Saint Augustine of Hippo

The Euthyphro Dilemma

An Augustinian Solution.

The tale of the Euthyphro Dillemma is one that is scattered across the internet as an apparent defeater to Christian Ethics as grounded in the divine being of God. While there is a much deeper history that can be explained in this video here, I can sum it up very simply in this blog. Is (1) X good because God commands it, or (2) does God command X because X is good. If you go with (1), the problem is that God can in fact do anything by divine fiat. If you go with (2), God isn't necessary for something to be good. There are good responses to this dilemma, Edward Feser has one outlined under a Thomistic response to the problem here.

However, I would like to present a response to the dilemma from the perspective of Saint Augustine. It should be noted that nowhere in his work does Saint Augustine address the problem (at least not directly). However, this should not stop us from addressing the problem from his own writings.

First of all, what does it even mean for something to be called “good”? It should be noted that this is probably the hardest part of the problem, because depending on how one answers this, even if one were to get around the dilemma, it could mean problems in other objections to theistic moral realism (such as the Is-Ought Problem, and the Open Question Argument).

When Saint Augustine says something is “good”, he makes a distinction between how it is attributed to God and other beings. As he says in The Confessions,

But again I said, Who made me? Did not my God, Who is not only good, but goodness itself? {1}

God is “goodness itself”, whereas particular beings are “good”. Goodness is not existent in the same way. Saint Augustine clarifies,

And it was manifested unto me, that those things be good which yet are corrupted; which neither were they sovereignly good, nor unless they were good could be corrupted: for if sovereignly good, they were incorruptible, if not good at all, there were nothing in them to be corrupted. For corruption injures, but unless it diminished goodness, it could not injure. Either then corruption injures not, which cannot be; or which is most certain, all which is corrupted is deprived of good. But if they be deprived of all good, they shall cease to be. For if they shall be, and can now no longer be corrupted, they shall be better than before, because they shall abide incorruptibly. And what more monstrous than to affirm things to become better by losing all their good? Therefore, if they shall be deprived of all good, they shall no longer be. So long therefore as they are, they are good: therefore whatsoever is, is good. That evil then which I sought, whence it is, is not any substance: for were it a substance, it should be good. For either it should be an incorruptible substance, and so a chief good: or a corruptible substance; which unless it were good, could not be corrupted. I perceived therefore, and it was manifested to me that Thou madest all things good, nor is there any substance at all, which Thou madest not; and for that Thou madest not all things equal, therefore are all things; because each is good, and altogether very good, because our God made all things very good [2].

Here, the Saint equates goodness is to be a being (or substance) of some kind. Substance theory in the ancient world is about explaining what something is. There were a variety of theories, but the one best attributable to Saint Augustine would be a form of neo-Platonism that replaces ‘The One’ [3] with the Triune God of Scripture [4].

God, unlike anything else, is such that there are no parts to his being. This is not just a statement of physicality, but also properties. Unlike God, I am properly distinct in both in physical and metaphysical parts because my nature is constantly changing. I extend over 4-dimentions (both through space and time). God is static and unchanging. God is eternally good and is his goodness because he never changes or gains attributes.

For a more thorough explanation, I would encourage my readers to go here to see how Saint Anselm (working inside the Platonic-Augustinian tradition) would explain it.

Since God suffices as his own good (or “goodness itself”), then the Euthyphro Dilemma need not apply. It is a false dilemma because it overlooks another possibility, namely,

X is good because X participates along side God, who is goodness-itself

Well, if Saint Augustine is working within a Christianized version of Platonism, it is in that tradition of philosophy where we need to look. Plato posited what is called the Theory of the Forms to explain “The Problem of Universals”. The problem of universals is about how we observe universal properties like “redness”, “goodness” etc, in various objects, so what does it mean to say both John is a good husband, and Sam is a good husband? For Plato, he would say universals are more real (that is, they have a more fundamental existence) than particular things that exemplify them. So, John and Sam both are rightly called “good” because they participate in the universal called “goodness”.

Where Saint Augustine (and his followers) differs from Plato is he considers God to be goodness itself, it’s just that God can be qualified as also the universal for knowledge, power and whatever other attribute argued for properly (again, read the previous post to help make sense of the language). God is considered first and foremost being-itself (the universal for being), whereas other particular beings are distinguished from one another. The closer you are to God, the more your goodness, knowledge and so forth cease acting in disharmony with one another. Goodness is just the moral dimension we attribute to being-itself when we place all our selves in harmony with its telos. As Saint Augustine says,

Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.[5]

It is when fulfilling our end or teleology (as it centers around God) by participating in him where we are fulfilling our intrinsic purpose (as we intuit the Lord). It is by participating in God whereby all within the heavens and earth (or space-time for the modern reader) are sustained in existence.

For of the fulness of Thy goodness, doth Thy creature subsist, that so a good, which could no ways profit Thee, nor was of Thee (lest so it should be equal to Thee), might yet be since it could be made of Thee. For what did heaven and earth, which Thou madest in the Beginning, deserve of Thee? Let those spiritual and corporeal natures which Thou madest in Thy Wisdom, say wherein they deserved of Thee, to depend thereon (even in that their several inchoate and formless state, whether spiritual or corporeal, ready to fall away into an immoderate liberty and far-distant unlikeliness unto Thee; — the spiritual, though without form, superior to the corporeal though formed, and the corporeal though without form, better than were it altogether nothing), and so to depend upon Thy Word, as formless, unless by the same Word they were brought back to Thy Unity, indued with form and from Thee the One Sovereign Good were made all very good. [6]

So, where does this leave us with the other two arguments against moral realism (the open question argument, and the is-ought problem)? Well, I think I can address them here. The open question argument is formulated as such on Wikipedia,

Premise 1: If X is (analytically equivalent to) good, then the question “Is it true that X is good?” is meaningless.
Premise 2: The question “Is it true that X is good?” is not meaningless (i.e. it is an open question).
Conclusion: X is not (analytically equivalent to) good.[7]

The first premise revolves around what’s called the analytic/synthetic distinction. Analytic propositions are ones where identity is equivalent to definition. If I say that a bachelor is a married, that’s true by definition. They’re just synonymous with one another. It’s meaningless in the sense that it’s just a proclamation by definition. However — to move to the second premise- when we say X is good, it should be a claim of interest, an open question. It could be true, or false. It’s something that causes some drive.

For Moore, the good is nothing more than a property which could not be further analyzed. It’s like the color yellow. It isn’t reducible to more basic properties (like for example, a chimera is made up of the properties of various animals).

My point is that good is a simple notion, just as yellow is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to anyone who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is. Definitions of the kind that I was asking for, definitions which describe the real nature of the object or notion denoted by a word, and which do not merely tell us what the word is used to mean, are only possible when the object or notion in question is something complex. You can give a definition of a horse, because a horse has many different properties and qualities, all of which you can enumerate. But when you have enumerated them all, when you have reduced a horse to his simplest terms, you can no longer define those terms. They are simply something which you think of or perceive, and to anyone who cannot think of or perceive them, you can never, by any definition, make their nature known. It may perhaps be objected to this that we are able to describe to others, objects which they have never seen or thought of. [8]

Good isn’t reducible, but like the color yellow, is sensed. Where for yellow, it would be through the eyes, for good it is through moral intuition. So, what would Saint Augustine’s response to Moore be? Well, the first thing to note is that there is no analytic-synthetic distinction for Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine believes universality exists in the way particulars participate with God, gaining and losing properties. So, the first premise is false. Whereas Saint Augustine would agree with Moore that both (1) goodness, as it’s instantiated in the particular, is irreducible and (2) must be intuited (albeit through revelation). He disagrees that (1) universality is reducible analyticity (and hence universals would require God), and (2) goodness isn’t fundamental.

The last objection to consider is the is-ought problem by Hume, namely how do we derive an ought from an is? Well, the truth of an ought statement — such as “we ought not commit adultery”- stems from God’s revelation, not a prior state of reducible affairs. As he says,

For God has said by the prophet: “Except ye believe, ye shall not understand” [9]

There is no further explanation needed. If we have revelation from God about any particular thing being true, then it is sufficient to be true. It’s a form of intuitionism that replaces Moorean and small ‘p’ platonic goods with the intuiting of God and what is in harmony to him. Here we have a consistent meta-ethic that answers not only the Euthyphro Dillemma, but the Open Question Argument and the Is-Ought argument.

End Notes

[1]Saint Augustine, Translator; E. B. Pusey, The Confessions, Book vii,<>

[2] Ibid

[3] The One transcends all beings, and is not itself a being, precisely because all beings owe their existence and subsistence to their eternal contemplation of the dynamic manifestation(s) of the One. The One can be said to be the ‘source’ of all existents only insofar as every existent naturally and (therefore) imperfectly contemplates the various aspects of the One, as they are extended throughout the cosmos, in the form of either sensible or intelligible objects or existents. — See the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for the above quote in full detail <>

[4] Wassmer, Thomas A.. 1960. “The Trinitarian Theology of Augustine and His Debt to Plotinus”. The Harvard Theological Review 53 (4). Cambridge University Press: 261–68.

[5]Saint Augustine, Translator; E. B. Pusey, The Confessions, Book i,<>

[6]Saint Augustine, Translator; E. B. Pusey, The Confessions, Book xiii,<>


[8] G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica, Chapter 1, Paragraph

[9]St. Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John; Homilies on the First Epistle of John; Soliloquies, Tractate XXIX.Chapter VII. 14–18 <>

This post is one in a series on the Kantian-Augustinian Synthesis, for more, see here.

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