In a philosophical dialog written by Plato around 400 B.C., casual acquaintances Socrates and Euthyphro meet by chance on the court-house steps. Euthyphro proudly announces that he has come to accuse his own father of manslaughter. Under Greek law, such a charge is considered improper, but Euthyphro intends to press his case anyway. He is confident that very few people understand what’s right and what’s wrong as clearly as he does. Furthermore, he is certain that the gods themselves agree with him.

Socrates cannot let such claims go unchallenged. He pretends to be clueless about the whole topic, and implores Euthyphro to enlighten him. And about halfway through their conversation, Socrates asks him (Woods and Pack translation):

Is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious, or it is pious because it is loved?

People have been discussing this question for 2,400 years. The weird thing about it is that when you think through them, neither of the choices it offers us makes a bit of sense. Let’s take a look. We’ll put the question into modern English, and look at its two halves in turn.

The two non-options

If someone tells us that, according to their religious beliefs, a certain activity – prayer, for example – is good, we can ask:

Is it good because God wants us to do it, or does God want us to do it because it’s good?

The first option – prayer is good because God likes it – implies that there are no external rules governing God’s judgement of right and wrong. If there were such rules, we would be talking about the second option, where God approves of good things because they’re good. In this, the first option, an action is good if and only if God approves.

It’s a troubling scenario. Take the rule, “Do unto others as you would be done by,” which most people regard as morally faultless. If God has perfect freedom to decide what’s right, then he could say that he does not want us to follow the Golden Rule, and that would mean that it is evil, and those who have occasionally tried to honor it would be morally obligated to desist. And if one day God said, “On the Sabbath day, I’d like to see a bit of torture and cannibalism in every living-room,” then torture and cannibalism would be right.

But if scenarios like this are possible, then God is speaking a language we can’t understand. We don’t know what it would mean to say that the Golden Rule is ‘evil’, or torture and cannibalism ‘right’. If God can have opinions like this, how can we even say with any confidence that God is good? We don’t know what the word means anymore. But, traditionally, God is the source and epitome of goodness. If we can’t be sure that he’s good, then we can’t be sure he’s God! So this first option can’t be correct.

The second option says: it’s not that praying is good because God likes it; rather, he wants us to do it because it’s good. This implies that there is a moral authority superior to, prior to, independent of God’s. What’s right and wrong was decided before God got involved. So there are rules that God has to follow, laws that he cannot break. But we’ve been told that God created the entire universe to his own specifications, and that there is nothing he can’t do. Seriously, if he’s not omnipotent, then he’s not God. So the second option is also wrong.

What’s going on here? Whichever way we answer, we reach an absurd conclusion: that the God we’ve been talking about is not the God we’ve been talking about. How does Plato’s question produce this result? – and what can we learn from the fact that it does?

The lesson

The Euthyphro’s topic is the relationship between religion and morality; about the fundamental source and justification of moral guidelines. Socrates says, in effect, “I take your word for it, Euthyphro, that God is intimately connected with what’s right and wrong. I just want to understand how that works in a little more detail. Is the action good because God wants it to be taken, or does he want it to be taken because it is good?”

Behind this question there are two assumptions about God. The catch is, they contradict each other. They cannot both be true.

To ask about what God wants (or likes, or prefers) is to assume that God prefers certain things (or events) over others. And in the background, as part of any mention of God, there is a definitional assumption that God is omnipotent. But these two assumptions are mutually exclusive, since an omnipotent being would not have desires.

For human beings, to want is the same thing as to get, if possible. If you desire something, you make it happen – if you can. But God, by definition, can do anything. So if he wants it, it happens. Period. But in that case, he doesn’t want things the way we do – not in the sense of trying to get something. An omnipotent being doesn’t try. Everything already is the way he wants it.

Someone will say: Maybe God doesn’t make all the things he wants to happen, happen. But he could – and if he doesn’t, then it’s not clear what it means to say that he wants them.

It gets worse. If everything that happens is exactly as God intends, then the question “What should I do?” has no meaning. What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. There are no right or wrong choices, because no one ever gets to choose. But choice – “What should I do?” – is the very essence of morality. If an omnipotent being controls the universe, then our moral decision-making is an illusion, and our moral discussions are a waste of time, because there’s nothing we can decide or change.

All these strange, impotent thoughts have a single cause. The concept of omnipotence is incoherent. As soon as you say that he can do anything, you invite ridiculous questions like “Can God beat a full house with two pair?” and “Can God make a burrito so big he can’t eat it?” You have dug a pit of nonsense, and further discussion will only deepen the hole. This is why neither horn of the Euthyphro dilemma gets us anywhere; and this is what it was written to demonstrate. Propositions involving omnipotent beings are guaranteed not to make any sense.

More broadly, Plato’s ancient teaching-story serves to remind us that morality is essentially and exclusively a human concern. To introduce infinities and absolutes into moral thinking is to strip it of sense. Stories about superhuman beings cannot clarify what’s right or wrong for human beings to do, or explain why it’s right or wrong. There is no useful role, in either moral theory or moral decision-making, for theology.