Virtue Epistemology, Anyone?

There is virtue ethics, why not virtue epistemology?


For years now I’ve been interested in virtue ethics, not just from a theoretical standpoint, but also in terms of everyday practice. But there is an approach to epistemology that is also based on the concept of virtue. How is that supposed to work?

To find out, let me summarize and make a few comments on John Greco’s and John Turri’s excellent and comprehensive entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As the authors state at the onset, virtue epistemology comes in a variety of flavors, but all such flavors share two commitments: “First, epistemology is a normative discipline. Second, intellectual agents and communities are the primary source of epistemic value and the primary focus of epistemic evaluation.”

The first thing to notice, therefore, is that virtue epistemologists are opposed to W.V.O. Quine’s famous suggestion that epistemology should become a branch of psychology: descriptive, not prescriptive. That said, however, virtue epistemologists are sensitive to input from the empirical sciences, first and foremost psychology, as any sensible philosophical school ought to be.

A virtue epistemological approach — just like its counterpart in ethics — shifts the focus away from a “point of view from nowhere” and onto specific individuals and communities, which are treated as epistemic agents. As Greco and Turri put it: “virtue ethics explains an action’s moral properties in terms of the agent’s properties, for instance whether it results from kindness or spite. Virtue ethics explains a cognitive performance’s normative properties in terms of the cognizer’s properties, for instance whether a belief results from hastiness or excellent eyesight, or whether an inquiry manifests carelessness or discrimination.”

You can already begin to appreciate that this is indeed a very different way of looking at epistemology, again like virtue ethics is a very different way of looking at ethics, when contrasted with dominant paradigms such as deontology and utilitarianism. And just like virtue ethics has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, so too virtue epistemologists can claim a long philosophical pedigree, including but not limited to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Hume and Bertrand Russell.

Since we are talking about virtue epistemology, one of the first questions is going to be what we mean by “virtue” in this context. According to Greco and Turri: “intellectual virtues are characteristics that promote intellectual flourishing, or which make for an excellent cognizer.” At this point we encounter a split between two positions: for so-called virtue reliabilists the intellectual virtues are things like intuition, memory and perception; for so-called virtue responsibilists they include conscientiousness and open-mindedness (which are, of course, character traits). There are more traits that the authors list in this context: intellectual humility, intellectual courage, and perseverance. And I don’t really think the two camps are at all mutually exclusive.

Virtue epistemology provides a different perspective on standard debates within the field, such as what secures knowledge, or what knowledge is to begin with. The two standard accounts of knowledge are the foundationalist and the coherentist ones. For foundationalists, knowledge looks like a pyramid, gradually built on some kind of solid foundation. The problem is that ever since Hume introduced his famous problem of induction, it has been exceedingly difficult to articulate what, exactly, may constitute such foundation.

Coherentism maintains that truth is arrived at by the interdependence of a “web of beliefs” (to put it as Quine did). But the problem here is that coherence is no guarantee of truth at all, since one can imagine an infinite number of scenarios that are internally coherent, and yet only one of which corresponds to the actual world out there.

(One way to think about this is to appreciate that the real world must be logically coherent, but that there is an infinite number of possible, logically coherent worlds, only one of which is real — unless we are talking about a multiverse.)

Virtue epistemologists see the whole problem from a very different perspective (not necessarily a better one, but certainly refreshingly different): “Suppose we think of virtues in general as excellences of character. A virtue is a stable and successful disposition: an innate ability or an acquired habit [or, more likely, a combination of both], that allows one to reliably achieve some good. An intellectual virtue will then be a cognitive excellence: an innate ability or acquired habit that allows one to reliably achieve some intellectual good, such as truth in a relevant matter. We may now think of justified belief as belief that is appropriately grounded in one’s intellectual virtues, and we may think of knowledge as true belief that is so grounded.”

The difference is that both foundationalism and coherentism ground their accounts of knowledge by examining the properties of beliefs; virtue epistemology, by contrast, begins with a notion of personal intellectual virtue, and then builds its normative account of beliefs on that basis.

A worthwhile notion within virtue epistemology has been introduced by Linda Zagzebski, with her Neo-Aristotelian approach. She proposes a fascinating unified account of epistemic and moral virtues, bringing to epistemology the same “inverse” approach that virtue ethics brings to moral philosophy: analyzing right actions (or right beliefs) in terms of virtuous character, instead of the other way.

As she puts it (quoted from Greco and Turri): “By a pure virtue theory I mean a theory that makes the concept of a right act derivative from the concept of a virtue or some inner state of a person that is a component of virtue. This is a point both about conceptual priority and about moral ontology. In a pure virtue theory the concept of a right act is defined in terms of the concept of a virtue or a component of virtue such as motivation. Furthermore, the property of rightness is something that emerges from the inner traits of persons.”

For Zagzebski intellectual virtues are actually to be thought of as a subset of moral virtues, which I guess would make epistemology a branch of ethics! The parallel is more than intriguing: consider the standard moral virtues, like courage. They are typically understood as being rooted in the agent’s motivation to do good, for instance by risking physical pain. Analogously, the virtuous epistemic agent is motivated by wanting to acquire knowledge, in pursuit of which goal she cultivates the appropriate virtues, like open-mindedness, for instance.

As Greco and Turri point out, “as with the moral virtues, it is possible for a conflict among the intellectual virtues to arise. Thus the intellectually courageous thing to do might conflict with the intellectually humble thing to do. This problem is solved by introducing the mediating virtue of phronesis, or practical wisdom. The practically wise person is able to weigh the demands of all the relevant virtues is a given situation, so as to direct her cognitive activity appropriately.” In other words, the virtuous moral or epistemic agent navigates a complex moral or epistemic problem by adopting an all-things-considered approach with as much wisdom as she can muster. Knowledge itself, then, is recast as a state of belief generated by acts of intellectual virtue.

One final note. Perhaps the most irritating and perennial problem in epistemology is presented by the radical skeptic. You know the type: I’m sitting in my dressing gown in front of a fire, but how do I know that there isn’t an evil demon lurking around, who has actually conjured the scene and tricked me into believing it? (Descartes)

Virtue epistemologists provide a comprehensive analysis of skepticism, but one of the things that struck me as most insightful is that the skeptic may essentially suffer from a lack of epistemic virtue. Specifically, he is guilty of epistemic self-indulgence for wanting to avoid error to a point that goes beyond human capabilities. Knowledge, after all, isn’t “out there,” it is a human creation, and therefore bounded by human limitations. It is wise to simply accept this as the way things are, rather than attempting to ignore or transcend it.