Catherine asked:

Is an act morally good because God approves of it or God approves of it because it is morally good?

Answer by Craig Skinner

This question is often called the Euthyphro dilemma because it is posed by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue ‘Euthyphro’ (10 a) as ‘is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods ?’

It is a dilemma for those holding a divine-command view of morality, because neither option in the question seems acceptable. Thus:

* if we say an act is morally good because God approves, this makes morality arbitrary – anything God approved of, however horrible, would automatically becomes good.

* if we say God approves of an act because it’s morally good, this makes God redundant: if the act is morally good, we can commend it ourselves for moral reasons, just as God does.

In short, either morality is arbitrary or God is redundant.

Most secular philosophers, and some theists, accept that morality is not arbitrary, rather that God is redundant.

But Christian philosophers don’t accept the dilemma, arguing that morality is not arbitrary and that God is not redundant.

Here’s how.

Morality not arbitrary: it is God’s nature to approve of only good things, never bad things. So the idea that God might approve of, say, torturing children for fun (well, our enemies’ children at any rate), so that such action becomes ‘good’, shows misunderstanding of God as the source of all goodness. So it is true that acts are morally good because God approves of them – he only approves of the good.

God not redundant: approval by God makes an act obligatory not just good. Many acts are good but not obligatory. For example it would be good of me to visit an acquaintance tomorrow in hospital (a kind act) but it is not morally obligatory for me to do so.

But Christians regard God’s commands as not just acts it would be good for us to do (and OK if we don’t), but rather as acts we are obliged to do. For example, Jesus’ command to his disciples to ‘love one another as I have loved you’, is not just recommending that loving one another is good, and an option they should try from time to time, but an obligation central to how they, and all humans, should live. Divine command, by a good and loving God, gives an act added value over and above its intrinsic goodness, so that God is far from redundant.

Naturally these arguments cut no ice for those who don’t accept the assumed theistic teleological structure and its vision of the ultimate good of human life. For atheists, the question of what the gods approve of and why doesn’t arise; the ‘dilemma’ is taken to simply show that morality doesn’t require any god as guarantor.