All kinds of ticked-off Christians have been giving me flak for raising the Euthyphro argument in my USA Today piece criticizing the religiously-based assertion that morality comes from God. (Just to refresh your memory, that’s the argument that what is morally good cannot be so just because it’s commanded by God, because God could command things—and has, if you read the Qur’an or Old Testament—that violate our notion of what’s moral.)
One of those critics was the oxymoronic “Thinking Christian,” whom I answered in a post this week. That Unthinking Christian cited William Lane Craig as having provided a good answer to the Euthyphro problem. That answer invoked the Divine Command Theory, which is this: “whatever God orders is good and morally obligatory simply by virtue of the fact that He is God.”
That’s bogus, of course, and no answer at all, because God ordered really bad stuff in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the “Thinking Christian,” who seems obsessed with my website, sees Craig’s as a really good response, and claimed I was philosophically unsophisticated for not knowing it existed. (I did, of course, but find it too stupid to address.)
Ditto for Matt Flanagan, a Christian apologist from New Zealand who, on his website, used me as an example of “when scientists made bad ethicists.” His claim is that the argument I dispelled was that people cannot have moral feelings without God, but that what theologians really mean is that people cannot have moral obligations without God.
I did know about that one, too, but it’s a mug’s game to argue with Christian apologists on their websites. Now a real philosopher has come along to save me the trouble by explaining in detail what I said in condensed form in my USA Today piece. At his website not just a philosopher, Jason Thibodeau shows pretty definitively that “the Euthyphro objection is robust.”
To set the record straight for all thinking Christians, I’ll just let Jason explain:
Coyne does not make the mistake that Flannagan accuses him of; he is not just saying that in order to judge God’s commands as moral or immoral we would have to have a moral sense that is independent of God. Rather, he is saying that we would need a standard of moral obligation that is independent of God. What Coyne has done is condense a bit of argumentative interaction between the purveyor of the Euthyphro objection and the defender of the divine command theory (DCT). One aspect of the Euthyphro objection is that, if the DCT is true, then morality is arbitrary. If the DCT is true, God can make any action (even something universally regarded as horrendous such as torturing small children) morally right just by commanding that we do it. But this conflicts strongly with our moral intuitions: it seems natural to believe that something as awful as torturing children could not possibly be morally right. But the DCT implies that this action, along with any act that causes unwarranted and horrendous suffering, could possibly be right (Note: the notion of possibility at use here is metaphysical possibility, not epistemic; more on this below.) One divine command theorist response to this is to say that a loving and moral God would never issue commands the require us to needlessly cause people to suffer (this is the response that Coyne mentions).
There are a few problems with this response. The most important (and the one that I think that Coyne had in mind) is that if we are to understand the reply to mean that a moral God would not issue immoral commands, then this in essence capitulates to the Euthyphro objection. That is to say, the response implies that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God against which he and his commands can be judged. But if morality is independent of God, then the DCT is false.
I won’t summarize the rest of Jason’s arguments lest I bore those who aren’t philosophically inclined, but let me add that he then takes up, and disposes of, the standard Christian riposte that “Well, God wouldn’t do that because he’s a moral being. And besides, he’s an all-loving being.”
My own response to this is to say, “How do you know that? You couldn’t prove it from anything in scripture!” And of course the whole point is moot unless you can show that there’s a God to issue moral commands in the first place, which nobody has done. (UPDATE: And of course most people who assert a good and loving god have a prior, non-goddy notion of what “good” and “loving” mean.)
But Jason has a more nuanced response, one that you may like to read.