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The Thrust of the Euthyphro Dilemma

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A claim that people are morally required to subject their moral judgments to scrutiny, perhaps to test whether their moral beliefs are supported by right reason and they can stand up to objections seems to be straightforward. However, morality is derived from different sources. Quite a number of philosophers argue for the rational basis of morality. In this perspective, morality is seen as derived from pure rationality through categorical imperative, which means that morality is the state that maximizes other intrinsic goods such as well-being and happiness. Human beings have evolved mental organs for selfish reciprocal-altruism as well as mental organs for seeking social status through the appearance of doing good, and that these organs can be hijacked to support a happiness-maximizing morality.

People should accept the moral structure in the first place because it seems that evolution has left us little choice. Mental faculties evolved from a purely selfish motivation. It has given people the tools and motivation necessary to act in ways that are beneficial to their kin, their friends, and their countries. Extending this into a moral code is just an attempt to stretch these faculties to cover more people, ideally all of humanity. People extend these natural proclivities for doing good to others, is the question that confronts people daily. Small actions on their part (like not killing their neighbors) can lead to rewards that help them (like being invited to their New Year’s Eve party.

Rachels spends most of the article arguing that this distinction is essentially not valid. His argument’s strength is difficult to parse, so I will try and state it explicitly. Rachels denies that the theological subservience is superficial. Doing what God says to be moral is not true subservience, just as (for example) doing what God says to become rich a la prosperity theology is not accurate submission.

Two examples we can draw on to justify Rachels’ stance is that of Abraham and Isaac, and those Foucault notes of the Desert Fathers. Briefly said, Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son to God, something indubitably immoral both in terms of autonomous ethics and in terms of God’s past commandments. So this responds directly to. For Rachels, a true follower of God will discard ethics for following his instructions. The stereotype is the woman prepared to kill her child to follow God’s orders.

Rachels also wants to make the following claim as well: deciding to worship is a fundamentally morally autonomous decision (Gordon 437). The argument here gets fuzzy but simply put: to decide whether to worship someone, one must first exercise independent reasoning. Hence, before you wholly give yourself to someone to follow their instructions no matter what, you must first have decided to do so, and thus must first have determined it was right to do so.

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This all aligns with what Rachels says, namely: Worship will be regarded not as an isolated act taking place on Sunday morning, with no necessary connection to one’s behavior the rest of the week, but as a ritualistic expression of and commitment to a role which dominates one’s whole way of life. In terms of the coherence of the argument, I think it has a serious weakness from a centrist view of ‘worship’. Namely, his understanding of subservience is extreme by any realistic interpretation. While he gives a reasonable argument against the ‘ultra-conservative’ wholly submissive notion of worshipping God, he does so implicitly thinking to be moral (as opposed to following God) is good. If we believe that humans are wholly flawed and unable to morally reason effectively, and are best suited to following God’s instructions, then his argument loses its weight. If we also believe that God does not tell us explicitly what to do in all circumstances, then moral reasoning (and thus moral agency) has space again as the submission is not wholly totalizing. His semi-responses to some of these objections aren’t very convincing in the text.

The reason the article is so good though it does not predict a lot of these criticisms, and you can argue well with the text. It is exceptionally well written, certainly worthy of study. Put more precisely, and the idea is that God cannot demand us to both be good people and be wholly subservient to his will. If we’re good people, we are exacting moral autonomy. If we are entirely subservient, we are not enacting moral independence. Hence, it is impossible to be a good person who is wholly subservient.

The immediate response is that these are just two ways of thinking about how we behave: being moral certainly means exercising autonomy, but we use that autonomy to follow what God demands of us, which is behaving morally. Hence, the superficial subservience is a more profound expression of independence – denying our immoral urges to do that which is morally right.

Some people think that you cannot have morality without a moral lawgiver, i.e., god. The thrust of the Euthyphro dilemma is that a moral lawgiver and absolute honesty are incompatible. If he merely perceives what is morally better than we do, than he is not the source of morality, this undermines the supposition that we need a moral, to begin with. Also, for some theologies, this even starts to erode the notion that he is omnipotent, for if he has no power over what is moral and what is not, then we’ve found a limit to his ability.

So to hold that morality depends on a god requires that you either agree that your god is not omnipotent or that morality is subjective to your gods’ point of view. A lot of people who believe in divine command theory have a serious problem with this implication and have spent a long time trying to wriggle out of it.

So let’s break Euthyphro’s argument down and instead of using pious let’s use good because it is a little easier to follow in plain English. So essentially, we have the ‘Euthyphro Dilemma’ If you decide to believe, one, you believe what is good is good because the gods love it. Essentially by understanding this, you are saying that God or the gods’ love of something is what makes that action ok. Essentially you are saying that morality is arbitrary to God and any action you believe is correct or incorrect solely because God says it is. If I decided to murder someone, I could say that this action is wrong morally because God says it is wrong to kill someone, but in five minutes if God decides he wants to change his mind, and this action is no longer wrong, then I am in the clear. But, any action I have done right or wrong could suddenly be the opposite.

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The Thrust of the Euthyphro Dilemma. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from
“The Thrust of the Euthyphro Dilemma.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
The Thrust of the Euthyphro Dilemma. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
The Thrust of the Euthyphro Dilemma [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from:
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