God, Human Rights and Plato

A reader writes:

Ponnuru believes that without God there could be no human rights. And many others - not all of them Christianists - seem to agree.

But there's a very serious problem for this view, one which philosophers have known about since Plato wrote his dialogue Euthyphro. Unfortunately, it never gets mentioned in popular discussions of theism and morality.

The problem is simple. Ponnuru claims that human rights - and moral values more generally - derive their authority from the fact that God has ordained them. (This is the position philosophers call "theological voluntarism" or "divine command theory.") But what if God had ordained murder and rape as the morally obligatory ways of treating others? If Ponnuru is correct and rights and values have moral authority merely because God ordains them, then murder and rape would be morally obligatory. Note well: you can't protest here and say that since God (who is perfectly morally good) would never ordain anything as immoral as murder and rape, murder and rape couldn't have been morally obligatory. If you say this, you'd be appealing to a moral standard independent of (not ordained by) God.

So: either human rights and moral values have an authority independent of God's commands or they derive all of their authority from the fact that God has ordained them. If the former, Ponnuru's view is wrong. If the latter, Ponnuru must accept that human rights and moral values are arbitrary: whatever God says goes - no matter how horrible.

This dilemma - called the "Euthyphro dilemma" after Plato's great dialogue - is often taken to be a devastating objection to the Ponnuru view that morality is grounded in God's commands.

For what it's worth, I suspect that if more people knew about Plato's dialogue, there would be less public anxiety about religion. Lots of believe that without God there could be no morality. Plato saw centuries ago that this belief is problematic. This doesn't show that there is no link between God and morality. (Aquinas, for example, rejected divine command theory, embracing what's come to be called "natural law theory" instead.) But it does show, or so many think, that moral authority can't consist simply in God's commands.