In Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” he offers the following response to the Christian argument that objective moral standards are inexplicable unless God exists.
[The moral argument] has all sorts of forms. One form is to say there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question. The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.
“Is that difference due to God’s fiat or not?” The problem is called Euthyphro’s Dilemma, taking its name from the Platonic dialogue in which Socrates wonders “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”
Both Socrates and Russell offer us a choice between two options. The first says that “good” means “that which God approves.” Love is good because God says it is; murder is bad for the opposite reason. At first glance, this definition may seem acceptable. The problem is that if God’s fiat, or preference, is the only standard of goodness, it seems meaningless to suggest that he is himself good. Imagine a god who declared torture, rape, and murder to be good. If “good” is merely an expression of divine fiat, then those acts would be good, as would the god who sanctioned them. However, if a god who approves of torture, rape, and murder is no less good than one who hates such evil, then the word “good” is meaningless when applied to God. Like Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, we may call day night, but only by sacrificing the meaning of both words. When goodness is founded only on divine fiat, we are left with an arbitrary morality dictated by an amoral God.
The alternative appears no more appealing, however, for then we must conclude that goodness is grounded in some standard other than God’s fiat. Love is good because it is, and God approves accordingly. However, if there is some standard of goodness which informs God’s approval of that which we call good, then God is in some measure bound by these external rules. He is not sovereign, for he is merely recognizing an authoritative goodness originating outside himself. We love our enemy because God commands it. If God loves goodness because goodness demands it, is he truly God?
This, then, is Euthyphro’s Dilemma: On the one hand, goodness grounded in the fiat of an amoral God. On the other, goodness constraining a less-than-sovereign God.
Fortunately, these are not the only two options. Russell and Socrates have offered us a false dilemma – an argument inaccurately positing only two options. In reality, Christian theology going back to the early Church offers a definition of goodness that falls into neither of these traps. Instead, the Christian understanding of goodness is grounded in God’s nature.
God is good. This is the Christian premise in understanding goodness. Therefore, that which conforms to God’s nature is good. Love is good because God loves. Forgiveness is good because God forgives. Intelligence, creativity, and even existence are good because God possesses these attributes. Goodness is not predicated on God’s amoral fiat, but neither does it direct him. God does not arbitrarily declare what is good; he is good. He is not bound by an external standard, because he is the standard.
Because the Christian defines goodness in an object (be it human, amoeba, or rock) as correspondence to God’s being within the bounds of the object’s created nature, both horns of Euthryphro’s Dilemma are avoided and we can have a meaningful definition of good grounded in the being of a good and sovereign God.