In Euthyphro, one of Plato’s Five Dialogues, Socrates presents a classic dilemma concerning the nature of morality:
“Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it considered the pious because it is loved by the gods?”
The word translated as “the pious” is the Greek phrase τὸ ὅσιον, which, despite its pagan and polytheistic etymology, may easily and properly be translated for modern discussion as “the moral.” Additionally, the number of deities is not important to either the strength or nature of the question being posed by Socrates, so it, too – again, for the sake of modern discussion – may reasonably be replaced by the singular “god.”
As such, a modern restatement of the Euthyphro Dilemma might be:
If we assume that morality is inextricably linked to the existence of god or is a result of his will as expressed in religious texts, then is moral behavior loved by god because it is moral, or is it considered moral because it is loved by god?
In other words, when someone does something that is considered morally good, how does a religionist assess why it is good? Is the action taken by said person a moral action because it is considered desirable to god? Or does god desire such action because it is morally good?
The entire dilemma is focused on whether morality is something intrinsic to a divine will or extrinsic. If it is intrinsic, as many maintain (viz. “if god commands it, then it is categorically good”), does this mean that rape, genocide, slavery, or theft can be good if it is entailed by divine will? If it is extrinsic, a position which most religionists would reject, does it not imply that what is morally good should obligate god as well? And if what is morally good for human beings does not also obligate god, then how can he be said to be categorically good?
Of course, the veracity of this dilemma has been challenged throughout history by religious philosophers and theologians alike. Most, if not all, of their arguments, however, are based on an a priori belief in god and a simultaneous imputation to him of various attributes which either excuse him from the dilemma or excuse him from acting morally from a human perspective. The existence of god on its own is an untenable proposition in the light of a proper metaphysics and epistemology, and attempts to rationally defend such a belief can be made only if both are subverted to accommodate it. In fact, such subversion stems from the medieval Christian tradition of philosophy serving as the “handmaiden” of theology (i.e. the latter is subverted for the sake of the former).
What the dilemma very strongly implies is that morality is not – and cannot – be contingent on the will or existence of god. This means that despite the faith claims of, in the words of Nietzsche in Ecce Homo, “Christians and other nihilists,” it is not only possible to be moral apart from a belief in god, it is necessary to be so. The fact is, most reasonable people – even religionists – in our post-Enlightenment era regularly separate moral goodness from their belief in god, and do so almost as if from a sort of cultural instinct. Even attempts by religious believers to justify or contextualize, for example, the genocide routinely commanded by god in the Bible, is a tacit admittance that genocide is morally objectionable to the enlightened mind and its presence in the Bible is thus problematic.
I have written elsewhere about “giving god a pass” – a common (and potentially dangerous) reflex of psycho-epistemological disconnect on the part of religionists. A proper logical test for whether one should accept a particular behavior as morally good when attributed to god, is to simply replace god in the scenario with a human being. If one would not accept a given behavior or expressed moral sentiment from even the best human, then there is no basis on which to accept it from god either. Unless, of course, one is willing to admit that god is immoral (an admission that no theist can make while remaining a theist). In this way, god’s goodness may be tested for any given case and evaluated in light of ethics and moral philosophy with religious believers.
The next question is: since morality is necessarily separate from either the existence of god or religious faith, how is moral good determined or derived? And, prior to this question is: why does humanity need systems of morality or ethics in the first place? I will leave these for another time.