Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why is God's Nature the Way it is?

In my ethics class the other day, we ended up discussing the nature of the moral law. Inevitably, we came across the Euthyphro dilemma. Briefly, it can be summarized as such: does God command what is good because he wills it to be so? Or does God command it to be good because it is, in fact, good? If God commands what is good because he wills it to be so, then it is the case that morality is really arbitrary and not objective at all. If he commands what is good because it is good, then God is not the standard of objective morality. The way to resolve the dilemma, as many readers already know, is to postulate a third horn for the dilemma; namely, it is postulated that the good just is God’s nature.[1]

However, one astute student asked the professor about God’s nature. He said, “If God’s nature were to be different, would there be different moral laws and commands?” The professor’s response was something like, “Well, I suppose there would be, but because of God’s nature being what it is, these other types of different moral laws do not obtain.” In my opinion, however, the question cannot even get off the ground. For we must ask: what is the explanation of God’s nature? Why is it the way that it is? It is either because it is necessarily the way it is, or it is due to some external cause. God, being God, cannot have an external cause. So, the only other option is that the nature of God is necessary. Now, necessity holds across all possible worlds in which it is instantiated. As it turns out, God is instantiated in all possible worlds (that is, there is our God, in all possible worlds). Hence, the antecedent of the question (“if God’s nature were to be different…”) is impossible.[2]

So the “kicked-up” Euthyphro dilemma, where one wants to know why God’s nature is the way it is, and if morality really could be any different than it is, is itself a non-starter. Objective morality is the way it is because it depends for its existence on an all-good, all-loving source of good—that is, God.

[1] Some may complain that this solution appears to be just the second horn; God commands what is good, his nature is good, God commands his nature. But even if we grant this, the force of the dilemma is so diluted as to be a non sequitur.

[2] Some counterfactuals with impossible antecedents can effectively be discussed, such as “if God were not to exist, then it would be the case that objective moral values would not exist.” However, this is not one of them. The reason is that because of the dependency relationship for existence; whatever derives its existence from God can be meaningfully discussed in the case of God’s absence. However, in discussing this counterfactual, we’re actually discussing the opposed categories of “good” and “evil,” which are arguably not interchangeable, on pain of incoherence.


  1. There is no third option however, the two horns are your only choice. Saying god is good, even if granted, doesn't at all demonstrate that goodness cannot exist independently of god. You'd have to define and describe what you mean by 'the good" or goodness before you can assert god is good. So can you describe for me something that is good, an action for example, and then explain to me why it is good and why if god didn't exist it wouldn't be good?

    1. I'll run through this just once, seeing as it's already been discussed on another blog. Dilemmas are false just in case there is a third option; an option is "viable" just in case it is logically possible. Of course, it can still be rejected as false, but its possibility alone is sufficient to render a third option.

      Next, God's nature as the good is an alternative precisely because it is the ground of objective morality. If God is goodness, then, of course goodness is not independent of God. That would be to violate the law of identity. A=B, but A=not-B. You seem to be viewing goodness as a mere predicate of God, instead of understanding that, in addition to this, he is the ground of goodness (via his nature).

      The last part is irrelevant to the dilemma, and so can be safely ignored.

    2. If someone isn't convinced god's nature is equivalent to the good or that goodness cannot exist independently of god, how can you demonstrate that beyond a mere assertion?

    3. I don't have to: the dilemma is an internal critique (see current article), which deals with issues of consistency. All that is required is to show the mere possibility of another horn. If one, in fact, thinks that one of the other options is correct, then it's up to him to show that it is. Otherwise, it's just not problematic. This is because I don't view one of the other horns as correct; my theology informs me of the correct option of the three, and this is how I *know* it is true. I'm not interested, in the context of the dilemma, in *showing* someone else it is true. This is because the dilemma is designed to *show* that there is some problem (whether internal, where it shows there are only two options [but there are in fact at least three]; or whether external, where it grants the third option but insists it's not viable). Hence, it is only up to the one who asserts the dilemma to show why God's nature is not in fact good. But then it will be this other argument that does all the work, not the dilemma. Now, of course, one could say that he doesn't care to show that the de facto state of affairs is one way or the other, and thus we have a stalemate. But that will sit just fine with the theist, since the entire context of discussion surrounds the dilemma, which was supposed to be a problem. The theist has achieved his goal; namely, eliminating the dilemma as a problem.

    4. @TheThinker, just so you're aware, I didn't allow your comment because it was a literal re-hashing of what's already been said. I'm a man of my word: I would only explain it once, and that's all you get. You can feel free to e-mail me, or go back and re-read, but I won't allow you to hijack my own blog. Sorry. :)


Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!