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Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, “Moral Faith,” Part IV: The Volitional Aspect of Moral Faith

Finite and Infinite Goods

Summary by David Baggett 

Probably all belief involves the will. To have faith is always to be for what one has faith in. Moral faith involves being for something in a special way. Like religious faith, it involves commitment.

There is surely moral and religious belief that does not amount to faith and does not involve commitment. Simply believing what one was taught, or holding one’s beliefs too tentatively, for example. Holding one’s beliefs tentatively can be quite appropriate, but not all the time. “Probably it’s wrong to torture innocent children” is hardly recognizable as an expression of a moral stance.

Kierkegaard was a pioneer in exploring the aspect of faith that we touch here. Kierkegaard is as emphatic as Calvin that an opinion held as merely probable can’t constitute faith, but he does not speak of faith in terms of feelings of assurance. On the contrary, the faith that interests him is one that coexists with an acute awareness of the “risk” that it is wrong.

For most people in the modern world, a confidence amounting to subjective certainty seems neither possible nor desirable. We need to retain the attitude we might be wrong; on this issue about the nature of faith—moral as well as religious faith—Kierkegaard seems likelier than Calvin to speak to our condition.

How, then, can we be committed to an ethical or religious outlook and way of life? Kierkegaard sees commitment in terms of decisiveness, and while in some ways his view is probably too voluntaristic, I think his emphasis on decisiveness is more importantly right than wrong. The attitude of the will, broadly understood, is crucial to commitment. The possibility that one is wrong may be recognized, but at certain points it must be disregarded in one’s decisions and actions and way of life, and one’s “bets” must not be “hedged.” This is the heart of Kierkegaard’s account of faith.

While tentativeness seems quite appropriate in some ethical and theological opinions, a moral life, like a religious life, requires a core of commitment, and in relation to that core we are not prepared to accept attitudes toward probability and doubt that seem perfectly appropriate, or even praiseworthy, in relation to most other topics. It is not morally acceptable to “hedge one’s bet” on morality. A moral person will have a degree of commitment to some central ethical beliefs that is more than proportionate to the strength of the evidence or arguments supporting them. It does not follow that the beliefs to which a moral person is committed can’t all be favored by reason, in preference to alternatives. It is just that reason’s support for them is not likely to be as solid as morality’s.

Closely related to the central role of commitment in faith is the phenomenon of struggles of faith, or striving for faith. That we strive for faith is connected with an important point that Adams thinks American pragmatist philosophers got right, namely, that our cognitive project is one of developing a system of beliefs that can be integrated not only with experience but also with the living of the moral life, and more broadly a good life. The striving often takes the form of clinging to faith. A moral person has reason to cling to moral faith, with some tenacity, when it is tried by doubts.

If impartial desire to believe whatever is true is likelier to lead to true belief than the desire to cling to one’s present belief, then the influence of the latter sort of desire may well corrupt the reliability of one’s belief formation process. But is the impartial desire more likely to lead to truth than the desire that strives for faith? In ethics, Adams does not think we have truth-finding faculties independent of our desires. Whatever may be the nature of ethical truth, it is not plausible to suppose that those whose hearts are in the wrong place are as likely to find it as those whose hearts are in the right place. He doesn’t suppose his ability to grasp moral truth is independent of the way in which their content moves his feeling and his will; and to be moved in the relevant way is in part to want to hold the convictions; it is not independent of volitional commitment to them. To suppose that our thinking in such matters would be more reliable if we did not care which conclusion we come to, so long as it is the correct one, is to propose an implausibly coldhearted conception of what would constitute reliable thinking in ethics.

A humane and reasonable moral faith will include the belief that we all could be more enlightened ethically than we are, and will therefore demand an openness, as unprejudiced as we can manage, to certain revisions of our ethical opinions. But which revisions are those? Are some of our moral judgments of moral faith, to which we should cling, whereas others are mere moral opinions, to which we should try not to be attached? Or ought we to be as open as possible to revision of any of our beliefs about particular ethical issues? Surely not; there are some moral judgments that it would be a betrayal of morality, or of humanity, to think seriously about abandoning. If it seems to us that giving up a particular moral conviction would amount to an abandonment of other human beings, or of a significant part of the moral meaning of our lives, those are certainly reasons for regarding the matter as an issue of faith. The line between moral faith and moral opinion may fall in different places for different people with different histories.

A question Adams regularly addresses is whether moral faith is still a virtue when it is faith in the wrong cause. Adams thinks it can be, though not if the cause is too indefensible. Conflict is dehumanized when we lose the sense that our enemies can be admirable in opposing us, even though we think them wrong. It is a sort of self-righteousness to think that nothing matters by comparison with being on the right side. Epic poets and professional politicians have known that respecting one’s enemies is commonly of at least comparable importance. Recognizing and admiring in one’s antagonist such virtues as courage, loyalty, and faith is a major ingredient of that respect.

Like courage, like loyalty, faith is a dangerous virtue. We may rightly refuse to call them virtues at all where they are part of a pattern of moral depravity. But if we refuse them the title of virtue wherever they are implicated in understandable moral error and contribute to guilt or disaster, we deny appropriate recognition to the frail and fragmentary character of our grasp of moral and other truth.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “Kierkegaard 20090502-DSCF1492” by Arne List – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

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