An essential component in the atheist argument that morality is not derived from God or the gods is the Euthyphro Dilemma, posed by Plato’s protagonist Socrates. As with all dilemmas, the Dilemma is an interrogative statement: do the gods (or God) choose what is good because it is good, or is what is good good because the gods (or God) have chosen it? For the religious believer, neither choice is acceptable, hence the question’s dilemmic nature. To affirm that the gods or God choose what is good because it is good is to establish an autonomous moral principle that has authority over the gods or God. This is a particularly acute challenge for theism which presents God as the absolute. To affirm that what is good is good because the gods or God have chosen it is to render morality arbitrary: what is good is whatever the gods or God have said it is. It is not my intention to examine the ways in which Christian philosophers have responded to the Dilemma. Rather, I propose that atheism has its own Euthyphro-style Dilemma if the source of morality, as prominent atheists assert, is human nature. 

A proponent of the view that morality is derived from human nature is Julian Baggini who expounds his case in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction.1 Baggini regards the Euthyphro Dilemma as a powerful argument against the idea that God or the gods are the source of morality.2 Instead, Baggini identifies the fundamental human instinct of empathy and concern for others’ well-being as the root of morality.3 Baggini goes even further by advocating that morality often requires people to act against their interests in others’ favour.4

Before we proceed to argue that Baggini’s case creates for him a Euthyphro-style Dilemma, it is important to identify a proverbial spoke in the atheist moral wheel. Baggini needs to address this issue before he can present the view that altruism is the base of morality which is the cause of his Dilemma. 

Philosophers who were no less atheist than Baggini have found the source of their morality in instincts other than altruism. The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) concluded that Nature teaches us the principle that the strong ought to rule over and therefore exploit the weak. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) rejected Christian morality as a morality of pity which enervates the strong. Both philosophers therefore chose instincts such as the desire to dominate and cruelty which are the antithesis of the empathy and care which Baggini is proposing as the basis of his morality. This question therefore arises: why should we choose Baggini’s morality over those of Sade and Nietzsche? To argue that our morality’s source is human instinct means that we have no reason to prefer Baggini’s morals over Sade and Nietzsche’s, since Sade and Nietzsche’s moralities are derived as much from human instinct as Baggini’s.

Baggini is aware of the fact that there are humans who do not have the same instinct for compassion as he does. He refers to the psychopath who is the example of complete indifference to the welfare of others.5 Again, the question is: why should Baggini’s altruistic instinct take precedence over the psychopath’s equally natural desire to exploit others? Baggini’s response is to call psychopathy a mental illness and not normal human behaviour.6 To protect his argument, Baggini now adds a second principle: morality is derived from what the majority feels is right. This is not a good argument. Why should the majority instinct be the arbiter of what is good? Most people, it is fair to say, throughout the course of human history have not considered slavery to be wrong. Yet Baggini would never assert that slavery is therefore morally good. There are times when a moral opinion was in the minority which has become orthodoxy. Abolitionists held the minority view during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet their anti-slavery philosophy is now universally accepted, with the exception of the minority who continue to enslave people today. 

Baggini’s majority instinct moral philosophy could be justified on prudential grounds. If a human being acts altruistically, s/he will be happier for it for s/he will fit in with the rest of society. However, Baggini rejects this way of arguing. Acting morally because it is in one’s self-interest is in his opinion not to be acting morally at all. What defines morality for Baggini is acting in the best interests of others and oneself7 which is remarkably close to the Christian axiom: love your neighbour as yourself.             

If, as Baggini asserts, the source of morality is found in the human instinct for empathy, a Euthyphro-style Dilemma arises. If we humans call empathy morally good, we not only feel the instinctive desire to be empathetic, but recognise it is morally good also. There is a self-conscious awareness of our instincts which perhaps creatures with less cognitive insight do not feel and which enables us to judge our instincts morally. The Euthyphro-style Dilemma is now this: is empathy morally good because we feel it to be so, or do we feel it is morally good because it is good? If we say it is morally good because we feel it is, then we run into the problem of those who operate according to different instincts. If we say it is morally good because it is good in order to be able to distinguish between good and wrong instincts, then we admit that the origin of morality is external to us. Whereas theists argue that morality’s source is external to humans because its source is God, atheists who wish to adhere to an external morality have the burden of demonstrating this morality’s source. Therefore, to conclude, just as the atheist believes that the theist is faced with a nasty dilemma, so too, it transpires does the atheist who uses the argument from instinct.

  1. [Published by Oxford University Press in 2003.
  2. Ibid., 39.
  3. Ibid., 45.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 44.