Robert Adams on “Moral Faith”: Chapter 16 Finite and Infinite Goods: Part I

Finite and Infinite Goods

Immanuel Kant is perhaps the best known among those who speak of the need for “moral faith,” and his particular emphasis in this regard pertained to whether the moral life is possible and whether there’s correspondence between happiness and virtue. More recently Robert Adams has also spoken of the need for moral faith, and he identifies no less than five ways in which it is needed. For Adams the virtue of faith involves holding to a mean between vices of credulity and incredulity. In a provisional way, he puts it like this: Talk about faith is normally concerned with problems that arise from rational possibilities of doubting or disbelieving something that seems important to believe. For lack of complete evidence, or for the ability to doubt, or for resistance to belief, there’s room for doubting something that intuitively seems important to believe in, like morality; moral faith, then, helps bolster morality on those (perfectly legitimate) occasions of doubt. The five types of moral faith he discusses are (1) faith in morality; (2) faith in moral ends; (3) the cognitive aspect of moral faith; (4) the volitional aspect of moral faith; and (5) the emotional aspect of moral faith. In this post and four subsequent ones each Wednesday, we will briefly consider each in turn, starting today with faith in morality.

Adams says the first and most obvious object of moral faith is morality itself, or one’s own morality, the morality to which one adheres. When considering why be moral, or questions about the meaning of moral terms, or encountering Marxian thought or various “hermeneutics of suspicion,” we may well accept philosophical answers to such questions but remain uncomfortable about the extent to which the answers still seem debatable. These, Adams says, are among the ways in which a rational person might be seriously tempted to doubt the validity of morality in general, or of the morality that she herself nonetheless professes. Such questions about the validity of morality are all serious questions that are unlikely to be permanently cleared off the philosophical agenda.

One reason for this, he thinks, is that in responding to such fundamental philosophical issues it is often impossible to avoid a kind of circularity—by “some essential reliance on our ethical doxastic stance.” Of course, he adds, it doesn’t follow that we should not rely on the practice; indeed, he thinks we should, but that a certain level of rational discomfort with the situation seems appropriate.

Regarding our own particular morality, we are inevitably conscious in our pluralistic cultural situation of the many ways admirable people disagree with us on smaller and larger issues about ethics. Adams thinks this means that our ethical beliefs must be held together with the knowledge that there is a sense in which “we could be wrong.” Some moral convictions are nonnegotiable, certainly, but there remain many ways of looking at moral matters available to reasonable people. Yet surely it’s essential to a moral life to hold some strong beliefs about good and evil, right and wrong. Given the exposure of moral beliefs to possibilities of rational doubt, it appears that moral convictions will have to involve faith, in Adams’ sense of holding to a mean between vices of credulity and incredulity.

Image: "The faith series #1" by Daniel Horacio Agostini. CC license.