Euthyphro’s Dilemma and the Problem of Theological Voluntarism
Omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent: we use many adjectives expressing maximal qualities to describe the Christian God. We believe these words are necessary and accurate descriptions of God, but when we trace out their implications they sometimes seem contradict one another. These apparent contradictions are to be expected given our limited abilities of comprehension and the mystery inherent in God, but they are still worth puzzling out in our capacity as theologians.
Let us take two premises that I think most theists would agree with: God is all-powerful and God is the root of our moral nature. If the theist accepts these two positions he will run into a difficulty: are things good because God willed them, or does God will them because they are good? This problem, known as the problem of theological voluntarism or Euthyphro’s dilemma, traces its roots back to Plato’s dialogues.
At first glance, this seems like a meaninglessly abstract point. From our earthly perspective, we might only know that there is good and that we should pursue it; why bother thinking about the root of good if we might not be able to comprehend the answer? But let us consider the implications. If God wills us to do what is good, then goodness is independent of God. There would be a standard that is higher than God, something that God himself must live up to if he is to be a truly good being. This would appear to limit God’s power and be in conflict with our notion of God as omnipotent. Now, we can take the alternative position and assume that our conception of what is good comes from God’s will. In other words, God creates the standard we call “good.” But this is deeply unsatisfying to Christians, because we think of God as good and benevolent. If he decides the standards of good and benevolence, then what reason do we have to admire him? The motivation to love and admire God would be lost.
Euthyphro’s dilemma has been debated since it first appeared in Plato’s writings. The Christian Church is not united on the matter—Martin Luther and John Calvin argued for the primacy of God’s will over everything, including the standard of good, while Aquinas wrote in support of the view that God conforms to the rules of logic and justice.
Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne offers an interesting solution to this problem. Swinburne accepts Aquinas’s position that God does not necessarily make what is good. However, Swinburne makes the case that this does not need to limit God’s power. According to Swinburne, Euthyphro’s dilemma is really a confusion of our definition of restriction. Swinburne writes, “The suggested restriction on God is no more a restriction than it is a restriction on God that if he is to keep Jones a bachelor he must keep him an unmarried man.” God is by nature entirely good. If we do not say, for example, that God’s omnipotence places limits on him because it prevents him from being powerless, then we cannot say that God’s imperative to do good is a restraint on his behavior. It is thus inappropriate to engage in Euthyphro’s “chicken and the egg” discussion; God simply does not work that way.