Friday, February 20, 2009

C.S. Lewis and the Euthyphro Dilemma

Are things good because God declares them good or are they already good and God merely acknowledges their goodness? If God merely declares things "good," what is to keep his commands from having a sense of arbitrariness?

But if goodness already exists apart God, then his existence seems superfluous or, at least, tangential since something significant (i.e., goodness) transcends his nature and exists apart from him. Thus Plato presented what has become known as the Euthyphro dilemma.

Of course, one need not opt for one of these two horns of the dilemma. Indeed, there may very well be a viable alternative (tertium quid).

C.S. Lewis addresses the Euthyphro dilemma in three important writings: The Problem of Pain (1940), "The Poison of Subjectivism" (1943) , and in Reflections on the Psalms (1958).

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis wrote, "It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them ... I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion ... that charity is good only because God commanded it -- that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right ... God's will is determined by His wisdom which always perceives, and His goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good."

In Reflections on the Psalms, while commenting on Psalm 119, Lewis wrote:

There were in the eighteenth century terrible theologians who held that, "God did not command certain things because they are right, but certain things are right because God Commanded them". To make the position perfectly clear, one of them even said that though God has, as it happens, commanded us to love Him and one another, He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another, and hatred would have been right. It was apparently a mere toss-up which he decided to do. Such a view in effect makes God a mere arbitrary tyrant. It would be better and less irreligious to believe in no God and to have no ethics than to have such an ethics and such a theology as this. The Jews of course never discuss this in abstract and philosophical terms. But at once, and completely, they assume the right view, knowing better than they know. They know that the Lord (not merely obedience to the Lord) is "righteous" and commands "righteousness" because He loves it ... He enjoins what is good because it is good, because He is good. Hence His laws have emeth "truth", intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in His own nature ...*

Lewis's most detailed look at the Euthyphro dilemma, however, is found in "The Poison of Subjectivism," where he states that both horns of the dilemma are "intolerable." He then goes on to offer a tertium quid when he writes, "God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God."

This suggests, as does the latter portion of the quote from Reflections on the Psalms, that Lewis viewed goodness as being rooted in God's nature. As such, goodness is neither arbitrary or separate from God. In so arguing, Lewis escapes the horns of the Euthyprho dilemma.

* Some readers will recognize the word "emeth" as the name of a character in The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. Emeth is often brought up as an example of the inclusivism of C.S. Lewis. I address this in my book The Heart of Narnia but at some point hope to elaborate on my thoughts via this blog.


Karla said...

I have been thinking about the classical argument from morality for God's existence (ie there is a moral law so there is a moral law giver). This classical argument seems to play into instead of avoid the Euthyphro Dilemma giving the idea that there is a moral law outside of God, instead of good being rooted in God. Once we posit an external moral law we get into shaky ground. When Romans says all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, "the glory of God" is the standard, not falling short of a moral law, but a righteous God. Yet Lewis uses the classical moral law argument in Mere Christianity as do many apologists. I am beginning to question this approach. What do you think?

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks for the comments, Karla. I'll have to give this some thought. On Lewis: he readily admitted that most of his ideas were derivative. This, too, would be the case with his presentation of a moral argument.

As a general note, no individual argument for God is without its flaws to one degree or another. In my assessment, it is the cumulative force of such arguments that make theism much more probably than atheism.

Stewart said...

Just passing, thought I'd drop in. First, my view is that any moral law relating to humanity can only be derived from human nature which is profoundly social. Basically, the laws we live by are so derived. They've developed and changed to enhance human thriving as a whole. Lewis's response in The Problem of Pain is surely the only correct response to the Euthyphro dilemma [of course for me there is no dilemma because there are no deities]. Goodness is separate from gods, who are as much enjoined to be good as we are. The alternative is unacceptable. To worm out of it by saying god just is good is to assume more than you can possibly know. It assumes such a complete knowledge of god as to put yourself in a superior position vis-a-vis god. Dangerous territory. Of course, since gods are invented by humans, of course humans are in the superior position, and can make up any qualities they want to for their gods.