Answering moral nihilism
Published: 26 April 2014 (GMT+10)
A.R. from Italy wrote:
My name’s A. I used to be a Christian before I fell into a moral nihilism because of Euthyphro’s dilemma. Before reading it I was convinced that there was an objective ultimate standard for morality, and God was the only perfect being that could live up to such a standard. I loved my faith, I loved God and I still want to, but the answer to Euthyphro’s dilemma ruined everything. The answer says that God is the ultimate standard for "good"; the paradigm for goodness, but it somehow makes no sense to me. I can’t see how can I ground moral values in a person, even if eternal and omnipotent. If God is his own standard, how great does that make him? I thought to myself why to act morally; because it’s good, that means virtuous, noble, and essentially "good", and it’s good because God views it as good since he is the good. I don’t know why, but such grounding does not satisfy me at all. Maybe I can’t see the problem well, maybe I’m just crazy.
Please help me. All the best.
Lita Cosner, CMI-US, responds:
Thanks for writing in. I assume you’re referring to What is ‘good’? (Answering the Euthyphro Dilemma). Here are a few thoughts that can help to straighten out your moral nihilism (although some were also explained in that article in a different way).
First, you misunderstand who God is, or you wouldn’t be asking this question. He is infinitely higher than us. He doesn’t need anything or anyone outside Himself. And more than that, He cannot be forced to act in a certain way by anything outside Himself. So if goodness was something outside God, because He is omnipotent, He would not be constrained by it—He might decide to lie or do evil. But since goodness is in His very nature, He will never contradict Himself by ever moving from that standard.
Second, God’s own nature is the best and safest place to found morality, because any other moral code would come from within the fallen creation. We are incapable of making a good moral code (in fact, fallen moral codes have led to some of the greatest atrocities in history), let alone living up to one. What’s the alternative to grounding goodness in God? Either to abandon any objective standard for morality (good luck living consistently) or to ground it elsewhere. But what impersonal source could obligate us to behave a certain way (as opposed to giving us an inclination which we are free to reject)? Where, apart from a Creator, could we get ‘oughts’ that are truly binding?
Also, note that goodness is measured by God’s nature, not His commands. This seems like a small distinction, but I think it is important. For instance, it is not wrong to murder only because God said, “Do not murder,” but because God Himself is life and the author of life. It is not wrong to lie only because God said, “Do not lie,” but because God Himself is truth.
You say “How great does this make God?” My answer is: immeasurably great. You see, God is holy, and the only reason you ask this question is because God mercifully does not show Himself openly to fallen creatures. You can get some sense of what God’s holiness means if you read the theophanies in Scripture. Usually people are surprised to come away from the experience alive, and they only do so because God mercifully does not show all His glory. Even the holy angels who are in God’s presence usually have to begin their messages with "Do not fear" and they are only creatures!
God’s goodness, however, is a terrifying doctrine apart from Christ—because He is good, and we are not. We are sinners, and a good God must judge sin. But since God is also merciful, that is why Jesus died in our place, so that He could pardon us when we trust in Jesus.
We can trust God because not only is He good; He is the standard for good. And He is the unchanging standard for good, and He is the holy and loving standard for good. Rather than causing us to doubt, this should enable us who trust in Jesus to rest in Him, because He is good.
Thanks for the article. I was recently involved in a debate concerning the Euthyphro dilemma. In addition to the observations you make, it should be noted that the judgments of the gods were regarded as arbitrary by Socrates because it pertains to a polytheistic framework where gods can argue with each other concerning the best course of action (they are also not all powerful like our God). Because of the polytheistic nature of the Greek gods - there is no singular character upon which decisions can be based. For this reason the appeal to godly character is not considered in the dilemma.
When you apply the dilemma to a monotheistic framework, the appeal to God's awesome character as shown in the bible becomes a valid option. God does not have to wonder or argue about the best course of action - He foreknew all things and will do the right thing automatically without having to check with anyone else. His decisions does not only flow from His character, but also from His omnipotence and omnipresence.
This provides a valid reason for a third option to be added to the Euthyphro dilemma: Goodness is defined by God's nature - as also stated in The article posted by dr Sarfati
Thanks again for all your hard work in continuing scientific research.
I think the related article "What is ‘good’? (Answering the Euthyphro Dilemma)" really shows that the dilemma do not apply to the Christian faith. One can only claim that this dilemma is still valid and/or that moral is arbitrary, by excluding God from one's mindset.
It says in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God. However, our pride often keeps us from fully accepting God's love or fully enjoying it. There is no compelling reason to accept atheism. It has no benefit whatsoever even if it's found to be true and especially since it is certainly false. Think about it there is complete nothingness. Atheism must borrow it ideas from various religious philosophies because nothig is there upon which to build morals or even order for that matter. Atheism cannot really explain origins give hope encouragement or meaning to life on its own. People will argue that some atheists behave better than some Christians, that just proves Genesis 1:27 that mankind was created in God's image. Immoral behaving Christians are called hypocrites, are moral behaving atheists called hypocrites as well.
I think any argument is simplified if we remember that God IS love (1 John 4), and agape love at that. God must be consistent with His very nature and thus all His acts are acts of love. The supreme demonstration of that love occurred at Calvary where, as Paul tells us, Jesus of Nazareth - very God in the flesh - died for us while we were yet estranged from Him and, indeed, His enemies.
So murder is wrong in absolute terms because it is not an act of love and therefore contrary to God's nature. Theft is wrong for the same reason. So is rape. Anything can be judged from this perspective, which is what Jesus affirmed when he was asked what is the greatest commandment and answered "love". Love God first but also love your neighbour.
In summary, yes, God defines "good" because He IS God and what He says goes. But His pronouncement is not arbitrary. The definition is rooted in His nature, which is LOVE. "Three things will last forever — faith, hope, and love — and the greatest of these is love".
Stuart, this is a nice thought, but I think it risks raising love to a sort of 'super-attribute' above the other attributes like holiness and truth that also inform our ideas of how God's nature determines what is right.
Jack M doesn't see it but his argument for defining "Green" actually a great illustration of the concept here. Whatever word we use for it, "Green" is known to us by observing an entity that is green. It doesn't matter if someone says "verde" or "vert" or "zielony." The entity itself is the source of the definition. If you deny the entity exists, you have no basis for your defininition. If the entity exists, all that is needed is to observe it. I'm praying Mark L. finds the reality of "Taste and see that the Lord is good" Psalm 34:8.
Aside from the fact that religious philosophers are hugely divided on whether evil is the absence of good or the opposite of good, you're response really does reveal the problem of your argument.
You say that 'Murder is evil because it deprives someone of life,' but you don't explain why depriving someone of life is evil. I'm sure you can explain, but similarly that explanation would be in terms of something else. The same problem would apply to a definition of good. Until you can come up with a self-contained definition of what is 'good' that cannot equally be applied to 'evil' then the paradox of Euthyphro's Dilema still applies.
To simplify things I might ask a parallel question. Can you can define 'green' in a self-contained way that cannot equally be applied to 'red'?
Jack, I don't really have the time or inclination to argue with someone who either really doesn't see why it is self-evident that deprivation of life is a bad thing, or who simply is pretending to do so for the sake of an argument.
To illustrate why: "Green" is the part of the visible light spectrum visible from 560-490 nm and 540-610 THz, while "red" is the part of the visible light spectrum from 700-635 nm and 430-480 THz. But good luck trying to explain that to a blind person. Or one could show a person a green leaf and a red flower, but your answer is like someone putting on a blindfold and saying, "but I can't see them, therefore your argument doesn't make sense!" No, it doesn't make sense to you because you're blind, or blindfolded.
I think that one of the keys to this lies in Jesus' response to the accusation of the Pharisees' that He casts devils out by the power of Beelzebub. He replied that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. The converse is that God is not divided against Himself. If there were any selfishness in God, He would have a division within Himself, and so would not stand as God. But being God, being eternal and unchanging, means he must also be pure unselfishness, absolute morality, by definition. Getting very philosophical, like the dilemma, only that which is pure unselfishness, pure morality, pure love can stand forever and above all others to dictate morality. Love is the same thing as being supreme and unchanging: God is love. He does not define it by diktat, He IS it.
God’s inalienable right to make the rules is the right of the manufacturer. If Toyota put out a diesel car and put a sticker on the inside of the petrol cap cover, “Diesel only” and your company provides free petrol to employees, what happens when you take up the offer of the free petrol. Of what point will it be for you to query Toyota’s right to make such rules? Any manufacturer has the right to design and build a certain way and he would be remiss if he did not warn the buyer of the limitations of the product. Now to illustrate your conclusion in the above analogy its like you saying to Toyota, ‘You should not have put that sticker on the cap cover. I should be allowed to decide what I put in the tank.’ Unfortunately God has only one model of universe to choose from. If you don’t like this option then you should leave this one and make one of your own.
Some contradictory statements, as if the person does not understand his/her own personal dilemma.
"I used to be a Christian..","..I loved God and I still want to..","..I can’t see how can I ground moral values in a person..","..such grounding does not satisfy me.."
"...but ... Euthyphro’s dilemma ruined everything."
Therefore, the (perceived) answer was either given by a person or a god (acc to A.R.) - both conclusions contradicting the statements of A.R.
Therefore, A.R. is attributing something to a person, or another god, which A.R. finds God not able to possess.
The mere fact that A.R. is prepared to make such absolute statements, but also assuming the ability to do so (which A.R. does not give to God), is elevating him/her -self to a position sufficiently high to attempt judging God, apparently something God should not do.
Quite a circular argument.
This type of reasoning is common place in today's world due to post-modern thought processes, and Bible believing people not recognizing the fallacious nature of such.
What is also mind boggling about so-called nihilism, is that they supposedly believe in meaninglessness, but always comment as if they are seeking for meaning.
The existence of objective morality has been discussed at length on this website, and if it exists, it has to be attributed to the Creator of it. The Creator is not defined by it, but acts according to it, in order for mortals like us to be able to start (and only start) recognizing the "bigger picture" and also the "fairness" of judgement by the morally supreme Creator God. Unfortunately, by following the post-modern thought process, one can only create more confusion, as this fundamentally flawed thought process is doctrinally based upon living with contradictions as presuppositions.
A.R. said this: “I used to be a Christian before I fell into a moral nihilism because of Euthyphro’s dilemma. […] I loved my faith, I loved God and I still want to, but the answer to Euthyphro’s dilemma ruined everything.”
Well, dictionaries define nihilism: 1. total disbelief in religion or moral principles and obligations, or in established laws and institutions (often involving a general sense of despair coupled with the belief that life is devoid of meaning). 2. Philosophy a. a belief that there is no objective basis of truth. b. an extreme form of scepticism, denying all real existence. c. nothingness or non-existence.
Hmm. Because of the “Euthyphro’s dilemma”, A.R. in good conscience had no option but to convert from Christianity to Nihilism (Atheism), from faith in God to faith in Zip. So A.R. apparently had a brain snap and switched from believing “God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God, and God in him. (1Jn§4:16b)” to believing that “love (God) does not exist”. Does A.R. really deny the reality stemming from the morality of love and hatred in this world?
Therefore, if A.R. is genuine about “still wanting to love God and what he stands for”, all he has to do is make a decision in his mind to stop denying the reality of love, i.e. start believing that Love (God) exists. The next step is to start obeying the Spirit of Jesus: ‘If you love me you will obey my commands; and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another to be your Advocate, who will be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. (Jn 14:15-17b)’.
Very few people enjoy moral relativism or nihilim when others apply it to them.
A world full of moral relativists and nihilists would be a recipe of chaos and anarchy...
...if it was none out there to counter-balance.
Today some many are already looking at reality through lenses of egoism (what can I get out of it), and post-modernism (truth is relative/I care for truths only if they serve me).
And many have mistaken the idea of human rights (a political tool) for something they can use to put God in the dock, often putting aside any notion of human moral duties...
...at least if they are absolute...
Jesus died on the Cross because mankind are perpetual sinners who love sin and love to ignore moral duty.
Their own moral duty...in particular.
We owe God everything.
We owe to God to have already lived absolutely morally perfect.
That should sober us...and bring us to the Cross; again or for the first time.
Fantastic response Lita.
If you are a non believer this truly is a terrifying prospect 'We are sinners, and a good God MUST judge sin'
I thank the Lord daily for his mercy towards me and pray that non believers reading this article repent and accept Jesus as their savior.
Thanks for the awesome continued work CMI :)
The Euthyphro dilemma is actually a false dichotomy. That is, it proposes only two options when another is possible. The third option is that good is based on God’s nature. God appeals to nothing other than his own character for the standard of what is good, and then reveals what is good to us. It is wrong to lie because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), not because God had to discover lying was wrong or that he arbitrarily declared it to be wrong. This means that God does not arbitrarily declare something to be good (ignoring his own nature) or say that something is good by nature (recognizing a standard outside of himself). Both of these situations ignore the biblical option that good is a revelation of God's nature. In other words, God is good by nature and he reveals that nature to us. Therefore, for the Christian, there is no dilemma since neither position in Euthyphro’s dilemma represents Christian theology. op.cit. 'Matt Slick' CARM
I'm afraid I don't find your argument says anything at all. Just try taking it and replacing every use of 'good' with 'evil' (and similar substitutions). For example:
'He is infinitely higher than us. He doesn’t need anything or anyone outside Himself. And more than that, He cannot be forced to act in a certain way by anything outside Himself. So if evil was something outside God, because He is omnipotent, He would not be constrained by it–He might decide to tell the truth or do good. But since evil is in His very nature, He will never contradict Himself by ever moving from that standard.'
It still makes perfect sense as a self contained statement, which shows that neither version is saying anything.
Of course the revised statement does sound wrong - offensive even - but that's because we have our own opinions of what is good and what is evil. But those opinions are external to your argument, demonstrating that there is a standard of goodness outside of God.
Jack, your switch-around might seem clever to someone without much philosophical background, but it's not compelling at all. Evil is not a 'thing' in and of itself, while good is. Evil is a good destroyed, or twisted, or perverted. Murder is evil because it deprives someone of life. Stealing is evil because it deprives someone of property. Evil is a parasite on things which are in and of themselves good.
So an evil deity would not be a Creator at all, because something that was evil in and of itself would not be able to create anything good.
Many thanks Lita - for this article and the related articles (especially ones by Dr Sarfati). They have been very helpful in shedding light on some reflections I've had recently. The questions discussed are also very relevant to someone I know personally and care about who is struggling with such questions and think Christians are moral hypocrites, but fails to see that believing Christians have an imputed righteousness from God (though Jesus). Alas I don't think the person can or would read the articles - and is trying to live according to a moral code devoid of the God of the Bible and show up Christians in terms of morality.
Good thorough answer Lita
I especially appreciate your insight that good is a reflection of His character - ie. not a law / code outside of Himself - this is the only avenue to the absolute standard of good.
A's question even reveals this - For by what standard are you not able to accept the non-goodness of the source of goodness being God? You state that you cannot accept that this can be found even in a person as powerful as God. But this came from you - who is also a person. You are on the horns of a dilemma. God loves us so much that He makes His existence so clear!
I'm not 100% sure of what you are getting at here, but my take on all of this is that God is perfectly righteous, which means everything he does is right. Fortunately, He is only good, although He knows of the existance of evil, which is a life that has rejected Him. He has no need of rules to live by, His nature is good and right. Adam and Eve were created righteous and good also, so they did not need rules to live by. Unfortunately, the devil convinced Adam and Eve that this kind of life lacked something, so they ate of the knowledge of good and evil. I take that to mean that they now measured their life by knowing what was good and what was evil, and presumably, attempting to do the good and not the evil. God had said that this type of life looked good, but it would kill them. His ultimate aim was now to restore man to righteousness (and goodness), apart from judgement by law, by giving him His own righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ.