemma sooner or later. The dilemma is meant to be a knock-down response to people who think God is the source of ethics. It was proposed by Plato and goes something like this:
1) Are moral actions good because God commands them, or does God command them because they are good?
2) If they’re good because God commands them, couldn’t God command us to murder/steal/etc and that would somehow become moral?
3) If God commands them because they are good, then there exists some external standard of morality independent of God.
Settling with (2) is unpleasant for most people – I certainly wouldn’t like to think that a divine command to kill everybody ought to be obeyed – but if you fall on (3) you have to concede that while God might have the best knowledge of morality, He neither created it nor justifies it. In C. Evans’ words, if (3) holds then “the reality of moral obligations would not change if God did not exist”. This is usually unpalatable for a theist.
How can we sidestep this dilemma? Well, one way is to adopt a conception of right action that is related to the structure and design of humans, what Evans calls a “teleological vision of the good”. According to this view, God’s commands are intended to aid us to function best as human beings: to act so as to fulfill the demands of our innate human nature. Divine commands, then, are not justified simply because God commands them – after all, they’re based on material facts about how humans work – so this avoids (2). On the other hand, our innate nature was created by God and may only be appreciated through a relationship with Him, which neatly avoids the trap of (3). There is an external standard of morality, but it’s far from independent of God.
What does this mean (besides the fact that Internet Atheism’s relationship with philosophy is strained at best)? It means that we might have to cede some ground to the divine command philosophers. A sufficiently robust conception of God may well be able to ground ethics and morality. As an committed Internet Atheist, I suspect that it ultimately fails. However, it is necessary to show how it fails. Euthyphro just won’t cut it anymore.