A Football Analogy for the Euthyphro Dilemma and the Divine Source of our Morality

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Socrates and Plato once discovered what they determined to be a dilemma, which some have used to try to crack holes in the moral position that God is the grounding of our objective morality. They wondered whether someone is loved by the gods because he is pious or whether it is because he is pious that he is loved by the gods. This dilemma has been subject to a variety of variations to posit God’s relationship to our morality. Some have claimed that the Euthyphro Dilemma is an obstacle to God as our moral foundation.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has suggested this is a false dilemma and a third option should be present, which is that God is the source of the good.[1] He notes that this is an ontological position rather than one of semantics, which is to point to the foundation of reality of moral values.  In other words, our objective morality is not grounded in what may be perceived as the whims of God by either driving or judging our actions. Moral values are not contingent. God’s very nature is the standard of goodness against which we align ourselves.  

A football analogy helps to better explain this concept. Imagine a football field with two teams and opposing goalposts. At one end of the field is the goalpost of the good and right, while at the other end is the goalpost of the bad and wrong.

Now imagine Plato and Socrates on the field. God instructs both to run certain plays, which are aimed to get them closer to the good goalpost. When they follow His commands, they believe He will deem their plays “good.” This determination is similar to Divine Command Theory where the players would voluntarily act in accordance. However, what if Plato ran a few yards following God’s instructions and then realized that God had instructed him to use different plays that varied in outcomes at other times? For this reason, this “horn” of the Euthyphro dilemma is often criticized for its potential to be arbitrary. 

Let’s look at the other “horn.” What if God did not give Plato and Socrates instructions on the play? Instead, they ran the play they assumed to be the closest to what He would have wanted and awaited judgment. This horn also reflects a less than optimal foundation of our objective morality because we don’t know until after the action has been made whether or not God considers it good.

The good and the right are not determined before and after our actions. They are not shifting goalposts that could vary in unpredictable ways. Rather, God’s nature forms the goalpost of the good and right and the standard against which we aim. He is the grounding of our moral foundation as our external moral lawgiver to whom we’re held accountable.

In his book Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas referred to synderesis as the law of our mind, which is an awareness of the principles of human actions. Our practical reasoning moves us from awareness of the principles to conclusions on how we should act. Conscience then forms a judgment on whether the actions or decisions are in alignment with one’s moral nature and whether they’re right or wrong according to God’s moral nature.

The moral argument for God helped once atheist C.S. Lewis to turn to Christianity. In his book Mere Christianity, he said, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call something crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”

In other words, where did this idea of how things are supposed to be originate? We witness this at the individual level in our conscience and at the global/societal/historical levels in our collective drive over centuries to goodness. These individual and collective drives for goodness necessarily cannot be explained at the level of human psychology, because humans are prone to evil, the other goalpost in my football analogy. Our conscience is like that bug in our ear, which makes us feel shame and guilt when we wrong others. When we do what’s right, we move closer to the goalpost that God has set.

[1] Craig, W.L. (2008). #44. The Euthyphro Dilemma. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/euthyphro-dilemma/

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