Summary of Part 2 of Robert Adams’ “Moral Faith” chapter of Finite and Infinite Goods: Faith in Moral Ends.

Finite and Infinite Goods

The second kind of moral faith we need pertains to the value and attainability of what we might call “moral ends.” Kant saw that moral commitment must set itself a certain end for whose attainment it aspires or hopes, yet that this end is only to a very limited extent within our power, so the possibility of the result for which the moral agent must hope depends on there being a moral order in the universe, which can only be reasonably supposed to exist through the action of a God, in whom we are therefore rationally obliged to believe, if we seriously aim at the end that morality sets as the comprehensive goal of our striving.

One place to begin thinking about faith in moral ends is with the question of whether human life is worth living. Whether your life is worth living. It’s morally important for morality to believe that other people’s lives are worth living. If your friends are going through hard times, they may or may not be tempted to despair. Either way it’s likely to be important to them to have your support as a person who believes in them and in the value of their lives. Having that faith might be essential to being a good friend, and not having it might be letting the other person down in a particularly hurtful way.

What does it take to have faith that a friend’s life, or one’s own, is worth living? It’s closely connected with caring about the person’s good, the friend’s or one’s own. It’s caring the person should be spared suffering pain. Caring more constructively about a person’s good involves taking that person’s life as a project that one prizes. If I care about your good, I add myself as a sponsor of the project. And this I can hardly do without believing that your life is worth living. To have faith that a person’s life is worth living will involve a certain resistance to reasons for doubting the value of that person’s life. Few judgments are more dangerous morally than the judgment that another person’s life is not worth living, or not worth living any more.

It’s also important to believe that distant lives, such as those that are lost to famine in Somalia, or to genocide in Bosnia, are worth living, or would be if they could be preserved.

Other instances of a need for faith in moral ends may be sought in connection with the question of whether the moral life is worth living. It’s hard to deny the moral importance of believing that the moral life will be good, or is apt to be good, for other people. For it is part of moral virtue to care both about the other person’s good and about the other person’s virtue. Morality requires that we encourage each other to live morally. But while few doubt that it is generally advantageous to have the rudiments of honesty and neighborliness, it is notoriously easier to doubt that some of the finer fruits of morality are good for their possessors, when all the consequences they may have are taken into account.

Another question about the value of the moral life is whether it is better for the world, or at least not bad for the world, and not too irrelevant to be worth living—that devotion to justice won’t result in futility. This trust is severely tested by both the failures and unforeseen consequences of moral efforts. Yet it does seem important for morality to believe that living morally is good for the world, or if not, then to believe that the moral life is of such intrinsic value that it is worth living for its own sake.

In these questions Adams has assumed that we can at least live moral lives. But that too can be doubted. Who, after all, emerges unscathed from a morally rigorous examination of conscience? We all have real moral faults, and yet it’s crucial for morality that we believe that moral effort can be successful enough to be worth making. For one can’t live morally without intending to do so, and one can’t exactly intend to do what one believes is totally impossible. Moral philosophers, with the notable exception of Kant, have paid less attention to this problem than they ought.

Adams mentions one more item of faith in a moral end. We might call it faith in the common good. It’s a matter of believing that the good of different persons is not so irreconcilably competitive as to make it incoherent to have the good of all persons as an end. If we can manage to view the problems of fairness and conflicting interests within the framework of a conception of human good that is predominantly cooperative, then we may still be able to take a stance that is fundamentally for everyone and against no one. What we must resist most strongly here is an ultracompetitive view of the pursuit of human good as a sort of zero-sum game, in which every good that anyone enjoys must be taken away from someone else. With such a view it would be impossible to include the good of all persons among one’s ends. It’s probably more tempting to endorse such a view more with nations or groups than with individuals.

Much of the temptation to doubt or abandon our beliefs in moral ends arises from the fact that these beliefs are concerned not only with ideals but also with the relation of ideals to actuality, the possibility of finding sufficient value in the lives of such finite, needy, suffering, ignorant, motivationally complex, and even guilty creatures as we are. Even if there’s a good philosophical answer to evil, it’s unlikely to silence the doubts.

This is the point at which Kant connected morality with religious belief. A belief in a moral order helps, but Adams rests content to have argued just that we have a moral need to believe in more particular possibilities of moral ends, as proximate objects of moral faith.

Adams then mentions a few objections to his argument, just one of which I’ll summarize here. It’s this: that the beliefs Adams demands are more high-flown than morality needs. It may be suggested that our beliefs about actuality will provide sufficient support for morality as long as we believe we’re doing pretty well within the moral system, that honesty is the best policy, that laws will be enforced against us, and so forth.

Adams responds like this: such low-flown beliefs may sustain minimal moral compliance, but won’t sustain moral virtue. Adams’ concern is with moral faith as a part of moral virtue. The attitudes of mind that morality demands are surely not limited to those involved in minimal moral compliance. Morality could hardly exist, indeed, if all or most people had no more than the attitudes of minimal moral compliance. There must be many people who have more virtue than that, for the morality of the merely compliant is largely responsive to the more deeply rooted morality of others. True virtue requires resources that will sustain it when society is supporting evil rather than good, and when there is considerable reason to doubt that honesty is the best policy from a self-interested point of view. Thus virtue requires more moral faith than mere compliance may.


Image: The Portals of Paradise by L. OP. CC License.