There are many normative theories about what truly constitutes good epistemic justification. Each theory seems to be an accurate means of distinguishing what is true from what is false in day to day life. On the other hand, in certain situations these same theories also seem to either miss what our intuitive doxasitc attitude is toward a belief or force the person claiming to have knowledge to have unreasonable thought patterns (I.e. remembering something infinite). In a class in epistemology we recently went over an essay entitled Virtues in Epistemology by John Greco. Virtue Epistemology seems to not only reconcile many other views, but it also coincides strongly with ones intuitions in regards to strange counter examples. To help show why this is important I will first give an account of the view, then show how it reconciles important epistemic problems, and finally see how it deals with important examples.
Virtue epistemology says that in the phrase S knows that p, S is justified in knowing p iff S has displayed the proper epistemic (intellectual) virtues in obtaining said knowledge. Greco wrote, “Here the key is to make the cognitive agent the seat of reliability, thereby moving from generic reliabilism to agent reliabilism.”(Essential Knowledge, 220). This account of epistemic justification focuses its’ judgment (of whether or not S is justified in believing that P) on the person. Other theories judge the actions them selves. It is better not to because people commit those actions. It is therefore sensible to focus blame on the individual rather than the deed. Virtue epistemology also allows flexibility in context. What may count as justified knowledge in one place may not count as justified knowledge in another. Normally it would not be contentious for me to claim that Einstein’s general theory of relativity is true and be justified in that claim. The same evidence may not be adequate justification to physicists whom purport other theories.
This view helps to bridge the gap between the foundationalist view of justification and the coherentist view. The foundationalist approach to justification requires one to keep track of all of her beliefs in a structural way. The belief structure is such that all of the beliefs are based on certain basic truths. The justification is then derived from the bottom up. An obvious benefit of this model is that it allows one to fully causally justify one’s claims. As soon a one believe is no longer satisfactory it must be disregarded along with all of the beliefs that were justified using it. The structures of the coherentist’s beliefs patterns are more similar to that of a web. For them justification comes from a continuity in belief. If one belief is found to be untrue then the believer must only restructure her beliefs so that they can again fit together in a sensible way.
Each view has clear pros and cons. Having strong foundations for one’s knowledge is equally important as making sure all of one’s beliefs fit together. Rather then picking sides it seems like a better use of one’s time to simple get the best of both worlds. Gerco sites that the intellectual virtues “were characterized as cognitive abilities or powers; as dispositions that reliably give rise to true belief under relevant circumstances in relevant environments.” (Essential Knowledge, 213). As long as one approaches a claim with proper epistemic virtue than using both principles would be acceptable. It would certainly be preferable if one’s beliefs could be both coherent and well-founded. Where one principle may be useful the other would be tedious. As one practiced her epistemic virtue she would be in a better position to evaluate a claim in specific regards to one claim over another.
Virtues in epistemology also help to clear up another problem between two opposing camps: reliabilists and evidentialists. Reliabilists say a claim is justified based on whether or not it was derived from a reliable process or not. Because of that a reliabilist would be obliged to believe any conclusion reached through modus pones. Evidentialists say a claim is justified if there is sufficient well-formed evidence in support of the claim. These two views are somewhat related. A reliable method is generally considered to be good evidence. Again, with the proper epistemic virtue one could utilize both theories in evaluating a knowledge claim. Epistemic virtue requires one to practice correctly gathering knowledge. Both theories would be useful in that they are two of the best ways to see if a claim is justified.
There are two important examples. Richard Feldman and Earl Conee present an objection in an essay (Evidentialism) in which a stubborn physicist refuses to hear objections to his theory. (Essential Knowledge, 195). An evidentialist would have to say that the physicist is still justified despite the fact that seems irresponsible, according to Conee and Feldman. When one takes epistemic virtue into account then it seems clear that his is in fact not justified because he has not show proper epistemic virtues. Since this scientist is not taking his objections seriously he can not know how/if his theory would hold up. Someone who was truly concerned with the virtue of promoting truth would at least take objections. The strict evidentialist response would be that the claim is still evidenced and is therefore still valid. Here it also seems that virtues in epistemology better capture our intuitions about how to judge the merit of the scientist’s claim.
The second example comes from Laurence BonJour (again from the text Essential Knowledge). Suppose a clairvoyant has correctly predicted that the president was in New York. The reliabilist would have to accept the belief as knowledge. The evidentialist would reject it or suspend judgment based on the fact that there would be no physical evidence or connections to other beliefs. Virtue epistemology would allow one to acknowledge that the clairvoyant could have knowledge. The theory would also allow us to not use the clairvoyant’s predictions as foundations for other aspects of knowledge because it would be irresponsible to base knowledge claims on something we can not fundamentally understand. Epistemic virtue leaves room here for the necessary skepticism that surrounds such an example. Epistemic virtues again capture our intuitions about what one’s doxastic attitude ought to be. We are not faced with situations where one is forced to “Bite the bullet.”
Someone objecting to this might argue that this view excludes some adult humans from having justified knowledge. I think this argument speaks to the distinction between what people actually know and what people think they know. Even very intelligent people whose opinion is highly justified in one area may have other beliefs that are less well founded. It is not unreasonable to say that people do not have knowledge about many things.
Even if this isn’t the standard of justification you want to make your own, I think that it would be a benefit to any epistemic view to somehow take intellectual virtues into account to avoid issues dealing with the knowing agent. “Virtues are excellences of some kind; more specifically, they are innate or acquired dispositions to achieve some end.” (Essential Knowledge, 212) If one values knowledge then it seems to fit that one ought to practice having good knowledge.
Works Cited :Greco, John. “Virtues in Epistemology.” Essential Knowledge. Ed. Steven Luper. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.211-221.BonJour, Laurence. “Foundationalism and Coherentism.” Essential Knowledge. Ed. Steven Luper. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.142-156.
– Amy Wuest