Virtue epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2020, from

1. History of virtue epistemology and its varieties

Virtue epistemology focuses on traits of persons or their faculties or psychological processes in the analysis of basic epistemic concepts such as justification or knowledge. It is a reaction to a style of epistemology that makes properties of individual beliefs and evidential relations between beliefs the focus of analysis. The theories in the latter category often handle epistemic evaluation on the model of deontological ethics (see Deontological ethics). To be justified, a belief must not violate any epistemic rules or duties – it must be held for the right reason. In contrast, many forms of virtue epistemology have arisen out of reliabilism. According to reliabilist theories, what makes a true belief an instance of knowledge or, alternatively, what makes a belief justified is that it was formed by a reliable process for obtaining the truth (see Reliabilism). Reliable processes include perception and memory whose reliability need not be cognitively accessible to the believer, and so reliabilism is a form of externalism whereas, typically, deontological theories are internalist (see Internalism and externalism in epistemology). Reliabilism is structurally parallel to consequentialist ethics, in particular rule utilitarianism. In a reliabilist theory, the consequences (a high proportion of true beliefs) make a belief process reliable just as in a rule-utilitarian theory the consequences (a high proportion of utility maximizing actions) make a rule a good one. A belief is epistemically justified (alternatively, warranted) by being the product of a reliable truth-producing process, just as an act is morally justified by being the product of a reliable utility-maximizing rule (see Consequentialism).

An advantage of reliabilism is that its requirements for knowledge are relatively easy to satisfy in ordinary circumstances, even by young children and unsophisticated adults. Hence it is often considered closer to common sense than the more rigorous deontological theories. Some theorists also think it has an advantage with respect to avoiding scepticism. For one has knowledge as long as there is no Cartesian demon and one’s cognitive processes do, as a matter of fact, reliably hook up with the truth, whether or not one has an answer to the sceptical challenge (Greco 1992).

Since reliabilism shifts the focus of analysis from properties of beliefs to properties of the believer it sets the stage for a form of epistemology that makes fundamental the virtues and vices of a person. It is not uncommon, then, to classify the more recent forms of reliabilism as virtue epistemology (Kvanvig 1992; Greco 1992), and in one place Alvin Goldman classifies his later version of process reliabilism as a form of virtue epistemology (1992). Simple reliabilism, however, is only distantly related to any kind of virtue ethics. A reliable belief-forming process has little in common with the traditional notion of a virtue and, as already pointed out, reliabilism is structurally parallel to consequentialist ethics, not virtue ethics.

Act-based moral theories such as consequentialist and deontological theories make the central concept that of the right act. Similarly, reliabilist and deontologial theories in epistemology make the central concept that of a belief that is justified or, alternatively, warranted (possessing the property that converts true belief into knowledge). A virtue ethic, in contrast, makes the primary concept that of a virtue. The concept of a right act is derivative and is often less important. A moral virtue is defined neither in terms of the consequences of the acts to which it gives rise, nor in terms of the rules or principles followed by persons exhibiting the virtues. A virtue includes dispositions to have certain emotions as well as dispositions to act in certain ways, and in its Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian forms virtuous traits are closely tied to a teleological understanding of human nature (see Virtue ethics).

Given this account of the characteristics of virtue ethics, the epistemic parallel would be one in which intellectual virtue is the fundamental concept, and the concept of a justified belief is derivative and may also be less important. A property is not an intellectual virtue simply because of its propensity to produce true beliefs, nor is it a virtue because it involves following epistemic rules or principles. The parallel with virtue ethics would be even closer if an intellectual virtue includes emotion-dispositions as well as dispositions to act cognitively in certain ways, and a neo-Aristotelian form of virtue epistemology would include a connection between epistemic goods and the good life.

While simple reliabilism is quite a distance from virtue epistemology as just described, recent theories have increasingly moved in that direction. Ernest Sosa (1980) first introduced the concept of intellectual virtue into contemporary literature as a refinement of reliabilism. Sosa proposed that the concept of an intellectual virtue can be used to bypass the dispute between foundationalists and coherentists about the logical or evidential relations needed for proper cognitive structure (see Knowledge, concept of §4). What Sosa meant by an intellectual virtue was a reliable belief-forming faculty like eyesight or memory, and he defined such a virtue in terms of its consequences: ‘An intellectual virtue is a quality bound to help maximize one’s surplus of truth over error’ (Sosa 1985: 227). In subsequent work, Sosa (1991) has distinguished animal knowledge from reflective knowledge. For the former it is sufficient that the belief was caused by a reliable truth-producing faculty. For the latter he adds an internalist component. The believer must have a reliable grasp of the fact that their belief is grounded in a reliable cognitive faculty. Sosa also ties the concept of an intellectual virtue to the ‘inner nature’ of the knowing subject. These recent moves bring Sosa’s concept of an intellectual virtue closer to the traditional notion of virtue as used in ethics.

Citing this article:
Zagzebski, Linda. History of virtue epistemology and its varieties. Virtue epistemology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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