What is the Athyphro Dilemma?

by Matt Slick

The Athyphro Dilemma is a moral dilemma for atheists.  This dilemma is adapted from the Euthyphro Dilemma with the "eu" be replaced by "a" for atheism.

Basically, the Euthyphro Dilemma proposes a problem for Christians when it asks, "Are moral acts willed by God because they are good, or are they good because they are willed by God?" If they are good by nature, then they exist independently of God and God is not the standard of good but recognizes the good outside of himself. On the other hand, if something is good because God declares it to be good, then goodness is arbitrary.  In that case, God could have declared that murder is good and honesty is bad. 

This is, basically, a false dichotomy and CARM's response to the Euthyphro Dilemma is found here.

But, does the same logic apply to atheists? I think so. Let's take a look 

The Athyphro Dilemma

  • Are moral acts good because atheists recognize they are good by nature, or do atheists simply declare moral acts to be good?

If moral acts are good by nature, then atheists are recognizing a standard of goodness that exists independently of themselves and they then appeal to an external standard of goodness. But if that is the case, they are recognizing that goodness has a natural existence, a kind of essence of goodness to which they must appeal.  We have to ask the atheist to explain how is it possible to have inherent moral goodness in a purely materialistic worldview?  In addition, if there is a standard of goodness outside of themselves, then it means that there's a moral obligation to which all atheists are obligated to follow.  This then, could not be subjective and implies a universal moral law giver.

On the other hand, if atheists say something is good simply by their declaration, then they are saying goodness is arbitrary, that it is simply stated to be good, not that it is good by nature. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it would mean goodness is arrived at by vote, which is the fallacy of argumentum ad populum. Second, it would mean that the atheists could declare murder to be good and honesty to be bad. Third, how do you know what would be good and bad to begin with?  After all, just saying something is good or bad doesn't make it so.  It would all be too arbitrary.

Reducing unnecessary suffering is the objective standard

In light of this, Atheists have proposed a standard of goodness by saying that that which is good is what reduces unnecessary suffering; afterall, people don't want to suffer. Therefore, they say that it is a kind of objective moral standard since it does not rest with any individual atheist, but with the whole of humanity.  However, there are problems with this position.

  1. How do atheists know that reducing unnecessary harm is the proper moral standard to begin with?  Just saying it is so doesn't make it so.
  2. How does the atheist connect moral obligation with what a majority of people want, so that reducing unnecessary harm is the morally right thing to pursue?  It reduces morality to an arbitrary preference of the whole.
  3. If atheists say that reducing harm is the proper standard because that's what the majority of people want, then they are begging the question by saying that what people want is what makes something morally right. In other words, what the majority of people want to be morally good is morally good because that's what the majority of people want.
  4. If atheists say that reducing unnecessary harm is the proper standard because that is what the majority of people want, then they are committing the logical fallacy of argumentatum ad populum.  This error states that someone ought to accept a position because the majority people hold to that position.
  5. If atheists say the majority of people decide what is morally right, then that is problematic, because what people want can change as has been evidenced throughout various cultures throughout history where societies have drastically changed their moral persuasions. 
  6. What would the atheist do if society discovered that atheism is harmful to society and that atheists ought to be imprisoned and or isolated from society in order to reduce the overall suffering of society?  Under such a scenario, would the atheist position then necessitate support for such imprisonment and/or isolation?  If not, then wouldn't they be refuting their own position?
  7. What do atheists do when someone disagrees with the idea that reducing unnecessary harm is a proper moral standard?  How do they judge who is right or wrong without another moral standard to begin with, other than "that is what the majority want"?  Wouldn't it mean appealing to a standard outside of themselves (not to mention argumentum ad populum) by which moral judgments can be made, thereby refuting their own position?

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.