4.2.4 The Euthyphro Dilemma: The Arbitrariness Problem

Dilemma's Headache

The Euthyphro dilemma is an objection to divine command theory introduced with the question, “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?” If the divine command theorist gives the second answer to the question, holding that good acts are good because God wills them, then he faces the arbitrariness problem, the emptiness problem, and the problem of abhorrent commands.

The Arbitrariness Problem

The arbitrariness problem is the problem that divine command theory appears to render the content of morality arbitrary. If divine command theory is true, it seems, then what is good and what bad depends on nothing more than God’s whims. Whims, though, even God’s whims, are not an adequate foundation for morality.

If the divine command theorist holds that what is morally good depends on what God wills or commands, then this raises a question: How does God decide what to command? What factors inform his decision? The answer to this question will be the ultimate reason that morality is as it is.

One thing is clear: if morality depends on God’s decision what to command, then God’s decision what to command cannot be informed by morality. If morally good acts are morally good because they are commanded by God, then they must be commanded by God before they are morally good. It must be that God makes his decision what to command in a moral vacuum.

For if there were any moral facts before God decided what to command, and those facts influenced God’s decision, then those facts would be independent of God’s commands. Those facts can’t be independent of God’s commands, though, if the divine command theorist is correct in saying that all moral facts depend upon God. God decides what to command, then, in a moral vacuum. His decision is morally arbitrary.

This means that whatever decision God makes is, morally speaking, just as good as any other. God had no moral reason to prefer fidelity to adultery, or generosity to selfishness; he could have commanded anything, and, from a moral perspective, any set of commands would have been just as good as any other. That he chose the commands that he did was a mere whim.

This strikes many as problematic. If there are no moral facts before God decides what to command, it seems, then God’s commands can be neither informed nor sanctioned by morality. God’s will, the standard of moral goodness, will itself be morally arbitrary. Conformity with this standard, then, despite what the divine command theorist says, should therefore also be morally arbitrary. Divine command theory, though, holds precisely the opposite.

Divine command theorists tend to respond to this objection by pointing out the difference between saying that God’s commands are morally arbitrary and saying that they are completely arbitrary. The divine command theorist may not be able to hold that God’s decision what to command is informed by what is morally good, but he can hold that God’s decision is informed by other factors. He could hold, for instance, that God’s decision is informed by what is best for us, or by what tends to maximise utility. The divine command theorist, then, need not concede that morality is based merely on God’s whims; he can maintain that it is God’s love for us and concern for our well-being, or our desires and interests, or anything else that might inform God’s commands, that is the ultimate reason why morality is as it is.


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