Robert Adams on Excellence

In Finite and Infinite Goods, Robert Adams sets out to develop theistic framework for ethics. In this post I’ll go over the parts of chapter 1 I found interesting, where Adams explicates his metaphysical view on excellence.  Apologists like William Lane Craig have not written about the connection between God and good other than calling it an “informative identity”.  Adams, to his credit, is much more detailed.

Adams borrows heavily from Plato, except, for Adams, Good is not a Platonic form but God. Excellence is roughly what Plato called Good. Excellence is something broader than moral goods; it includes not only moral goods, but also the beautiful and sublime etc.  I think excellence is equivalent to the idea of greatness used in Anselmian perfect being theology.  (Adams often uses excellence and good interchangeably.)

In constructing his framework, Adams uses advancements in philosophy of language by Kripke and Putnam which illuminated the possibility of a metaphysical identity without a semantic identity. The paradigmatic example being that the term water does not mean the same thing as the term H2O, while being metaphysically identical. This idea can be translated to the term Good, where Good does not mean the same thing as God, while being metaphysically identical.

Once we have a term, we need a way to fix the reference of the term.  With natural kinds like water or gold, what fixes the reference of the term will be determined a posteriori by what is causally relevant to the use of the term; and the referent (in this case H2O) will be the nature of the term. With Good not being a natural kind, Adams chooses not to use a causal theory of reference (though others like Boyd have in naturalistic ethics). Instead, Adams considers alternative methods of reference-fixing in order to find the best candidate to fit the role of the referent or the nature of Good.

I think the clearer treatment of reference-fixing comes from his earlier work Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again, where he lists 5 criteria to guide us in fixing the referent of obligations (i.e. what is right or wrong).  (I assume a similar method would apply to fixing the referent of excellence.)

Analysis of the concept or understanding with which the word ‘wrong’ is used is not sufficient to determine what wrongness is. What it can tell us about the nature of wrongness, I think, is that wrongness will be the property of actions (if there is one) that best fills the role assigned to wrongness by the concept. My theory is that contrariety to the commands of a loving God is that property… Meanwhile I will try to say something about what is involved in being the property that best fills the relevant role, though I do not claim to be giving an adequate set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions,
(i) We normally speak of actions being right and wrong as of facts that obtain objectively, independently of whether we think they do….
(ii) The property that is wrongness should belong to those types of action that are thought to be wrong–or at least it should belong to an important central group of them…. and we are bound to take it as a major test of the acceptability of a theory of the nature of wrongness that it should in some sense account for the wrongness of a major portion of the types of action we have believed to be wrong.
(iii) Wrongness should be a property that not only belongs to the most important types of action that are thought to be wrong, but also plays a causal role (or a role as object of perception) in their coming to be regarded as wrong…
(iv) Understanding the nature of wrongness should give one more rather than less reason to oppose wrong actions as such…
(v) The best theory about the nature of wrongness should satisfy other intuitions about wrongness as far as possible. One intuition that is rather widely held and is relevant to theological metaethics is that rightness and wrongness are determined by a law or standard that has a sanctity that is greater than that of any merely human will or institution. (Adams, 1979, p. 74)

Adams goes on to say why being contrary to the commands of a loving God best fills the role for wrongness, using the previously mentioned 5 criteria:

…it seems to me most plausible to identify wrongness with the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God… (i) This is a property that actions have or lack objectively, regardless of whether we think they do….(ii) The property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God is certainly believed by Christians to belong to all and only wrong actions, (iii) It also plays a causal role in our classification of actions as wrong, in so far as God has created our moral faculties to reflect his commands, (iv) Because of what is believed about God’s actions, purposes, character, and power, he inspires such devotion and/or fear that contrariness to his commands is seen as a supremely weighty reason for opposing an action. Indeed, (v) God’s commands constitute a law or standard that seems to believers to have a sanctity that is not possessed by any merely human will or institution. (Adams, 1979, p. 76)

It is interesting to note that Adams takes this synthetic identity to be a posteriori, which is in line the the water = H2O analogy.

My new divine command theory of the nature of ethical wrongness, then, is that ethical wrongness is (i.e. is identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God. I regard this as a metaphysically necessary, but not an analytic or a priori truth. (Adams, 1979, p. 76)

In short, Adams thinks God best fills the role for excellence.

Given this, what is it for finite things—that is, not God—to be excellent? Adams answer is that something must resemble God in a faithful way to be excellent. Resembling is a more than the sharing of properties, as Adams comes up with counterexamples to show that not every property shared by God makes one excellent. Consider the property of being three-in-one, or being a caricature of God, or having political power in the way Hitler had, or the thinking I am God. All these shared properties of God, Adams says, are not excellent. So to avoid these counterexamples, Adams says we need a further condition, and that is to let God decide what it takes to faithfully resemble him.  More specifically, in order to faithfully resemble God and be excellent to some degree it is required that: (1) God share that property, and (2) that that property could serve as a reason for God to love it. (Notice how this preserves God’s aseity.) It is important to note that both conditions are necessary as Adams wants to allow for the fact that God may love some things that are not excellent; so merely being loved by God is not sufficient to make it excellent.

The obvious question is whether God is appealing to an external standard when he finds a reason to love a shared property.  If so, his aseity is compromised.  Adams says no:

Divine rationality is not to be understood here as conformity to an independently specifiable standard, but rather as whatever in the divine nature determines what counts as a reason for God, which is itself the ultimate standard of the relevant sort of rationality.

Next, Adams entertains some crucial questions for his ethical framework. What if God was sadistic or did not exist at all? What would happen to excellence/good then? Adams seems to be open to each of the following conflicting possible replies.

  1. In the actual world, if God is sadistic or did not exist at all, then there may be another suitable theory of good that is true (presumably a naturalistic theory).
  2. In other possible worlds where God is sadistic or does not exist, on the assumption that God is a suitable candidate in the actual world, then, in those possible worlds, nothing would be excellent. (I think the reason Adams’ answer differs from the actual to other possible worlds is because because excellence is a rigidly designated from the actual world if God exists.)
  3. Each possible world has its own best candidate for what is excellent; so in some possible worlds excellence will be set by God and in others it will not.
  4. Excellence in other possible worlds is set by excellence in the actual world.
  5. God is metaphysically necessary and essentially not sadistic etc.; so the original question is a counterpossible. Adams calls this the “ambitious” response, and this seems to be his preferred response.  He sees this view as controversial, and thinks there is no conclusive proof for this.

Adams attempts to provide a theistic framework for excellence that is grounded in God. Not only is moral good and excellence grounded in God, but so is rationality to some degree. (Whether Adams wants to ground all forms of rationality in God is unclear, but it seems not.)  Even though Adams wants God to fully ground excellence, it still seems that he is appealing to an external standard; for he takes it as non-negotiable that excellence can only apply to God if he is not sadistic etc.  This implies that a God must satisfy certain external standards to be considered excellent.  To this I think Adams might reply by saying the meaning of excellence has some content in it to rule out sadism; so, instead of there being an external standard, it is just how we use the word excellent.  To this I’d reply: why use the word this way if we’re not thinking of an external standard? Why not use schexcellence, where schexcellence has sadism built into its content and is something to be pursued?

Here are some further considerations about Adams’ framework.

  1. Is excellence simpliciter even coherent? It seems excellence is always instrumental. For example, a hammer is excellent for nails but not for screws.
  2. If excellence simplicter makes sense, will a lot of things we consider excellent no longer be excellent because they do not satisfy Adams’ criteria?  For example, in what way does the Mona Lisa resemble God, if God is atemporal and nonspatial?  (See David Decosimo’s Two Criticism of Robert Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods for elaborations on 1 and 2.)
  3. Many theologians view God as wholly other. If that is the case, in what sense can finite things resemble something that is wholly other. (Adams thinks that we can still make some sense of resemblance as long as we recognize the imperfection of this resemblance.)
  4. Do synthetic reductions carry over to the moral domain?  Michael Huemer makes the point that in the scientific cases—like water = H2O, heat = molecular kinetic energy, and sound = compression of waves—the terms on the left-hand side of the equals sign are observable.  Excellence does not seem to be observable in the same sense.
  5. How do we know three-in-one isn’t ruled out as excellent by Adams’ criteria, since we do not know God’s reasons?  Maybe a three leaf clover really is better than a four leaf clover.
  6. I take intrinsic excellence—in the strongest sense—to mean excellent in itself, apart from any other considerations.  So it could be, on Adams’ view, that only God is intrinsically excellent and everything else is excellent in virtue of a faithful resemblance to God.
  7. It seems realism about excellence would entail that something is excellent independent of what anybody (including God) thinks about it.  If that is true, then Adams is an anti-realist about excellence given condition (2), which says excellence partially depends on how God reasons.  In addition, excellence can change if God can change his mind.  Do we really want excellence to vary across time?


Adams, Robert. Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again.
Adams, Robert. Finite and Infinite Goods.

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