Euthyphro: A Dilemma or Disjunction?

Socrates Dragging Alcibiades from the Embrace of Aspasia

“Is that which is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”(10a), is probably Socrates’ most famous question in the whole Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. Socrates’ question was set to challenge Euthyphro’s definition of τὸ ὅσιον (pious or holy), namely pious is what all the gods love (9e).

Euthyphro’s definition could be outline as follows:

[D] Necessary: for every x, x is pious iff x is loved by all gods.

Socrates believed that [D], or in Euthyphro’s own words, “what all the gods love is holy and, on the other hand, what they all hate is unholy”(9e), is mere wind-egg. This article argued that Socrates’ challenge should be understood as a disjunction and not a dilemma.

After assenting to a revised definition that pious is that which is loved by all the gods, Euthyphro found himself cornered by Socrates with the following choices to make: (a) do all the gods love pious because pious is pious, or (b) is pious pious because all the gods loves it?

Richard Joyce correctly pointed out that,

That Socrates presents Euthyphro with a disjunctive choice is not to say that he presents him with a dilemma. An argument by dilemma would proceed as follows: “Assume the first disjunct. This leads to unacceptable consequence X. Now assume the second disjunct. This leads to unacceptable consequence Y. Therefore whatever presupposition led us to the disjunction must be false.” The so-called “Euthyphro Dilemma” is often presented in just such a way (as we will see later), but it is not how Socrates proceeds. Rather, Socrates quickly gets Euthyphro to assent to one disjunct, then reasons from there. After a few leading questions, he is satisfied that he has overthrown Euthyphro’s initial claim, and the other disjunct receives no further consideration.(Joyce 2002, 50)

Moreover Euthyphro could have hold both (a) and (b) without there being any really inconsistency. The sense to which Socrates used “because”, as Sir Antony Kenny rightly showed, in (a) is different from the sense he used it in (b). Stating that pious is loved by the gods because it is pious, shows gods’ motive while pious is pious because it is loved by the gods “recalls our stipulation about meaning”. Kenny offered a parallel example of (a) and (b), namely (c): “A judge judges because he is a judge (i.e. he does it because it is his job)” and (d): “A judge is a judge because he judges (that is why he is called a judge)” (Kenny 2004, 292) to show that like (c) and (d),  (a) and (b) could both be true.

Since (a) and (b) are not mutually exclusive, Euthyphro does not have to choice either (a) or (b). He could agree with both (a) and (b) without there being any contradiction.

Further more, Euthyphro could simply rejected both (a) and (b) and present Socrates with another possible choice (e) by revising (a) to the idea that all the gods love pious because pious exemplifies  their essential nature, thus bringing in another option, which he could defend, to choose from. Euthyphro’s possible revised (a), (e) could be outline as follows:

[EN] Necessary: for every x, x is pious iff x exemplifies all the gods essential nature.

These reasons led me to conclude that Socrates  offered Euthyphro with a disjunction and not a dilemma. The next article in this series examined Socrates’ rebuttal of Euthyphro’s revised definition.


Joyce, Richard (2002) “Theistic Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma,” in Journal of Religious Ethics Vol. 30.1:49-75

Kenny, Antony (2004) Ancient Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy Vol.1. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

7 thoughts on “Euthyphro: A Dilemma or Disjunction?

  1. Mr. Daniel, I find your take interesting (I have read Professor Kenny’s take also); however, a tangential point worth considering is your use of a biconditional relationship (iff) rather than a material implication. If we introduce, as Kenny suggests, ‘because’ relationships then we seem to have an “If A then B” mapping of Socrates’ proposal. Therefore, what we end up with would seem to follow the disjunct pattern of Either “If A then B” or “If B then A.” This is, of course, not a biconditional since it would be a “Both…And” relationship between the two material implications. However, this is not a disagreement that perhaps the greater community, primarily the early atheists, have clouded this issue by couching this portion of the dialogue a dilemma. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us and noting it on the Den Of Christian Apologists. Respectfully, Mark Sadler.

    • Thank you Mark for a brilliant comment. [D] Necessary: for every x, x is pious iff x is loved by all gods is I believe to be Euthyphro definition of pious, namely that which is loved by all gods. I used iff because Euthyphro agreed the reason that y is pious is because y is loved by all gods and no other reasons.

      My outline does not follow Kenny suggesting. Let me know your thoughts Mark. Thank you for reading.

      • Mr. Daniel, thank you for your kind description. Given your not strictly following professor Kenny I can see what you mean. My point is more for Kenny than your position. However, if the identification of piety (pious) with the object of the God’s love then you don’t, strictly speaking, have a disjunct unless you introduce a means of transposing your iff to something like with something like a De Morgan expansion. But I believe this would lead away from Socrates’ exposition of the ‘dilemma’ as he sees it. Another general observation about Socrates and his argument style – I believe he is notorious in trying to express most (all?) arguments as mutually exclusive dichotomies (ie., exclusive OR). He is an excellent example of the false dichotomy fallacy (grin). In Christ, Mark Sadler.

  2. It’s always struck me that far too many simply ignore Plato’s own conclusion. This, in essence, is similar to your final option (e): there must be something that has the essential nature of goodness. That is the conclusion the argument is driving toward, and is therefore an argument supportive of monotheism–not atheism.

    That’s my two cents, anyway.

  3. This doesn’t answer the question.
    Is the pious pious because of its own inherent value (and not dependent on gods) or
    Is the pious pious because it is loved by the gods (and subject to whim, thus could have been child abuse)

    This is the dilemma. The dilemma is implied. Picking a horn of the disjunction is a step in realising is.

    • I will deal with the so-called Euthyphro dilemma in this series as you presented. As for original Socrates argument, there is no such dilemma.

      If we claim it is, then Socrates would have presentens Euthyphro with a false dichotomy because there is(are) more option(s) than the two he presented. I find difficult to imagine that Plato would be such careless to commit this fallacy.

      Moreover, as I pointed, Euthyphro could reject Socrates’ two options and revise the first disjunct to [EN], thus mute even the so-called Euthyphro dilemma with it.

      See the previous post for the context of this series. Thank you so much for your input.

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