Moral Arguments III: Might Might Make Right, Right?

In the previous two posts, we’ve talked about one of the central criticisms of any claim that morality is derived in some way from a divine being: The Euthyphro Dilemma. We’ve looked briefly at the original text of Plato’s Euthyphro, examined how the Dilemma develops in the dialogue. And, so far, we have found Plato/Socrates not to be a critic of the idea that one can derive morality from a divine being, but rather in the kind of divine beings in which Euthyphro believed—a set of gods who are in often violent disagreement over justice and other matters related to virtue and the good.

Given that Christianity holds no such view of God, it may seem that the Euthyphro Dilemma simply has nothing to do with us. But that is not precisely correct. If we reject the claim that there is a standard of good and evil apart from, and above, God, we still have the problem of the possible arbitrariness of God’s commands. Of course, the Christian response would surely be something like this: “But God is unchangingly good, so therefore there is no arbitrariness.”

But realize what is taking place when one makes such a statement: You are appealing to a standard apart from God—for to declare “God is good” is to compare Him to a standard of goodness. In fact, modern formulations of the Euthyphro Dilemma raise this issue—that to embrace the view that something is good only because God loves it is to make the statement “God is good” essentially meaningless.

Some believers might respond thusly: God is the Creator of all things and beings (other than God). There can be no greater justification for absolute authority over a domain than being the creator ex nihilo of the domain and all that inhabits it. Thus, there can be no other standard except God’s will.

This isn’t a bad response. It makes sense. But it makes sense because there is an appeal to a standard apart from God! Did you see it sneak in? The standard of justification for authority over a domain seems to be a standard under which God labors.

In addition, we could imagine, surely, an evil being creating a domain ex nihilo for the sake of torturing it’s hapless inhabitants. Would that being have the right to do so? If the standard of authority over a domain is in fact correct, then yes. But would that being be good? Surely not! Can we ever embrace the claim, lived out by so many in power, that might makes right? We cannot help but appeal to a standard over the one in power. Are we allowed to do so when talking about God? Can we stop ourselves? Can “good” have meaning if we simply let the creator of a domain be the standard by virtue of the power of that being?[1]

The philosopher Leibniz rejected the view that God’s power over creation was sufficient for His command to be good thus:

“In saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful.”[2]

The more contemporary James Rachels agrees, but claims that this approach undermines our capacity to even declare God to be good:

“[I]f we accept the idea that good and bad are defined by reference to God’s will, this notion is deprived of any meaning. What could it mean to say that God’s commands are good? If ‘X is good’ means ‘X is commanded by God,’ then ‘God’s commands are good’ would mean only ‘God’s commands are commanded by God,’ an empty truism.”[3]

I do not think, though, that we must reject the claim that what is good is determined in some way by God’s will or God’s love. Let’s take another cue from Plato. The Euthyphro, as you’ll recall from the second post in this series, is a dialogue that is written on the backdrop of coercion used to support religious morality. In addition, Euthyphro, the arrogant seer whose pride keeps him from admitting his ignorance, is himself attempting to leverage legal-religious power against his father to compel some sort of religious purity. In short, Plato is surely criticizing the use of and appeal to power as a source of morality. And, of course, gods who themselves exhibit no steady morality can only possess authority over the standard of piety by means of their power. If you’re paying close attention, Plato is writing a dialogue that, at minimum, is declaring emphatically that might does not make right—neither human nor divine might is sufficient to make an action good. But that does not mean that he thinks that morality cannot come from a divine being. It just cannot be derived from power without falling prey to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

What, then, is the clue that Plato offers us? And can Christians use it to defend a view of morality that is dependent on the will of God?

If not power, then how might God be a source of morality? In the next post, we will look at Plato’s primary philosophical enemy, the sophists, and with that background we can derive some important insights into Plato’s possible solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

[1] Another possible response: Maybe God commands His own existence, and thus is judged good by His self-preservation. It is not entirely clear what this means, but it clearly leaves us back where we started. That God calls Himself good simply throws us back to the question: But is God good so that He can call himself good?

[2] G.W. von Leibniz, “Discourse on Metaphysics,” in Selections, ed. Philip P. Wiener (New York: Scribner, 1951), 292.

[3] James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 51. Both this and the previous quote by Leibniz were found in Lewis Vaughn, Doing Ethics, 5th ed. (New York: Norton, 2019), 11.

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