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Is something good because it is good or because God says so? Analysing Euthyphro’s Dilemma

I keep seeing this popular notion among Muslims: “something is haram because God says so. Full stop. You have no say in it.”

But what if God says cutting off someone’s leg is a moral thing to do? Would you still abide by God?

While I appreciate the zeal to forward God-imposed morality, it’s not as black as white as you think.

Consider this question: “Is something good because it is inherently good in and of itself or because God says so?”

For example. is stealing haram because it is wrong or because God says it is wrong? Which one?

If you say it is wrong because it is wrong in and of itself, then you’re implying that morality does not come from God. So God is not the decider of morality, and morality exists without God.

On the other hand, if you say that it is because God says so, you’re implying that God makes rules out of whim. So you can’t say God is good, because God simply makes rules arbitrarily without a moral standard.

This is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma: Is something morally right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally right?

To make matters more complicated, even in the Islamic theological tradition, there are three separate views on what is morally right. The Asharis and the majority of the Muslim jurists on the one side say that something is right because God says it is right while the Mutazilites take the opposite view. The Maturidis on the other hand opines that it is possible to know what is wrong or right independent of revelation but the revelation comes to correct the human perception of what is right and wrong.

Regardless, the three points of view do not answer Euthyphro’s Dilemma.

If you are starting to feel confused, good. You are starting to think.

So how do we answer Euthyphro’s Dilemma?

By now you are confused as to which side to take. Either side you take will make God look imperfect. But God can’t be imperfect. God is all good and good comes from God.

The dilemma is actually a false dichotomy. Read on and I will explain why.

Objective Morality

First of all, let me drive a point home clearly for you: morality is objective. If you take a saw and cut someone’s leg in half without the other’s consent, it is morally wrong. It is morally wrong no matter how many people say it is right. It also doesn’t matter which society you are in, cutting off someone’s leg is morally wrong.

Objective morality is not to be confused with absolute morality. While absolute morality says that the one who cuts the other person’s leg is guilty of causing harm even if he is insane. That isn’t the case for objective morality.

Objective morality simply means that something is wrong because it IS wrong. It doesn’t mean it is wrong in every possible circumstance.

Subjective Morality

Subjective morality on the other hand is the opposite of objective morality. It says that morality isn’t real but a social construct. Thus, cutting someone’s leg is not wrong because it is in and of itself wrong but because society decides so.

Euthypro’s Dilemma is essentially a question of whether morality is objective or subjective.

If we say that something is morally right because God says so, then morality becomes subjective. This means that morality isn’t real but a construct arbitrarily created by God. The implication is that if God says stealing is morally right, you have to accept that as well since morality is subjective.

On the other hand, if we say that something is morally right because that thing is morally right in itself, then morality is objective. But you’re now implying that God has no role in deciding what is moral.

Why is it a false dilemma

The problem lies in the definitions.

What is “good?” What is “morally right?”

My answer on what is good is that which accords with nature/reality. In other words, if something fits with the laws of the universe and the natural way of living, then that is good. In the Islamic tradition, this is known as “fitrah.”

And when we accept that reality is simply an extension of God (or in layman’s terms, a creation of God) then Euthyphro’s dilemma crumbles on its own face.

ذَلِكَ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ هُوَ الْحَقُّ وَأَنَّ مَا يَدْعُونَ مِنْ دُونِهِ هُوَ الْبَطِلُ وَأَنَّ اللَّهَ هُوَ الْعَلِيُّ الْكَبِيرُ
That is because Allah is the Truth, and that what they call upon besides Him– that is the falsehood, and because Allah is the High, the Great.
(Quran, Al-Hajj 22:62)

God is al-Haq – The Truth – The Reality. Everything that exists emanates from the One God. Therefore everything that comes from God is good, and anything that goes against the order of God is false/bad.

So, something is good because it is good in itself and it is good in itself because it emanates from God.

If you are struggling to understand, it is normal. Just think that everything comes from God. God is the source of everything, he is Al-Samad. The definition of good is that which accords to reality, and since God is the ultimate Reality, that which is good is that which accords to God and nothing else.

End of discussion.

The Divine Reality by Hamza Tzortzis
Usul al-Fiqh al-Islaami by Zakiyyudin Sya’ban

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