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God, Obligation, and the Euthyphro Dilemma


NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his own blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.


Does God have obligations to us? No, He doesn’t. But doesn’t that entail that He could do just any old thing to us? No, it doesn’t. But how can that be? To see how, consider first another, related false dilemma: the famous Euthyphro problem.

The Euthyphro dilemma goes like this: God commands us to do what is good. But is something good simply because God commands it, or does He command it because it is already good? If we take the first option, then it seems we are committed to the possibility that God could make it good for us to torture babies just for fun, simply by commanding it. If we take the second option, then it seems we are committed to saying that there is a standard of goodness independent of God, to which He refers us when He commands. Neither option seems a good one from the point of view of theism. The first makes morality arbitrary, and the claim that God is good completely trivial. The second conflicts with the core theistic claims that God is the ultimate cause of all things, and in particular the source of all goodness. So, we have a problem, right?

Actually, we don’t, because the dilemma is a false one – certainly from the point of view of Thomism, for reasons I explain in Aquinas. As with all the other supposedly big, bad objections to theism, this one rests on caricature, and a failure to make crucial distinctions. First of all, we need to distinguish the issue of the content of moral obligations from the issue of what gives them their obligatory force. Divine command is relevant to the second issue, but not the first. Second, it is an error to think that tying morality in any way to divine commands must make it to that extent arbitrary, a product of capricious divine fiat. That might be so if we think of divine commands in terms of Ockham’s voluntarism and nominalism, but not if, following Aquinas, we hold that will follows upon intellect, so that God always acts in accordance with reason. Third, that does not entail that what determines the content of morality and God’s rationale for commanding as He does is in any way independent of Him.

The actual situation, then, is this. What is good or bad for us is determined by the ends set for us by our nature, and given the essentialist metaphysics Aquinas is committed to, that means that there are certain things that are good or bad for us absolutely, which even God could not change (since God’s power does not extend to doing what is self-contradictory). Now God, given the perfection of His intellect, can in principle only ever command in accordance with reason, and thus God could never command us to do what is bad for us. Hence the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is ruled out: God can never command us to torture babies for fun, because torturing babies for fun is the sort of thing that, given our nature, can never in principle be good for us. But the essences that determine the ends of things – our ends, and for that matter the end of reason too as inherently directed toward the true and the good – do not exist independently of God. Rather, given the Scholastic realist understanding of universals, they pre-exist in the divine intellect as the ideas or archetypes by reference to which God creates. Hence the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is also ruled out.

Keep in mind also that, as I noted in my post on Law’s “evil-god challenge,” the metaphysics underlying the arguments for classical theism lead to the conclusion that God is not one good thing among others but rather Goodness Itself. Given divine simplicity, that means that what we think of as the distinctive goodness of a human being, the distinctive goodness of a tree, the distinctive goodness of a fish, and so on – each associated with a distinct essence – all exist in an undifferentiated way in the Goodness that is God. As I put it in an earlier post, “in creation, that which is unlimited and perfect in God comes to exist in a limited and imperfect way in the natural order...The divine ideas according to which God creates are therefore to be understood as the divine intellect’s grasp of the diverse ways in which the divine essence might be imitated in a limited and imperfect fashion by created things.”

Divine simplicity also entails, of course, that God’s will just is God’s goodness which just is His immutable and necessary existence. That means that what is objectively good and what God wills for us as morally obligatory are really the same thing considered under different descriptions, and that neither could have been other than they are. There can be no question then, either of God’s having arbitrarily commanded something different for us (torturing babies for fun, or whatever) or of there being a standard of goodness apart from Him. Again, the Euthyphro dilemma is a false one; the third option that it fails to consider is that what is morally obligatory is what God commands in accordance with a non-arbitrary and unchanging standard of goodness that is not independent of Him. (As Eleonore Stump points out in her book on Aquinas, its role in resolving the Euthyphro dilemma is one reason theists should take seriously Aquinas’s doctrine of divine simplicity.)

Now, let us return to the question of whether God has obligations to us. To be obliged is to be subject to a law, where, as Aquinas says, “a law is imposed on others by way of a rule and measure” (Summa Theologiae I-II.90.4). Moreover, “the law must needs regard principally the relationship to happiness,” that is to say, the realization of what is good for those under it (ST I-II.90.2). But God has no superior who might impose any law or obligation on Him, there is no good He needs to realize since He is already Goodness Itself and therefore already possesses supreme Beatitude, and there is accordingly no rule or measure outside Him against which His actions might be evaluated. He is not under the moral law precisely because He is the moral law. “[A]ll that is in things created by God, whether it be contingent or necessary, is subject to the eternal law: while things pertaining to the Divine Nature or Essence are not subject to the eternal law, but are the eternal law itself” (ST I-II.93.4, emphasis added).

But to understand what this means is precisely to understand that God can only ever will what is good for us. For as noted above, God can only ever will in accordance with reason, and it would be perverse and irrational to will to create some thing without willing what is by its nature good for that thing. If “nature does nothing in vain” (Aristotle, De Anima III.9 432b21), then neither does God, the Author of nature. He allows evil, but only because He can draw good out of it (ST I.2.3). Thus, Aquinas, says, “as ‘it belongs to the best to produce the best,’ it is not fitting that the supreme goodness of God should produce things without giving them their perfection. Now a thing's ultimate perfection consists in the attainment of its end. Therefore it belongs to the Divine goodness, as it brought things into existence, so to lead them to their end.” (ST I.103.1)

In this way God loves us and loves us perfectly, because to love is to will another’s good, and God cannot fail to will what is good for us. Since moral goodness concerns the will, it follows that God is morally good, and perfectly so. But His moral goodness is not like ours, since it does not involve fulfilling obligations, acquiring virtues, or the like. Contrary to what some theistic personalists seem to think, that does not make His moral goodness somehow inferior to ours. It makes it infinitely superior.
Originally posted on Dr. Edward Feser's blog. Reprinted with author's permission.
(Image credit: Guim)

Dr. Edward Feser

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Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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