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Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics [Paperback]

Robert Merrihew Adams

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Book Description

9 May 2002 Framework for Ethics
Renowned scholar Robert Adams explores the relation between religion and ethics through a comprehensive philosophical account of a theistically-based framework for ethics. Adams' framework begins with the good rather than the right, and with excellence rather than usefulness. He argues that loving the excellent, of which adoring God is a clear example, is the most fundamental aspect of a life well lived. Developing his original and detailed theory, Adams contends that devotion, the sacred, grace, martyrdom, worship, vocation, faith, and other concepts drawn from religious ethics have been sorely overlooked in moral philosophy and can enrich the texture of ethical thought.

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is a work that every Christian philosopher and theologian concerned with ethics simply must read. It has been a long time since I have read a book with such a bold and original vision, coupled with careful argument and insightful reflection on particular problems and issues. (Books & Culture)

one of the two most important books in moral philosophy of the last quarter century. (Theology Today)

About the Author

Robert Merrihew Adams is at Yale University.

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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Complex Philosophy of Divine and Creaturely Love 31 Aug 2004
By Thomas J. Oord - Published on
Metaphysician and moral philosopher, Robert Merrihew Adams, offers an elaborate framework for ethics based upon divine love as the ultimate good. Adams understands God as the Good itself, which means that the Good is a concrete personal individual. In Adams' metaphysics, God plays the part of the form of the beautiful in Plato's thought. God as the supreme Good transcends all other goods.

Adams believes that God's existence is metaphysically necessary, and those properties that fit God follow necessarily from the divine nature. The supreme Good is one aspect of the divine nature. This means that the only limits upon God are those that follow from God's own nature. Love is a necessary aspect of the divine nature, but God's preferences and actions as expressions of love are contingent. "The freedom ascribed to God does not include, as ours does, a possibility of desiring or choosing those ends that are rightly counted as bad" (48). This means that the standard of goodness is defined by the divine nature and thus is good for all possible worlds.

According to Adams' theory, what counts as good is not reducible to any human view about what the good is. The good is not fully accountable by any empirical test. Rather, the realm of value is organized around a transcendent good that is God. This means that the nature of value cannot be confined to the horizon of the physical or human world.

Adams makes a distinction between well-being and excellence. He notes that most contemporary thought focuses mainly upon well-being, or what is good for a person. Adams' own theory places primary importance upon excellence. Excellence implies a goodness in itself rather than goodness for another. Interest in well-being is secondary to the greater interest in excellence. What is good for a person is the living of a life characterized by the enjoyment of that which is excellent.

In the second segment of the book, Adams addresses what it means for individuals to love the good. The appropriate ethical relation is to be for the good, which entails loving it. God expresses eros in that God loves the good. Instead of understanding divine love as pure benevolence, Adams entertains seriously the notion that God desires relationship with creatures. This non-instrumental interest in relationships and excellences is part of what it means for both God and creatures to love. Adams considers what divine grace entails, arguing that it is a fundamental aspect of divine love. "Grace is love that is not completely explained by the excellence of its object" (151). While Adams claims that it would be absurd to suppose that all love excludes instrumental interest in the beloved, he also claims that love requires an interest in the beloved that is not merely instrumental. "Even divine love would be the richer rather than the poorer for finding value in the beloved" (165). Ideal love finds its reasons in the non-comparative appreciation of an object. This means that God's love is directed to things that are good, but it is not dominated by caring about whether these things are the best. Adams concludes this section with chapters on devotion, idolatry, and the value symbols.

Adams labels the third part of the book, "The Good and the Right." According to him, the good provides a proper framework for thinking about what is right and not the other way around. What is good has a fundamentally social aspect. Adams incorporates his theistic vision in chapter eleven by arguing that it is only the commands of a definitively good God that are candidates for defining what is human moral obligation. A main advantage of divine command theory of the nature of moral obligation, argues Adams, is that it satisfies the demand for objective moral requirements. There are a range of possibilities for how these commands are communicated or revealed by God. These possibilities may include scriptural texts, utterances of prophets, requirements of human communities, individual intuitions, etc. Signs that occur in time and place note these commands.

After examining the story of Abraham and Isaac, Adams concludes "that in any cultural context in which it is possible to worry about Abraham's Dilemma, it will hardly be credible that a good God has commanded the sort of sacrifice that is envisaged here" (290). "I think it is the part of religious as well as moral wisdom to dismiss all thoughts of our actually being commanded by God to practice something as horrible as human sacrifice. The question whether God commands such a thing should stay off our epistemological agenda as long as it possibly can, which I expect will be forever" (291).

The question of love and obligation leads to an inquiry into vocation. Adams defines vocation as "a call from God, a command, or perhaps an invitation addressed to a particular individual, to act and live in a certain way" (301). Direct and unambiguous commands from God are extremely rare, argues Adams, which means that conflicting values and obligations in any situation need to be thought about critically before interpreting these as communicating a divine command. The concept of vocation helps to solve the issue of whether or not creatures can love all other creatures. A divine call to love some persons and some kind of goods provides a way of understanding one's vocation. These questions of vocation lead naturally to the concluding part of Adams' book, which address the epistemology of value.

Thomas Jay Oord
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