Is something good because God wills it? Does God will something because it is good?
The Goodness of God and the Euthyphro Dilemma:
Let me start by stating the Euthyphro dilemma in a brief and simple manner. The dilemma came from Plato chronicling a dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. The challenge was posed concerning an apparent inescapable paradox in God’s nature based on ontological goodness – that is goodness that is inherent in His nature. Essentially, the dilemma asks, “Is something good because God wills it?” Or, as horn two asks, “Does God will something because it is good?”
Which way do we answer? If we affirm that something is good because God wills it, we have redefined good in an arbitrary way. If something automatically becomes good by virtue of God willing it, then God could pick any action and it would become good. In other words, God could get away with criminal actions simply because he is God. What reason would we have for calling these actions good? This doesn’t look like a good option.
Let’s go with the second horn, saying that God always picks what is good. But all this does is push goodness into a category that is separate from God. More than being separate from God, goodness itself would be something to which God Himself submits. This is a problem, because if God submits to something, he is not Lord over it. In this case, the thing to which he submits ought to be considered God. Horn two does not look like a god option either.
Oh no! We are stuck. No matter which horn of the dilemma we pick we end up compromising the nature of God in a serious way. On the one hand, God would be subject to goodness; on the other hand, goodness would be arbitrary and undefinable. Most Christian philosophers and theologians have been able to identify that this as a false dilemma (when two options are presented, but more options may be possible).
What is the third option? It is neither the fact that something is good simply because God wills it. Nor is it the fact that God wills something because He recognizes and submits to the good. It is the case that something is good and God wills it because He is good. God does not submit to a standard, because He is the highest possible standard. God does not will things arbitrarily because He is deeply concerned with everything He wills. Everything within the mind and will of God is determined in accordance with his nature – an essentially and maximally good character.
Let me push the issue another level deeper. How can we possibly critique God’s nature as good?* Can we not examine His acts first to determine whether He is good? After all, isn’t this what we would do with a totalitarian dictator? Obviously the dictator is going to say that he is essentially good in all his decisions.
Of course, this is not a very fair analogy. Every individual has a separate and distinct dignity from that of the dictator. But in the case of God, He is the creator and sustainer of each and every human life. In other words, a dictator only has rights over what he himself has created. He can really only define good in a very limited and relative sense. Goodness to the dictator can only be in terms of his goals and his personal preferences. For example, if he was hungry, a sandwich could be considered good toward achieving his purpose of relieving his hunger. If he was lonely, a conversation could be considered good for achieving social fulfillment.
So, good is always relative to what the intended goal is. But this leaves goodness in a relativistic light. If there is an ultimate thing to be fulfilled, then objective good would be whatever works to achieve that end. Then why is such an end good? It is good based on the nature of him who determines such a goal. Are we a little tied up in circular reasoning at this point? The character is good because what he wills is good. What he wills is good because the end goal is good. And the end goal is good because the character of its determiner is good. We are left in a circle with seemingly nothing left to appeal to.
Lest you be disappointed, every conversation on goodness can eventually end as such a point. It will come to a point in which goodness cannot be further defined.* We can call this a philosophical dead-end. But the philosophical dead-end for the theist has a greater scope of explanation than for the non-theist.* If God is the root cause and definition of what is good, then we have a consistent, objective foundation from which to build and define goodness. Thus, we may call goodness that which aligns with God or furthers the knowledge of God.
*This “How do you know” appeal is similar to when a young child asks “Why?” over and over until the parent has no further way to answer. Even though the Euthyphro dilemma (which is more of a trilemma) has a way of taking the theist to a philosophical dead-end, this does not mean that goodness is arbitrary or that God is not the foundational standard for all things. It just reveals to us the point where we can ask no further questions.
**Certain things can be true without having to prove them any more deeply. We may be looking for a definition where no further definition is possible. We come to a point where we must assume what the nature of goodness looks like. We are given a conscience to discern this. We have a way of knowing what is good with out needing to be able to define good further (beyond God)–because we simply can’t.
***The dead end for the non-theist will be rooting goodness in human preference. This is similar to moral relativism, in which a person could consider violent crimes against the innocent to be morally upright – and no objective standard could be in a place to tell them that they are wrong. In the case of goodness, duties are not in question. Instead, we may ask whether a human life is inherently good. Is knowledge of the truth good?