Virtue epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 05, 2020, from

2. History of virtue epistemology and its varieties (cont.)

A version of virtue epistemology that moves even closer to virtue ethics is Alvin Plantinga’s theory of warrant as proper function (1993b). Plantinga uses the term ‘warrant’ for that property which in sufficient quantity converts true belief into knowledge. A warranted belief, according to Plantinga, is one that is produced by properly functioning faculties in the appropriate environment according to a design plan aimed at truth. Like Sosa, Plantinga makes faculties the focus of analysis, but unlike Sosa he does not identify faculties as virtues because of their consequences. So Plantinga’s theory is not modelled on consequentialist ethics, but it is not modelled on virtue ethics either. In fact, Plantinga never uses the term ‘virtue’ nor does he give any attention to the rich history of the concept of virtue as used in ethics. Plantinga’s theory moves closer to traditional accounts of virtue, however, because what counts as properly functioning faculties is determined by a background notion of what is good or desirable for human beings with the nature that they have.

John Greco’s version of virtue epistemology modifies Sosa’s theory by adding an element that is intended to capture the idea of epistemically responsible as well as reliable belief. To have ‘positive epistemic status’, Greco says (1990, 1993), not only must a belief be the result of a reliable cognitive faculty (a virtue), but that virtue must have its basis in the believer’s conforming to epistemic norms they countenance. Greco’s and Sosa’s additions of an internalist requirement of belief formation to the reliability condition give their versions of virtue epistemology an ethical component which is missing from simple reliabilism and Plantinga’s theory.

Two of the first attempts to link epistemological inquiry with intellectual virtues in the traditional sense of virtue were made by Lorraine Code and James Montmarquet. Code (1987) gives an account of intellectual virtue that ‘socializes’ epistemology, stresses the place of the knowing subject in the epistemic community, and contextualizes the state of knowing within a background of states that include the non-cognitive (see Feminist epistemology §2–3). She calls her position ‘responsibilism’ rather than reliabilism because of the knower’s degree of choice in cognitive structuring and degree of accountability for these choices. Code does not offer a detailed account of the concept of intellectual virtue, but she is perhaps the first in contemporary epistemology to call attention to the way intellectual virtues in the sense of virtue used in ethics can be useful to the interests of epistemology.

James Montmarquet (1993) gives an extensive treatment of epistemic virtues in the classical sense of a trait for which we are responsible and which are similar to moral virtues. Montmarquet includes in his list of epistemic virtues such traits as open-mindedness; intellectual carefulness, thoroughness, and impartiality; and intellectual courage and perseverance. He maintains that epistemic virtues are the traits which people who desire the truth would desire to have, but he denies that they are reliably truth-conducive in any straightforward way. So Montmarquet’s theory, like Code’s, does not evolve out of reliabilism, and his principal concerns are somewhat different from those driving reliabilism.

Linda Zagzebski (1996) has developed a version of virtue epistemology that is explicitly modelled on virtue ethics. Like Code and Montmarquet, what she means by intellectual virtues are such traits as intellectual autonomy and courage, intellectual carefulness and thoroughness, open-mindedness and fair-mindedness, but like Sosa and Greco, she regards reliability as a component of virtue. Zagzebski offers a virtue theory of ethics inclusive enough to handle the intellectual as well as the moral virtues within a single theory, proposing that moral and intellectual virtues have the same basic structure and are acquired in the same way. Both include a motivational component and a component of reliable success in bringing about the aims of the motivational component. In the case of the intellectual virtues this means that reliability in acquiring the truth is a component of intellectual virtue, but there is also a component of intellectual motivation from which the cognitive behaviour characteristic of intellectually virtuous persons arises. Zagzebski then defines the concepts of justified belief and epistemic duty in terms of intellectual virtue in the same way the concepts of right act and of moral duty can be defined in terms of moral virtue in a pure virtue ethics. In both cases the concept of virtue is more basic. She subsequently defines an ‘act of virtue’, the concept of an act that is praiseworthy in every way – in the act itself, in its motive, in the end it achieves, and which reaches its end because of these other praiseworthy features of the act. An act of intellectual virtue is an act that has an intellectually virtuous motive, is an act that would be characteristically performed by intellectually virtuous persons in the same circumstances, and which reaches truth because of these other features of the act. Knowledge is belief arising out of acts of intellectual virtue. This strategy captures the combination of internal responsibility and epistemic success desired by virtue epistemologists.

Citing this article:
Zagzebski, Linda. History of virtue epistemology and its varieties (cont.). Virtue epistemology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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