I often hear some variation of this response to the Euthyphro Dilemma.
David Butterworth
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Thanks for reading, David.

In the piece, I don’t do much to offer a “response” of my own. It’s a philosophical explainer; an attempt to survey the ideas for readers who may not be familiar with them. I’m just covering some of the terrain.

You wonder whether the claim “God wills something because He is good” isn’t just a case of begging the question. In a purely technical sense—that is, strictly speaking—it’s not question-begging since the claim is not an argument. But if we were to turn it into an argument, into an attempt to explain the ground or nature of morality, it could strike some as falling prey to a kind of supernatural version of G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy. If you have the intuition that goodness is not identifiable with any other property, whether supernatural (God’s essence) or natural (pleasantness), then you’ll find any attempts to specify an objective ground for morality to be a failure.

On the other hand, if you find it intuitively plausible that who God is and what God does is constitutive of goodness—as in, for example, God the Father’s love for God the Son being constitutive of a good relationship, being emblematic of a good relationship, and being the ground for the ethical obligations that bind us in light of God’s commanding of us to do the same—then the identification makes more sense.

To say, “But that’s begging the question,” could stem from the rival intuition that nothing, not even God’s essence, can be identified with something as ineffable as goodness, or it could stem from a belief that objective goodness, if it exists, cannot have a person provide its metaphysical grounding.

Both deserve consideration. If the former, then we need to spend time thinking about what makes goodness, as a concept, so much more slippery than other ones. For example, it would be silly for us to say, “But how can we be sure that the gravity God set up for us is really gravity.” Similarly, we might ask, “But how can we be sure that the ethical order God set up for us is really good.” The first question—the gravity question—is silly. It’s gravity so far as we know; it’s the name we’ve given a force that we’ve observed with great precision and care. But the second question—the goodness question—does not seem so silly. It seems legitimate, in a way. This is the force of Moore’s open-question argument, and it may be deployable in this context as well.

Going back one paragraph above—if, instead, your idea that the question-begging nature of identifying goodness with God stems from a belief that objective goodness, if it exists, cannot have a person provide its metaphysical grounding, it may get you the conclusion that connecting God and morality this way makes right and wrong a fundamentally subjective enterprise (since God is a person), but it’s not subjective in the significant or relevant sense. Grounding something in God is subjective, in a sense, but it is also constitutive of reality as a whole. God’s decision to structure the universe with the physical laws he’s implemented builds the very contours of our nomological framework. By contrast, our subjectivity, usually cashed out as “preferences,” really only determine things for ourselves. Our subjective preferences fail to go beyond our heads—our brains, our reward centers, our likes and dislikes—and reach a kind of universal status. Things are different when we’re talking about God’s essence.

The above is a start of what we might look into.

Thanks again for reading.

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