Virtue Epistemology

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"Virtue epistemology" has a narrow and a broad sense. In the narrow sense, the central claim of virtue epistemology is that, perhaps with some minor qualifications aside, knowledge is true belief resulting from intellectual virtue. On this view, the intellectual virtues are stable dispositions for arriving at true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. Put another way, the intellectual virtues are reliable dispositions: either reliable powers, such as accurate perception and sound reasoning, or reliable character traits, such as intellectual honesty and intellectual carefulness.

In the broad sense, virtue epistemology is the position that the intellectual virtues are the appropriate focus of epistemological inquiry, whether or not knowledge can be defined in terms of such virtues, and whether or not such virtues can be understood as dispositions toward true belief. In this broad sense, the intellectual virtues continue to be understood as excellences of cognitive agents, but it is left open whether such excellences make the agent reliable, and whether the agent's being reliable is even relevant in the most important kinds of epistemic evaluations.

A number of claims have been made on behalf of virtue epistemology. As noted, virtue epistemologists claim that the resources of virtue theory can help to explicate a range of important kinds of epistemic evaluation. They have also claimed that virtue epistemology can provide an adequate response to skepticism, that it can solve Gettier problems, that it can contribute to a unified theory of value across epistemology and ethics, and that it can overcome the debates between internalism and externalism and between foundationalism and coherentism.

One issue that has been much discussed in the literature concerns the nature of the intellectual virtues. More specifically, it concerns the relationship between the intellectual virtues and the moral virtues. On one side of this debate are those who think that the intellectual virtues are much like the moral virtues. On this view, the intellectual virtues are such character traits as intellectual courage, intellectual honesty, and intellectual carefulness. For example, Linda Zagzebski (1996) takes Aristotle's account of the moral virtues as her model for the intellectual virtues, arguing that Aristotle was mistaken to insist on a strong distinction here. Other virtue epistemologists, such as Ernest Sosa, follow Aristotle in thinking of the intellectual virtues as reliable powers or abilities. Thus Aristotle took intuition into first principles and demonstrative reason to be paradigmatic intellectual virtues. Updating Aristotle's list of the virtues, Sosa considers reliable perception and various sorts of sound inductive reasoning too to be paradigmatic epistemic virtues.

Despite these differences among virtue epistemologists, there are points in common as well. For one, all virtue epistemologists begin with the assumption that epistemology is a normative discipline. The main idea of virtue epistemology is to understand the kind of normativity involved in a virtue-theoretic model of knowledge. This idea is best understood in terms of a thesis about the direction of analysis. Just as virtue theories in ethics try to understand the normative properties of actions in terms of the normative properties of moral agents, so virtue epistemology tries to understand the normative properties of beliefs in terms of the normative properties of cognitive agents. Hence virtue theories in epistemology have been described as person-based rather than belief-based, just as virtue theories in ethics have been described as person-based rather than act-based.

Virtue and Knowledge

A major motivation for applying virtue theory to the theory of knowledge is that the position explains a wide range of our pretheoretical intuitions about who knows and who does not. Thus suppose we think of intellectual virtues as reliable powers, and we think of knowledge as true belief grounded in such powers. This would explain why beliefs caused by clear vision, mathematical intuition, and reliable inductive reasoning typically have positive epistemic value, and why beliefs caused by wishful thinking, superstition, and hasty generalization do not. Namely, the former beliefs are grounded in intellectual virtues, whereas the latter beliefs are not. Another advantage of a virtue approach is that it seems to provide the theoretical resources for answering important kinds of skepticism. For example, by making epistemic evaluation depend on instancing the intellectual virtues, the approach potentially explains how justified belief and knowledge are possible for beings like us, and even if we cannot rule out skeptical possibilities involving evil demons or brains in vats. The idea is that actually instancing the virtues is what gives rise to knowledge, even if we would not have the virtues, or they would not have their reliability, in certain nonactual situations.

the analysis of knowledge

In 1963, Edmund Gettier wrote a short paper purporting to show that knowledge is not true justified belief. His argument proceeded by way of counterexamples, each of which seemed to show that a belief can be both true and justified and yet not amount to knowledge. Here are two examples in the spirit of Gettier's originals:

Case 1

On the basis of excellent reasons, S believes that her coworker Mr. Nogot owns a Ford: Nogot testifies that he owns a Ford, and this is confirmed by S 's own relevant observations. From this S infers that someone in her office owns a Ford. As it turns out, S 's evidence is misleading, and Nogot does not in fact own a Ford. However, another person in S 's office, Mr. Havit, does own a Ford, although S has no reason for believing this (Lehrer 1965).

Case 2

Walking down the road, S seems to see a sheep in the field and on this basis believes that there is a sheep in the field. However, owing to an unusual trick of the light, S has mistaken a dog for a sheep, and so what she sees is not a sheep at all. Nevertheless, unsuspected by S, there is a sheep in another part of the field (Chisholm 1977).

In both cases the relevant belief seems justified, at least in senses of justification that emphasize the internal or the subjective, and in both cases the relevant belief is true. Yet in neither case would we be inclined to judge that S has knowledge. From the perspective of virtue theory, there is a natural way to think about the two cases. It is natural to distinguish between achieving some end by luck or accident, and achieving the end through the exercise of one's abilities (or virtues). This suggests the following difference between Gettier cases and cases of knowledge. In Gettier cases, S believes the truth, but only by accident. In cases of knowledge, however, it is no accident that S believes the truth. Rather, in cases of knowledge, S 's believing the truth is the result of S 's own cognitive abilitiesbelieving the truth can be credited to S. To put this another way, in cases of knowledge, S believes the truth because S is intellectually virtuous. Below are four formulations of this idea:

We have reached the view that knowledge is true belief out of intellectual virtue, belief that turns out right by reason of the virtue and not just by coincidence. (Sosa 1991)

Knowledge is a state of true belief arising out of acts of intellectual virtue. (Zagzebski 1996)

When a true belief is achieved non-accidentally, the person derives epistemic credit for this that she would not be due had she only accidentally happened upon a true belief. The difference that makes a value difference here is the variation in the degree to which a person's abilities, powers, and skills are causally responsible for the outcome, believing truly that p. (Riggs 2002)

When we say that S knows p, we imply that it is not just an accident that S believes the truth with respect to p. On the contrary, we mean to say that S gets things right with respect to p because S has reasoned in an appropriate way, or perceived things accurately, or remembered things well, etc. We mean to say that getting it right can be put down to S 's own abilities, rather than to dumb luck, or blind chance, or something else. (Greco 2004)

More needs to be said here. In particular, virtue theorists must provide an account of the difference between getting things right by accident and getting things right because one believes out of epistemic virtue. The four quotations above imply that the distinction involves the notions of cause and causal explanation: in cases of knowledge, S 's believing the truth is caused by (or explained by) the fact that S believes out of epistemic virtue. But these key notions are difficult, and there is no agreement among virtue theorists about how they should be understood.


The problem of skepticism has received sustained attention in the theory of knowledge. Skepticism is best thought of as a theoretical problem, rather than as a practical problem or an existential problem. The problem is not that we might not know what we think we know. Neither is it that we cannot act until skeptical doubts have been adequately laid to rest. Rather, skeptical arguments constitute theoretical problems in the following sense: they begin from premises that seem eminently plausible, and proceed by seemingly valid reasoning to conclusions that are outrageously implausible. The task for a theory of knowledge is to identify some mistake in the skeptical argument and to replace it with something that is theoretically more adequate. It has been argued that a virtue-theoretic approach promises resources for doing just this. To see how, it will be helpful to consider two skeptical arguments.

The first belongs to a family of skeptical arguments, all of which claim that our knowledge of the world depends on how things appear through the senses, and that there is no good inference from how things appear to how things actually are. Here is the argument put formally:

1. All of our beliefs about the world depend, at least in part, on how things appear to us via the senses.

2. The nature of this dependency is broadly evidential: the fact that things in the world appear in a certain way is often our reason for thinking that they are that way.

3. Therefore, if I am to know how things in the world actually are, it must be via some good inference from how things appear to me. (By 1, 2)

4. But there is no good inference from how things appear to how things are.

5. Therefore, I cannot know how things in the world actually are. (By 3, 4)

The argument is a powerful one. Premises (1) and (2) say only that our beliefs about the world depend for their evidence on how things appear to us. That seems undeniable. Premise (4) is the only remaining independent premise, but there are good reasons for accepting it. One reason is that there seems to be no noncircular argument from appearance to reality. This is because any such argument would have to include a premise about the reliability of sensory appearances, but it is hard to see how that such a premise could be justified without relying on sensory appearances to make the case. Second, even if we could formulate a noncircular argument from appearances to reality, no such inference would be psychologically plausible, since we do not make inferences when we form beliefs about objects on the basis of sensory appearances. This is because an inference takes us from belief to belief, but we typically do not have beliefs about appearances. In the typical case, we form our beliefs about objects in the world without forming beliefs about appearances at all, much less by inferring beliefs about the world from beliefs about appearances.

Something in the skeptical argument is not innocent, of course. Here is a suggestion on what it is. The skeptical argument begins with the claim that beliefs about the world depend for their evidence on how things appear, and it concludes from this that knowledge of the world requires a good inference from appearances to reality. But this line of reasoning depends on an implicit assumption: that sensory appearances ground beliefs about the world by means of an inference. It is perhaps at this point that the skeptical reasoning is mistaken, and virtue theory gives us resources for saying why.

Let us define an inference as a movement from premise beliefs to a conclusion belief on the basis of their contents and according to a general rule. According to virtue theory, this is one way that knowledge can be grounded, since making a reliable inference (one in which the general rules used are good ones) is one way of virtuously forming a belief. But it is not the only way. For example, perceptual beliefs are reliably, and therefore virtuously, formed, but not by means of a general rule taking one from belief to belief. When one forms a perceptual belief about the world, one does not begin with a belief about how things appear and then infer a belief about objects in the world. Rather, the process is more direct than that. In a typical case, one reliably moves from appearances to reality without so much as a thought about the appearances themselves, and without doing anything like following a rule of inference. Put simply, our perceptual powers are not reasoning powers. Rather, they are intellectual virtues in their own right, and therefore capable of grounding knowledge directly.

Consider now a different line of skeptical reasoning. René Descartes believes that he is sitting by the fire in a dressing gown. Presumably, he has this belief because this is how things are presented to him by his senses. However, Descartes reasons, things could appear to him just as they do even if he were in fact not sitting by the fire, but were instead sleeping or mad or the victim of a deceiving demon. Again, the point is not that these other possibilities are practical possibilities, or that they are in some sense causes for concern. Rather, the possibilities point to a theoretical problem: On the one hand, it seems that good evidence must rule out alternative possibilities. On the other hand, it seems that Descartes's evidence does not rule out the alternative possibilities in question. But then how can Descartes know that he is sitting by the fire?

Once more it has been argued that a virtue approach has the resources for solving the problem. As stated above, intellectual virtues, including our perceptual powers and our reasoning abilities, may be thought of as intellectual powers or abilities. Yet in general, abilities and powers can achieve success only in relevantly close possible worlds. In other words, to say that someone has an ability to achieve X (hitting baseballs, for example) is to say that he would be successful in achieving X in a range of situations relevantly similar to those in which he typically finds himself. But then possibilities that do not occur in relevantly similar situations, like the extreme possibilities of skeptical arguments, do not count in determining whether a person has some ability in question. For example, it does not count against Babe Ruth's ability to hit baseballs that he cannot hit them in the dark. Likewise, it does not count against our perceptual powers that we cannot discriminate real fires from demon-induced hallucinations. Accordingly, virtue theory explains why our inability to rule out Descartes's possibility of a demon is irrelevant to whether we have knowledge. Namely, knowledge is true belief grounded in intellectual virtue. The fact that our intellectual faculties would be unreliable in worlds where demons induce perceptions is irrelevant to whether they count as epistemically virtuous in the actual world.

Nontraditional Problems

As noted above, a number of virtue epistemologists are interested in traditional problems of epistemology, such as the analysis of knowledge, the nature of epistemic justification, and the problem of skepticism. These philosophers argue that a virtue approach in epistemology provides new insights into old problems. A second camp explicitly advocates a shift away from the traditional problems of epistemology and argues that a virtue approach is the best vehicle for achieving the new focus. These theorists agree that the intellectual virtues should play a central role in epistemology, but they prefer to ask different questions and engage in different projects.

Lorraine Code (1984, 1987) argues for the importance of epistemic responsibility, or the responsibility to know well. Code thinks that such responsibility is related, but not reducible, to our moral responsibility to live well. Redirecting epistemology in this way, she argues, constitutes a more adequate development of the initial insights of virtue epistemology. This is because, in part, the notion of responsibility emphasizes the active nature of the knower, as well as the element of choice involved in the knower's activity. Only an active, creative agent can be assessed as responsible or irresponsible, as having fulfilled obligations to fellow inquirers, and so on. Moreover, placing emphasis on virtue and responsibility has consequences for both how epistemology should be conducted and the kind of epistemological insights to be expected. Echoing a point by Alasdair MacIntyre, Code argues that an adequate understanding of what it is to be virtuous requires placing virtuous selves in the unity of thick narratives. A consequence of this is that we should not expect to describe tidy conditions for justification and knowledge. The relevant criteria for epistemic evaluation are too varied and complex for that, and so any simple theory of knowledge will distort rather than adequately capture those criteria. This does not mean, however, that insight into the nature and conditions of justification and knowledge is impossible. Rather, such insight is to be gained by narrative history rather than theory construction of the traditional sort.

James Montmarquet (1987, 1993) investigates the topic of doxastic responsibility, or the kind of responsibility for beliefs that can ground moral responsibility for actions. Often enough, the morally outrageous actions of tyrants, racists, and terrorists seem perfectly reasonable, even necessary, in the context of their distorted belief systems. To find their actions blameworthy, we have to find their beliefs blameworthy as well, it would seem. A virtue account, Montmarquet argues, provides what we are looking for. Precisely because it understands justification in terms of epistemically virtuous behavior, in such an account, justified (and unjustified) beliefs can be under a person's control. And this allows relevant beliefs to become appropriate objects of blame and praise.

A common objection to this sort of view, and to virtue accounts in general, is that judgments of responsibility are inappropriate in the cognitive domain. The idea is that judgments of praise and blame presuppose voluntary control, and that we lack such control over our beliefs. Montmarquet responds to this objection by distinguishing between a weak and a strong sense of voluntary control. Roughly, a belief is voluntary in the weak sense if it is formed in circumstances that allow virtuous belief formation. This kind of voluntariness amounts to freedom from interference or coercion. A belief is voluntary in the strong sense (again roughly) if it is fully subject to one's will. Montmarquet concedes that responsibility requires weak voluntary control, but argues that we often have this kind of control over our beliefs. On the other hand, we do not typically have strong voluntary control over our beliefs, but responsibility does not require it.

Finally, Jonathan Kvanvig (1992) has argued for a more radical departure from traditional epistemological concerns. According to Kvanvig, traditional epistemology is dominated by an "individualistic" and "synchronic" conception of knowledge. From the traditional perspective, an important task is to specify the conditions under which individual S knows proposition p at time t. Kvanvig argues that this perspective should be abandoned in favor of a new social and genetic approach. Whereas the traditional perspective focuses on questions about justified belief and knowledge of individuals at particular times, a new genetic epistemology would focus on the cognitive life of the mind as it develops within a social context. In the new perspective, questions concerning individuals are replaced with questions concerning the group, and questions concerning knowledge at a particular time are abandoned for questions about cognitive development and learning. Kvanvig argues that virtues are central within the new perspective in at least two ways. First, epistemic virtues are essential to understanding the cognitive life of the mind, particularly the development and learning that takes place over time through mimicking and imitating virtuous agents. Second, in a social and genetic approach, epistemic virtues play a central role in characterizing cognitive ideals. For example, a certain structuring of information is superior, Kvanvig argues, if an epistemically virtuous person would come to possess such a structure in appropriate circumstances.

See also Aristotle; Code, Lorraine; Descartes, René; MacIntyre, Alasdair; Skepticism, Contemporary; Sosa, Ernest.


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