Atheism and the Euthyphro Dilemma

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Raphael's depiction of Plato in The School of Athens.

Euthyphro (Greek Ευθύφρων) is the name of one of Plato's early Socratic dialogues. Together with three other of his dialogues - the Apology, Crito and Phaedo, it forms part of a group of Platonic dialogues on the trial and death of Socrates. In modern times, the group is often published together in a single volume with the title The Last Days of Socrates.

In Euthyphro, Socrates carries on a discussion on the nature of piety with Euthyphro, an acquaintance whom he meets on the steps of the courthouse as he (Socrates) arrives to answer to charges of impiety brought against him. Socrates discovers that Euthyphro is there in the capacity of a litigant bringing charges against his own father over the death of a laborer in his employ, one who had been retained because of his involvement in the death of a slave. For pressing charges against his father, Euthyphro had been reproached for being impious and it was this which led Socrates to inquiry about the nature of piety.

The problem of Euthyphro

In one of the more famous passages in this dialogue, Socrates asks:

"The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved by the gods."

Implications of the Problem

The Mosaic Law commanded “You shall not murder." {Exodus 20:13 (ESV)

In this context, piety and holiness are interchangeable with virtue or goodness. Socrates is asking Euthyphro whether: (a) the gods love something because it is good, or (b) whether the object is good because the gods love it. If we take (a) to be true, then the gods are unnecessary, because the object would be good regardless of their existence. If we take (b) to be true, then we have two problems: that of continuity and that of arbitrariness. The problem of continuity arises when the gods change their minds and then declare a new moral law that is substantially different from, or perhaps even the opposite of, the previous moral law. An exaggerated example would be if murder or genocide were declared holy and just or even obligatory. The problem of arbitrariness states that the gods just selected some random things and then declared them holy for no real moral reason (as morality wouldn't exist until they did); this obviously raises the question about whether the random things they selected to be holy were really the best things for humanity.


The dilemma is a false dichotomy. The answer is that goodness is a necessary aspect of God's nature. It is not apart from God, but he didn't decide it.

Atheism and the Euthyphro Dilemna

See also: Atheism and morality and Atheism and ethics and Atheism and the problem of evil

Ken Ami wrote:

Let us propose an atheist’s version of the Euthyphro Dilemma:

1. Is something good because atheists proclaim it to be good?

2. Or, do atheists proclaim something to be good, because it is good?

If something is good merely because an atheist proclaims it to be good, then goodness is an arbitrary construct and at the whim of atheists who could change that which is good into that which is bad and vice versa.

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins was one of the founders of the New Atheism movement.

Atheists tend to claim that we somehow intuit the ever-evolving morality, or as Richard Dawkins puts it, the “shifting zeitgeist” (German for “spirit of the age”). As to how we discern the zeitgeist’s latest maneuver, “one can almost use phrases like ‘it’s in the air’.”

Do not think that this means that Richard Dawkins has no absolute standards by which to determine what is evil. He has stated, “What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.” Yet, he has made a definitive statement about what he sees as absolutely evil, “It is evil to describe a child as a Muslim child or a Christian child. I think labelling children is child abuse and I think there is a very heavy issue” (more on this below in the Religion as Child Abuse section).

Back to the atheists’ Euthyphro Dilemma; the question is whether something is good merely because the atheist proclaims it to be good. Or is there is something up, above, beyond and separate from the atheist to which the atheist must adhere—does the atheist have to act according to an ethical standard that is outside of the individual, in which case the atheist is not all sufficient and in fact, obeys a higher standard than the individual (or a group of individuals known as a society).

If something is good merely because the atheist proclaims it to be good, then if two atheists disagree, the same action could be both good and evil, which conflicts with the law of non-contradiction.50 At this point a common objection is raised to the effect that two people disagreeing proves that there is no absolute ethic (standard, moral law, moral code, etc.).

Yet, this is tantamount to arguing thus:

Claim: “In the USA it is absolutely illegal to run a red light in a non-emergency response vehicle.”
Response: “If that is the case, then why do some people operating non-emergency response vehicles run red lights? It must not be true that there is such an absolute law.”

All this shows is that there is a hierarchy of morality, also called graded absolutism. That is, there are higher and lower laws, and if there is a conflict, one should obey the higher law and is exempt from the lower law. In the above case, the duty of an emergency vehicle to arrive as quickly as possible to help in an emergency makes them exempt from the duty to stop at a red light. In general, the hierarchy is duty to God > duty to man > duty to property.

George F. R. Ellis (a theist) noted the following:

“The foundational line of true ethical behavior, its main guiding principle valid across all times and cultures, is the degree of freedom from self-centeredness of thought and behavior, and willingness freely to give up one’s own self-interest on behalf of others.”

Moreover, if something is good merely because an individual, or a society, proclaims it to be so, then Nazism was good for the majority of Germans who outnumbered those whom they persecuted, but it then became evil when the fitter and more numerous Allied Forces defeated them.

It seems apparent that there is something up, above, beyond, separate and transcendent from the atheist to which the atheists must appeal to for their moral declarations. During his debate with William Lane Craig entitled “Does God Exist?”52 James Robert Brown, an atheist, stated,

“you can’t just make up facts, including moral facts; you’re under obligation, moral obligation without God, you don’t need God for this, you have a moral obligation to not murder, not rob people … All I ask you to do is believe there’s no God but still murder is wrong. There are moral facts, as well as physical facts, as well as mathematical facts, that’s all I’m asking … It’s just a basic fact, a basic moral fact, that murder is wrong.”

This is what I pointed out in the “Atheism and Ethics/Morality” section about atheists making epistemic (knowing) statements about morality but not providing an ontological premise (origin/source) for ethics. Brown merely asserts the immorality of murder by referring to himself as a “moral realist”, which, at least in his case, appears to mean that he can just make any statement he wishes with regards to morality and moreover, dogmatically assert “you’re under obligation, moral obligation … moral obligation…moral facts … moral fact.”

Yes, atheists can think through moral issues and come to a conclusion. They may even consider these conclusions to be absolutes or obligations, but these are merely impotent claims that only carry force of obligation when the governmental/societal iron first is behind them, and then are only potent if the moral-obligation-breaker is caught. But what about being moral for the simple and pure motive of being moral without expectation of reward and punishment? This will be considered below in the section entitled, “Theism’s reward and punishment versus Atheism’s pure motives”.

Succinctly stated: atheism discredits condemnation and condemnation discredits atheism:

Atheism discredits condemnation because their condemnation is merely an expression of personal moral preferences, arguments from outrage, or impotent epistemic assertions.

Condemnation discredits atheism because atheists’ deep and heartfelt urges to condemn immorality demonstrate that they are appealing to a moral standard that is outside of the individual.[1]

See also