DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

6. Virtue epistemology

When we say that someone knows, we are making a value judgment of sorts – we are saying that there is something good or right about that person’s belief. ‘Virtue epistemology’ is analogous to virtue ethics, in that it analyses such judgements in virtue-theoretic terms. Some virtue epistemologists conceive the intellectual virtues as character traits, and hence closely analogous to Aristotelian moral virtues such as courage and temperance. Other virtue epistemologists follow Aristotle more closely, understanding the intellectual virtues as powers or abilities, such as accurate perception and sound reasoning (see Intellectual virtue). Independently of how the intellectual virtues are conceived, an important theme in virtue epistemology is that knowledge is a kind of success from virtue, as opposed to mere lucky success. This simple idea turns out to have surprising theoretical power, especially for addressing epistemology’s traditional questions regarding the nature, value and scope of knowledge.

Regarding the nature of knowledge, the idea suggests a plausible diagnosis of Gettier cases. In cases of knowledge, S’s true belief is grounded in intellectual virtue. For example, in cases of perceptual knowledge, S’s true belief is attributable to S’s perceptual abilities. In Gettier cases, S’s true belief is attributable to luck rather than ability. Consider the following two cases, which plausibly display this structure.

Perceptual Knowledge. A man with excellent vision looks out over a field and sees what he takes to be a sheep. Accordingly, he forms a belief that there is a sheep in the field. In fact, what he sees is indeed a sheep, he perceptually recognizes it as such, and forms a true belief to that effect.

Gettiered Perception. A man with excellent vision looks out over a field and sees what he takes to be a sheep. Accordingly, he forms a belief that there is a sheep in the field. Due to an unusual trick of light, however, what he takes to be a sheep is actually a dog. Nevertheless, unsuspected by the man, there is a sheep in another part of the field.

(Chisholm 1977)

In Perceptual Knowledge, S’s true perceptual belief is attributable to perceptual ability; that is, S has a true belief because S has exercised his reliable visual perception. In Gettiered Perception, S ends up with a true belief, but not because S has exercised reliable perception. On the contrary, it is just good luck that there is a sheep in another part of the field, unseen and unknown to S. Suppose we think of achievements as successes that are attributable to ability (or virtue), as opposed to mere lucky successes. Then Perceptual Knowledge describes a cognitive achievement, whereas Gettiered Perception describes a mere lucky success.

The idea that knowledge is a kind of success grounded in virtue – an achievement in that sense – also yields an elegant explanation of the value of knowledge. That is because, in general, achievements are both intrinsically valuable (valuable ‘in themselves’) and finally valuable (valuable ‘for their own sake’). Thus, by understanding knowledge as a kind of achievement, the account straightforwardly explains the value of knowledge in terms of the value of achievements more generally.

Regarding the scope of knowledge, the same idea grounds objections to various sceptical arguments. For example, a number of sceptical arguments trade on the idea that our perceptual abilities cannot discriminate between reality and mere appearances. For example, things would appear to me perceptually just as they do, if I were the victim of a Cartesian demon. An implicit assumption of this reasoning is that our perceptual abilities yield knowledge only if they can discriminate between reality and sceptical dream scenarios. The idea that knowledge is a kind of success from virtue gives us resources for resisting this assumption. This is because, in general, achievement-grounding abilities need not be infallible, and need not even be reliable in unusual or atypical environments.

Consider the ability to hit baseballs. Having such an ability does not imply that one gets a hit every time. Neither does it imply reliable success in circumstances that are not typical for playing baseball. For example, it is doubtful that even the best hitters would be reliably successful in an active war zone, where they would be too distracted to focus. We may now apply these same considerations to our perceptual abilities. Knowledge requires success from ability, and perceptual knowledge requires success from perceptual ability. Presumably, we are reliable perceivers in normal perceptual circumstances and therefore often have perceptual knowledge. This does not imply that we never make perceptual mistakes. Neither does it imply that we would be reliably successful if we were in very different perceptual circumstances – if we were disembodied victims of a Cartesian demon, for example. Therefore, the implicit assumption identified in the sceptical reasoning above – that our perceptual abilities yield knowledge only if they can discriminate between the real world and sceptical scenarios – is false. Moreover, reflection on the nature of achievement more generally gives us independent grounds for saying so.

Virtue epistemology, then, has impressive resources for addressing traditional questions about the nature, value and scope of knowledge. One objection that has been raised against the approach is that it inadequately accounts for testimonial knowledge (Lackey 2007). The basic idea of the objection is easy to see: virtue epistemology understands knowledge as success attributable to the intellectual virtues of the knower. But in cases of testimonial knowledge, the contributions of the speaker often seem more important than those of the hearer, and so not attributable to the hearer’s virtue. Virtue epistemologists have responded mainly in two ways. First, they point out that many intellectual virtues are social virtues, exercised in social environments. For example, various social-cognitive abilities are involved in assessments of speakers and their testimony, and therefore important for testimonial knowledge. Second, many virtue epistemologists have invoked the importance of teamwork for various achievements, and have proposed that testimonial knowledge also manifests a kind of intellectual teamwork. One development of this idea is to analyse testimonial knowledge in terms of joint (or shared) agency. On this view, testimonial knowledge sometimes constitutes a joint achievement, attributable to the virtuous joint agency of cooperating agents rather than the individual agency of the hearer alone. (See also Intellectual virtue; Virtue epistemology.)

Citing this article:
Greco, John. Virtue epistemology. Epistemology, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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