Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Dilemma

The Dilemma:

While theistic ethics, broadly construed, could be any ethical theory that takes facts about God(s) as normatively relevant, it has come to be associated with a specific theory online, in various debates, and in several publications. Divine Command Theory (DCT) is a view about the metaphysics of morality that takes moral values and obligations to be constituted by God’s commands. Our obligations towards each other draw their normative force from God’s competence as an authority. Something is good just if it resembles God in some morally relevant respect, or follows God’s commands [1]. Most, if not all, DCTs look like this general sketch I’ve provided here.

A classic problem for DCTs is called the Euthyphro Dilemma. The original formulation of the dilemma probably doesn’t resemble what people take it to be in contemporary discourse [2]. Be that as it may, I’m not interested in engaging in Plato exegesis in this post, so I’ll set issues of interpretation aside. The form of the dilemma that most people are familiar with goes like this: Is X right because God wills it, or does God will it because it’s right? The same dilemma can be run against DCTs with “right” replaced by “good.” Answering the first horn of the dilemma affirmatively will get you Theological Voluntarism, while the second horn gets you a disjunction of views.

The First Horn:

Theological Voluntarism in metaethics is a form of radical subjectivism about moral properties. Moral obligations and values are constituted by the commands issued by God. God is not normatively constrained in his choices, so all moral values and obligations have an air of extreme contingency. God could have willed what we consider to be horrible things had he wanted to.

Grabbing the first horn, then, strikes me as biting the bullet. In essence, the theistic ethicist is saying that there is an agent who makes things good or bad, right or wrong by virtue of his volitions. He chooses what is or isn’t morally heinous. But what exactly is it that constrains God in his choices? Perhaps it’s some non-moral evaluative principle. Maybe God decides on a set of commands to issue his creatures by using the evaluative criteria of aesthetics; values like beauty guide God’s choices. Or perhaps God goes by the norms of practical reason, if those are somehow ultimately separable from moral reasons [3].

A question arises from the non-moral norms move, though. Why is it that God’s commands make things right, but they cannot make things beautiful? Is there something distinct about moral normativity that makes it contingent on God’s whims that non-moral normativity lacks? There doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory answer forthcoming, since the notion of goodness simpliciter is common to the various kinds of values exhibited by these different normative domains, and God making something valuable in one domain seems to license the assumption that God can make things valuable in any domain [4]. In other words, in a normative domain where the value of something isn’t conceptually tied to some non-normative notion like truth, God seems to have free reign to alter what is and is not good.

Another problem for non-moral normativity guiding God’s will is that DCT is a species of reductionism about moral properties. Moral properties are constituted by or identical to being commanded and/or valued by God. But other normative properties share action or choice guiding qualities that moral properties have, so it seems as though DCT should be able to offer a unified explanation of normativity as such. If it can’t, then it seems as though it has left something equally in need of explanation out. However, one could soften the blow from this objection by giving reasons why we should not expect a reduction of normativity as such to God’s will or commands.

Another problem is with the notion of God’s goodness on this view. If goodness consists in following God’s commands, then God is good insofar as God follows his own commands [5]. But God’s commands are to his creatures, and not himself; indeed, it seems as though the notion of commanding yourself to do something is incoherent, if it isn’t just some strange way to combat akrasia. On Voluntarism, then, it seems like the categorical or binding nature of God’s commands is not grounded in his goodness; rather, God, by virtue of his commands, makes certain actions good.

The Second Horn:

Setting Voluntarism to one side, let’s move on to the second horn. There is no single view associated with embracing the second horn, because there is an ambiguous “is” in the sentence describing it. “God commands X because X is good,” could mean that X is identical to or constitutes goodness, or that X instantiates the property of goodness. The first option gets you various forms of naturalism, both reductionist and non-reductionist. The second option gets you non-naturalism.

Reductionist moral naturalism is a family of views that take goodness (and other moral properties) to be reducible to some natural property. One general constraint on what could qualify as a natural property is causal power. So moral properties are a species of properties with causal powers (among other things). A simplified version of this view is hedonistic utilitarianism. Goodness is identical to maximal pleasure for conscious creatures. On this view, the theistic part of theistic ethics seems to drop out of the picture, since the work is being done by the reduction base. We could have moral properties without God, assuming it’s possible for there to be conscious creatures capable of experiencing pleasure.

Non-reductionist moral naturalism views goodness as constituted by a cluster of properties; Richard Boyd employs a notion of homeostatic cluster properties [6]. A good example of a homeostatic cluster property is human flourishing. Human flourishing is constituted by various properties whose instantiation tends to promote the instantiation of other properties in the cluster. So human health is part of flourishing, and being healthy also tends to help your state of mind, which helps to make you more sociable and easy to get along with, which helps promote a healthy social life, etc.

The problem with non-reductionist moral naturalism is that, much like reductionism, the work is being done by the homeostatic cluster property. God drops out of the picture, because his choices are guided by what promotes the instantiation of the most properties in the cluster. Something would be permissible just if it didn’t quell the instantiation of properties in the cluster, and right or obligatory if it instantiated properties in the cluster; this gets you a form of consequentialism. So, again, the theistic part of theistic ethics drops out of the picture, and we’re left with something completely compatible with atheism, given the assumption that there would be no modal collapse if God didn’t exist [7].

The second option takes the “is” to be the “is” of predication. Goodness (and other moral properties) would be instantiated by states of affairs in the natural world, but wouldn’t have causal powers; they would be sui generis properties. On this view, moral properties are not reducible to even a composition base [8]. Again, like the two forms of naturalism we surveyed, this form of moral realism seems to deprive theistic ethics of its claim to be truly theistic. Since all of the work is being done by sui generis moral properties, we wouldn’t need God for our moral metaphysics.

A False Dilemma?:

Most contemporary theistic ethicists will claim that the Euthyphro Dilemma presented above is false [9]. There is a third option ignored by proponents of the dilemma, and therefore it is no dilemma at all . For this rebuttal to work, however, the third option must not itself generate the dilemma it was set out to resolve. The third option should look like a theory that makes moral facts somehow ontologically grounded in God, but without the radical contingency associated with Theological Voluntarism, and the independence of moral properties of the second horn.

Perhaps God neither makes things good or right by virtue of valuing or commanding them, nor does he command or value things by virtue of their goodness; rather, God is essentially good, or goodness itself. God is the paradigm of goodness, and as such any commands he issues are going to derive their normative force from that fact [10].

If God is the paradigm of goodness, though, one may ask what makes him good. What is it that makes God the paradigm of goodness, and the source of our moral imperatives? The usual answer is that God’s various characteristics or traits are what makes him the paradigm of goodness. God is supposed to be essentially loving, kind, forgiving, etc. But if that’s the case, the Euthyphro Dilemma just reappears. Are those characteristics good because God has them, or does God have them because they’re good?

The second horn of the dilemma just gets you a modified version of the theories explored in the previous section. Goodness would be constituted by a cluster of character traits, and anybody who exemplified those traits would thereby be good. But then the theistic part drops out of the picture, and moral facts are no longer dependent on God’s existence. So the DCT defender ought to opt for the first horn.

The first horn says that the characteristics that God has are good because they are had by God. The way this is defended is by introducing analogies to things that are defined by some particular exemplar. So, the meter stick analogy is used by the likes of William Alston and appropriated by William Lane Craig for debating purposes [11].

Particularist DCT:

The best way to understand the notion of particularist accounts of goodness is explored by John Danaher over at Philosophical Disquisitions. In short, there are two kinds of predicate: Particularist and Platonic. Platonic predicates apply just if the concrete particular resembles a Platonic Form in a relevant way. Danaher’s example is something being rightfully called a triangle just if it resembles the Platonic Form of a triangle. Particularist predicates, on the other hand, apply just if the concrete particular resembles (in a relevant way) some concrete exemplar. So, in the meter stick analogy, the meter bar in Paris is the exemplar of being one meter, and anything can be said to be a meter just if it resembles that meter bar.

The problem with using the meter stick analogy to cash out the acceptability of the first horn is that we merely labelled some concrete particular as the standard meter bar. There is nothing essential to that meter bar that makes it one meter, besides the fact that people dubbed it as such. The same, then, goes for God; his goodness would just consist in being labeled as such by theists. Nothing intrinsic to God makes him good. But the obvious problem with this is that God is supposed to be a divine being that is worthy of worship. Usually the rationale that is given for God’s worship-worthiness is that God is the paradigm of goodness, but if God is merely good because he’s labeled as such, then this robs that claim of content.

Possible Response:

One possible move to avoid the problem mentioned above is to insist that there must be some point at which explanation ends. If all explanations about the nature of goodness have some stopping point, then the defender of the Particularist horn of the dilemma is no worse off than somebody who explains moral properties in terms of Platonic Forms or homeostatic cluster properties. There are going to be things that are just left without explanation, and we’re all partners in guilt in that respect.

One difficult pill to swallow is that the particular characteristics that constitute God’s nature would somehow be morally neutral if God did not exist. There is nothing intrinsic to those characteristics that makes anybody possessing them good; rather, those characteristics are good because they are had by God. On its face, this seems difficult to believe; but that isn’t an argument. So let’s find specific problems with the view.

A problem plaguing the Particularist is that her stopping point gets moral epistemology wrong. Knowing that something is good, or even an exemplar of goodness, requires some faculty of judgment that latches onto something about the thing being examined such that one can form judgments about the goodness of that thing. But God’s properties or characteristics play no role in what makes God good [12]. So, rather than seeing that God is good by examining his properties or characteristics, theists must directly know that God is good, and then infer that the traits had by God are good-making by virtue of being had by God. However, as Danaher points out, directly knowing that God is good in this way by virtue of some faculty of judgment like intuition is problematic because such faculties latch onto nothing in particular about God. There is no content to the idea of God’s goodness on the Particularist point of view, so there’s nothing to form judgments about through rational insight.

The goodness of God is just a label in the way the standard meter is determined by a chunk of metal that has been labelled the meter bar. Given that there’s nothing about the natures of either the meter bar or God that is meter-making or good-making, respectively, there is nothing about the goodness or meter-ness of those concrete particulars than reflects something intrinsic to them as particulars. After all, we didn’t come to know about the fact that the meter bar is one meter by intuiting it; it was labelled as such. But perhaps that’s where the analogy between God and the meter bar breaks down; we could’ve labelled something with different dimensions the meter bar, but God couldn’t have been otherwise. However, this disanalogy is only relevant if the necessity of God and his nature has some bearing on the goodness of God. But if the necessity of something determines its goodness, then something about that being’s nature determines its goodness, and we’ve abandoned Particularism. So, appealing to that disanalogy won’t work.

The biggest problem with the Particularist move is that, upon examination, the idea of a concrete particular grounding the goodness of properties doesn’t make much sense. There is a shift between appealing to the loving nature of God to ground moral properties and appealing to God qua concrete particular. The plausibility of the former option feeds into the seeming plausibility of the latter by virtue of a subtle conflation. It is quite intuitive to think that certain character traits we already recognize as constitutive of a good person could ground moral properties, but it isn’t as obvious to think that a particular person can ground them. It is tantamount to saying that if that particular didn’t exist, then those character traits would no longer be constitutive of a good person; instead, they would be morally neutral. Furthermore, pointing out that that concrete particular is a necessary being doesn’t solve the problem. The necessity of the particular is only going to ground properties like goodness if necessity itself is a morally relevant feature, which is to say that necessity as a property of particulars is good-making.


So, it looks like the Particularist move to escape the Euthyphro Dilemma doesn’t cut the mustard. A more promising avenue for the theist is to explore the possibility of moral properties having God-independent grounding, but a discrete class of moral facts being dependent on God. So, perhaps some deontic facts about duties to worship or axiological facts about the goodness of prayer find their grounding in God’s existence; but goodness itself and our moral obligations have independent grounds. That seems, at least to me, like the most viable way to endorse a qualified version of Divine Command Theory.

Further Reading:

  1. Robert Adams: “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness.” 
  2. William Alston: “Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists.” 
  3. William Alston: “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.” 
  4. Jeremy Koons: “Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro?”
  5. Michael W. Austin: IEP Entry on Divine Command Theory.



[1]. Goodness could be seen as either following God’s commands, or resembling God’s character in some relevant respect. Goodness as following God’s commands would most naturally flow from Voluntarism, a view discussed later in the post. Goodness as God-likeness follows from the God as goodness response to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

[2]. See Richard Joyce’s 2002 article, “Theistic Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma.”

[3]. A possibility that won’t be explored here is God acts for no particular reason. That option seems to make all of God’s actions arbitrary. A God who acts for no good reason seems to be an absurdity that not many theists are willing to commit to, so I’ll ignore this option.

[4]. A possible exception is epistemic goodness. For the sake of simplicity, and to avoid being bogged down in debates about the nature of evidence, let’s say that something is good evidence if it points to the truth. It seems as though God couldn’t make things good or bad evidence. God could alter natural laws such that striking a match no longer causes an explosion in the presence of gunpowder, but then the presence of a spent match near an explosion site involving gunpowder wouldn’t constitute good evidence of the cause of the explosion. But, given our laws of nature, it would; and that doesn’t seem to be a fact that God could alter. God could only alter the causal order of the world such that what constitutes good evidence given our causal order would no longer be good evidence given the altered causal order; he can’t alter the goodness of evidence within our causal order, but merely the causal order itself. Epistemic goodness, then, is conceptually tied to truth or the way things are such that God could not alter what instantiates it in a given causal order. Other examples may be dialectical and inferential goodness, where the former pertains to good arguments and the latter deals with good forms of inference. The same that was said for epistemic goodness seems to hold for dialectical and inferential goodness.

[5]. As mentioned in the first endnote, given Voluntarism, all moral properties are determined by God’s free will, so goodness is something constituted by following God’s commands. God makes things good by commanding that people do X, and if people do X then they instantiate the property. Following God’s commands could either be identical to or constitutive of goodness.

[6]. See Boyd’s long paper, “How to be a Moral Realist.”

[7]. Modal collapse is the idea that nothing would be possible. If God is the ground of all being, then if God did not exist, nothing would or could, since being would be groundless.

[8]. There’s dispute over whether the non-reductive naturalism I spelled out is really a form of reductionism without identity. I think it can be safely said not to be a form of reductionism given moral naturalism simpliciter, but in relation to non-naturalism is can be construed as a form of reductionism.

[9]. See this video for William Lane Craig unpacking the false dichotomy response.

[10]. N.B. One could say that some moral facts are not grounded in God’s existence, such as obvious examples like “don’t torture for fun,” while other facts are grounded in God, like obligations dealing with worship and salvation. This option is embraced by folks like T.J. Mawson. There aren’t any obvious problems with this move, besides being an admission that arguments from the existence of moral facts to God’s existence are unsound.

[11]. See several of William Lane Craig’s debates where the Euthyphro Dilemma is brought up by his opponent for the meter stick analogy. Also see Alston’s paper, “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.” You can find it in the further reading section below.

[12]. The “property” and “characteristics” talk appears to leave out Divine Simplicity as an option. I’ll leave it an open question if Divine Simplicity can overcome the Euthyphro Dilemma; I might deal with it in a future post.