Bull Fighting: Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Dilemma

Lloyd Hotinski discusses divine command theory, which argues that morality is based on God, and the Euthyphro dilemma, which asks whether acts are morally right because God loves them, or if God loves them because they are morally right.

Earlier this year, I wrote an essay for a philosophy unit I was doing on ethics. It was about the divine command theory (abbreviated to DCT) and the Euthyphro dilemma. But, before we bite the proverbial bullet of philosophical debate, let’s briefly imagine a scenario unlike our own.

Your name is Theseus, and you’re the son of King Aegeus (or daughter if you like). You’ve also got the lion’s share of courage and bravery: nothing’s too formidable a foe for you, kid.

Now, there’s a tyrant king named Minos living in the land, who demands your father pay tribute to him every nine years or so. When the appointed time comes, you are to deliver seven young men and seven young maidens to him out of your populace. Once he gets them, he throws each one down into a labyrinth, where they all suffer a terribly cruel death at the hands of a minotaur.

But you are a mighty warrior, noble and fearless—you’re not afraid of tackling this beast head-on. And so, you set off on your quest.

On your way there, you meet two people willing to offer you some help. The first is Daedalus, the creator of the labyrinth: he gives you crucial advice as to how to traverse the maze. The second is Ariadne, the beautiful daughter of King Minos: she gives you a ball of thread to ensure your safe deliverance back out of the cave. And so, you set off once more on your journey.

After some time, you arrive at the mouth of the dungeon. How’s your game plan? What sort of weapon will you be wielding in the fight?

Let’s say you pick up arms with a stick, and only a stick. Death and ultimate failure look pretty high on the list of things likely to happen to you right about now. But what about if you brought a sword with you? Now we’re talking victory here winner.

The same idea is applicable to debating as well though, philosophical or otherwise. There’s no prudence to be had in judgement that pits oneself into the arena of argument without first having a logical and rational sword of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.

Anyway, let’s get back to the debate.

So, what’s DCT? It’s a moral theory, plain and simple; those who subscribe to it generally all hold a similar view: “morality is ultimately based on [God’s command or character],” and “the morally right action is the one that God commands” (Austin n.d.). In ethics, moral theories have two aims: a practical and a theoretical.

The practical aim is: “[discovering] a decision procedure that can be used to guide correct moral reasoning about matters of moral concern” (Timmons 2002, p. 3). For example, we might have a moral principle (or decision procedure) for DCT saying: ‘An act is morally right if and only if it doesn’t violate God’s commands.’

On the other hand, the theoretical aim is: “[discovering] those underlying features” that “make [items of moral evaluation] right or wrong, good or bad” (Timmons 2002, p. 4). Note goodness and rightness, like badness and wrongness, are not equivalent in ethics. Whereas goodness and badness are shades of grey, rightness and wrongness are black and white.

So then, what’s the Euthyphro dilemma? It’s like a catch-22, originating from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, where two men, Euthyphro and Socrates, are discussing the nature of piety. After a while of debating, the question is asked: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (Plato 1981, p. 14).

Cut to the present day, the dilemma now is this: “is an act right because God loves it [second horn], or does God love it because it is right [first horn]?” (Shafer-Landau 2004, p. 79). The terms first or second horn are simply just shorthand references to either half of the dilemma. However, they do conjure up the rather appropriate image of fighting a bull, or a minotaur. In this case, the minotaur we are facing is the Euthyphro dilemma.

Let’s try going with the first horn and see what happens: God loves an act because it’s right. If that’s the case, DCT fails its theoretical aim of ‘finding those underlying features that make an action right or wrong, good or bad,’ because rightness and wrongness, and goodness and badness, exist in a realm or plain outside of God, as some sort of objective truth of the cosmos or universe, like the laws of logic. No damage done to the minotaur yet then.

Let’s try the second horn: an act is right because God loves it. Prima facie, it seems okay. But now, several objections arise: of ‘arbitrariness,’ ‘triviality,’ and ‘cruel commands,’ just to name a few. Most speak for themselves. However, I’ll only be focusing on the arbitrariness objection (or AO for short).

Cudworth (1996, p. 14) argues AO is an issue because nothing is right or wrong, good or bad, prior to God’s commands: anything “wicked, […] unjust or dishonest” could have been made “holy, just, and righteous” were it so commanded. So, if we go with the second horn, morality is arbitrary; the minotaur wins.

How are we to resolve such a problem? This is where our secret weapon comes into play: ‘the false dilemma objection.’ The idea here is that the Euthyphro dilemma is actually a false dichotomy: “An either/or split that is faulty because it omits alternatives” (Govier 2012, p. 213). The third alternative is: “good is based on God’s nature”; thus, “it is wrong to lie because God cannot lie” (Slick 2009). We’ve wounded the minotaur; maybe not mortally, just yet though.

To cash this idea out, Alston (1990, p. 319) suggests we use ‘particularistic’ predicates—predicates referencing “one or more individuals”—instead of ‘Platonic’ predicates—predicates applied to “an ‘essence’ or ‘Idea’ that can be specified in purely general terms.”

A predicate is “what is said of a subject in a sentence” (Bunnin & Jiyuan 2018). For example, in the sentence ‘a triangle has three angles,” the phrase ‘has three angles’ is a Platonic predicate for the subject ‘a triangle,’ because it conforms to an essence or idea (i.e. a triangle).

However, in the sentence, ‘this table is a meter in length,’ the phrase ‘is a meter in length’ is a particularistic predicate for the subject ‘this table,’ because it conforms to an individual (i.e. the Paris standard meter stick). Similarly, what makes acts good isn’t conformity to “some general principle,” but to God (Alston 1990, p. 320).

Alston (1990, p. 321) considers the objection that, without citing God’s conformity “to general principles of goodness,” taking Him as “the standard of goodness” is still arbitrary; but to this, he responds: “sooner or later either a general principle or an individual paradigm is cited” which is “the end of the line” in “the search for explanation.” Hence, “[invoking] God as the supreme standard of goodness” is “[no] more arbitrary than [invoking] a supreme general principle” (Alston 1990, p. 322).

However, one might argue, DCT still does not explain what goodness and rightness are; only that God conforms to them perfectly. Thus, DCT fails its theoretical aim of discovering those underlying features making things right or wrong, good or bad. And the minotaur rears its ugly head.

How do we resolve this? By constructing reductive identities.

Identity reduction is the reducing of an entity (a) to another (b); conditionally such that a=b and ‘a’ expresses conceptual content differing from ‘b,’ so that “if a reduces to b, then b does not reduce to a” (van Riel & Van Gulick 2018). Using the previous authors’ example, water reducing to H2O expresses that water=H2O, but also that water expresses conceptual content differing from H2O (i.e. “folk-chemistry” from “chemistry”).

Let’s use another example for those who are still perhaps, understandably, somewhat confused. We’ll talk a little bit about love.

A young lad one day plucks up the courage to tell his childhood sweetheart that he loves her; upon hearing his words, the lass delightedly and exuberantly tells him she loves him also. We might call the youthful and vibrant affection they both experience with each other—the kind of love that makes a man blush when a woman playfully teases him—during that honeymoon period before it matures and blossoms into romantic love, ‘infatuation.’

But a pair of lovebirds such as these are also likely to have other special people they look up to in their lives—they feel a certain ‘brotherly love’ or ‘respect’ towards them, whom they hold near and dear to their hearts: parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc. This kind of friendship or loyalty love for elders or equals we might call ‘admiration.’

And when they grow older, this same couple might one day want to get married, settle down, and have children of their own. The love these wedded parents share and feel for each child they nurture—a kind of sacrificial love—we might call ‘adoration.’

Even the love they feel towards God, for underserved grace that puts red embarrassment on our faces—like wetting one’s pants amongst a crowd of people—this we might call ‘veneration.’

Love then is the umbrella term infatuation, admiration, adoration, and veneration—types of love—come under. Importantly, they all express different kinds of love: we can reduce each of them down to the word love—in the sense that we can say ‘I love you’ and express either infatuation, admiration, adoration, or veneration—but love cannot reduce down to each of them: that is, we can’t say love is just infatuation, admiration, adoration, or veneration.

For example, a boyfriend who says ‘I love you’ to his girlfriend expresses a different kind of love to that which a son feels for his mother when he says the same thing: the boy feels for the girl infatuation, something he does not for his mother.

Thus, saying ‘goodness’ reduces to ‘maximally conforming to God’s nature,’ and ‘rightness’ to ‘not acting contrary to God’s commands,’ is no more arbitrary than saying ‘water’ reduces to ‘H2O,’ because: “If [a] just is [b], then there is nothing to be explained about how [they] connect; it is a sheer misunderstanding to ask for more than just the identity-statement” (van Riel & Van Gulick 2018).

To cash this out, it might be helpful to consider the supervenient relationships here.

Supervenience is a form of relational entailment, such that “there cannot be an A-difference without a B-difference” when: “A set of properties A supervenes upon another set B” (McLaughlin & Bennett 2018). For example, in the supervenience of squares, there is “no difference in [side length] without a difference in [area]” (Rickles n.d.).

As another example, a husband purchases a bouquet of red roses and boxes of chocolate for his wife on Valentine’s day (or their wedding anniversary), and she feels jubilantly happy with him, because his ‘displays of affection’ reminds her of his enduring love for her, and thus supervenes on her ‘happiness.’ In other words, the more the showcases, the happier the lady.

Hence, when predicates ‘is maximally conforming to God’s nature’ and ‘is not acting contrary to God’s commands’ are fixed, so are subjects ‘goodness’ and ‘rightness’ respectively. Thus, this is ‘the end of the line’; AO has been resolved, and DCT lives on. We defeated the minotaur.

What lesson are we to gain from all this? The moral of the story is simple: in your professional discourse, or day-to-day, think before you speak. That may seem painfully obvious, but people seldom do it. So, don’t use petty arguments like the stick: they defend you against nothing and support no cause in fighting back. And, most importantly, if there are people willing and able to help you further your goals in meaningful ways, seek them out and use their time; with grace, thanks, and humility. After all, that’s how we slay minotaurs. Why? Because that is your sword: people.



Alston, W 1990, ‘Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists’ in MD Beaty (ed),                 Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, pp. 303-326. University of Notre        Dame Press, University of Notre Dame. Available from:    jdealy/alston_some_suggestions_for_divine_command_theory.pdf. [17 May 2018].

Austin, MW n.d., Divine Command Theory, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available           from: [17 May 2018].

Bunnin, N & Jiyuan, Y (eds) 2018, The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy,                     Blackwell Reference Online. Blackwell Publishing. Available from: http://www.                                       g978140510679517_ss1-204. [17 May 2018].

Cudworth, R 1731/1996, in S Hutton (ed) A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable                Morality, p. 14. Cambridge University Press, New York. Available from: The                   University of Western Australia Library Course Materials Online. [17 May 2018].

Govier, T 2012, in Kozyrev, J, Duncan, J & Straton, M (eds) A Practical Study of Argument,          Enhanced Seventh Edition, 7th edn, p. 213. Cengage Learning, Inc, Wadsworth.

McLaughlin, B & Bennett, K 2018, ‘Supervenience’ in EN Zalta (ed), The Stanford             Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition). Metaphysics Research Lab,                 Stanford University. Available from:         [17 May 2018].

Plato 1981, Five Dialogues, trans. GMA Grube, pp. 9-16. Hackett, Cambridge. Available    from: The University of Western Australia Library Course Materials Online. [17 May      2018].

Rickles, D n.d., Supervenience and Determination, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.                 Available from: [17 May 2018].

Shafer-Landau, R 2004, ‘Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?’, Whatever Happened to   Good and Evil, pp. 78-84. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Available from: The   University of Western Australia Library Course Materials Online. [17 May 2018].

Slick, M 2009, What is the Euthyphro dilemma?, Christian Apologetics and Research          Ministry. Available from: [17 May 2018].

Timmons, M 2002, ‘An Introduction to Moral Theory’, Moral Theory: An Introduction, pp. 1-       21. Rowman & Littlefield, New York. Available from: The University of Western         Australia Library Course Materials Online. [17 May 2018].

van Riel, R & Van Gulick, R 2018, ‘Scientific Reduction’ in EN Zalta (ed), The Stanford     Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition). Metaphysics Research Lab,     Stanford University. Available from:       reduction/. [17 May 2018].

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