Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

A Relook at Robert Adams’s Definition of Goodness or Excellence

…there is something to be said for the hypothesis that being excellent in the way that a finite thing can be consists in resembling God in a way that could serve God as a reason for loving the thing.

-Robert Adams, “Finite and Infinite Goods”

This was one of my very first books in analytic theology which I read many years ago. Now that I am backtracking my theological progress, I can’t help but marvel at the depth of this interesting definition of “good” or “excellence”.

Adams was attempting to straddle two distinct impulses, the “divine voluntarist” impulse that “goodness” must necessarily be grounded upon some divine action or subjectivity (e.g. his will, his love or desire), and yet it must not be completely arbitary and be, in some sense, objective. Thus he came up with this definition whereby the foundation of goodness is grounded upon two poles, first, it resembles God, this is the “objective” end. But however it is not just any resemblance of God, but a resemblance such that it gives God a reason for loving that thing, thus the definition also runs through God’s subjectivity.

But now when I revisit this definition, I cannot help but also see another curious dialectic at work. The book was actually supposed to be an exercise in “platonic” ethics whereby the vision is that of God as the Good (thus the idea that all “finite goods” are good by virtue of resembling the “infinite good”). However it struck me that this rather “platonic” conception actually shares a common border with Nominalism. Roughly nominalism denies that there is such a thing as a universal form of the “good” which individual partakes in and that things are “good” by virtue of the fact that they simply resemble each other in a certain way and thus we apply a common predicate or concept upon them because of these resemblances. This is otherwise known as “resemblance nominalism”.

But Adam’s definition is actually quite nominalistic in that it doesn’t postulate any partaking of the finite goods with the Infinite Good but a mere “resemblance” between finite goods and the infinite Good. Furthermore, what gives it a rather “voluntaristic” twist is that these resemblance does not by itself constitute “excellence” or “goodness” but the resemblance must be in a manner which gives God a reason to love it, in other words, it must be filtered through God’s voluntaristic subjectivity.

Sounds like a very statisfactory Nominalistic conception to me…


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This entry was posted on February 18, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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