4.2.5 The Euthyphro Dilemma: The Emptiness Problem

Emptiness

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 Emptiness Problem

The emptiness problem is the problem that divine command theory appears to entail that the standard moral claims about God are empty tautologies. If divine command theory is true, the emptiness objection holds, then statements such as “God is good”, “God’s commands are good” and “God’s actions are good” are trivial, true but devoid of content.

The classical theist, of course, is committed to both the truth and the significance of these claims. It is because of the truth of these claims, it is often thought, that God is worthy of worship. If these claims are trivial, as the emptiness problem implies, then their truth would hardly be a ground for worship.

If divine command theory is true, then God’s will is the standard of moral goodness. To say that God is good, then, would be to say that God is as he wills himself to be. To say that God’s commands are good would be to say that God commands what he wants to command. To say that God’s actions are good would be to say that God doesn’t forbid himself from doing anything that he does. There is surely, however, more to moral goodness than this.

The first type of response to the emptiness objection denies that it follows from the fact that attributions of goodness to God are tautologies that they are therefore insignificant. Tautologies, it is argued, are often highly significant. The statement that water is H2O is a tautology, but it is nevertheless a significant scientific truth. Similarly, it is suggested, the statement that God is good might be both tautologous and significant.

A second response to the emptiness objection denies that divine command theory entails that attributions of goodness to God are tautologous. If divine command theory is the theory that moral goodness consists in conformity to God’s will, it seems, then it could conceivably be false, even on divine command theory, that God, God’s commands, and God’s actions, are good. If divine command theory is true, then the statement “God is good” asserts that God is as he wills himself to be. There are, of course, many people who are not as they will themselves to be, and so it seems that such an assertion might be false.

A third response is simply to say that God’s goodness is of a different kind to our goodness, and that divine command theory is only intended as an analysis of human goodness.


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