Epistemology/Virtue reliabilism

Throughout this section of the book, we have seen how troublesome Gettier cases have been for the analysis of knowledge. In the early 1980s, Ernest Sosa presented a view which he believed solved various disputes in epistemology, including the foundationalist/coherentist debate (covered in Section 3). More importantly for this section of the book, Sosa also believed that his theory could resolve the Gettier cases with a new condition on knowledge called aptness. This theory, now called virtue epistemology (more specifically virtue reliabilism), was the first attempt at a virtue approach to epistemology and soon led to many other philosophers presenting their own versions of virtue epistemology, such as Zagzebski's form of virtue responsibilism which will be presented in the next chapter.

The virtue reliabilist analysis of knowledge: A subject S knows that p if and only if
  1. S believes that p, and
  2. S's belief that p is apt

where p is a proposition.

What is the "virtue" in virtue epistemology?Edit

In ethics, non-virtue approaches often characterise morally good actions according to things such as consequences or obligations. In these approaches, understanding the morality of actions is taken to be the foundation of ethics which once achieved, can be used to understand whether or not a person is moral. For example, it may be discovered according to a certain moral theory that stealing is wrong. Once this has been done, the moral character of a certain person can be understood in terms of the amount of thefts they commit or in another similar way. Virtue ethics, on the other hand, aims to solve various philosophical problems in ethics by instead starting with the question "what makes a subject a good moral agent?" and then turning to determine the morality of actions in terms of the types of virtues (or vices) that motivate those actions. For example, it might be answered that empathy makes a person a better moral agent and that stealing is wrong because it is not the kind of thing an empathetic person would do. Similarly, virtue epistemology aims to solve problems in epistemology by starting with the characteristics of a subject that makes them a good intellectual agent and then determining which beliefs are good beliefs to hold by the types of virtues (or vices) that motivate the holding of those beliefs.

To understand why virtue reliabilism is called virtue reliabilism, we will have to explain the difference between two types of virtues. Sosa's virtue reliabilism is based on a type of virtues called faculty virtues. Faculty virtues are virtues that make a thing good at achieving its tasks or goals. For example, a faculty virtue of a knife could be as simple as the knife being sharp, because this will make it better at chopping things, and this is exactly the thing that we use knives for. Similarly, epistemic faculty virtues are simply things about a knowing subject that makes them better at knowing things and can be things as simple as having reliable eyesight, hearing or memory (reliable processes as found in the previous chapter). Faculty virtues, therefore, are quite different to most ethical virtues. Most ethical virtues don't only make you good at achieving your goals, they are good in themselves and have a degree of moral praiseworthiness that is not present in faculty virtues. This type of virtues which are praiseworthy and good in themselves are called trait virtues. In the next chapter, we will explore a position called virtue-responsibilism that argues that epistemic virtues should not just be faculty virtues, but should be epistemically praiseworthy, and should therefore consist of trait virtues.


To explain his idea of aptness, Sosa often uses the example of an archer. When an archer takes a virtuous shot and hits their target, their shot satisfies what Sosa calls the "three As" of virtues: the shot is accurate, it is adroit, and it is apt. The shot is accurate because it hits its target, it is adroit because it is skillful and will reliably go wherever the archer wants it to go, and it is apt because the shot is accurate because it is skillful and reliable. The addition of the aptness condition is the important step that distinguishes the shot as not just reliable, but virtuous (and therefore distinguishes reliabilism from virtue-reliabilism). Imagine an amazing archer who shoots an arrow into the air in a skillful way. The arrow is blown astray by a rogue gust of wind but in a sudden flash of luck, it bounces off the side of a barn door and hits the target anyway. In this case, the arrow shot was adroit (skillful/reliable) and also accurate, but it wasn’t virtuous. It wasn’t virtuous because the shot wasn’t accurate because it was skillful, it was accurate because the archer got very lucky. From this example, we can note two things: (1) if a shot is apt, then this implies that it is both accurate and adroit, and so a virtuous shot can simply be described as an apt shot (rather than an accurate, adroit, apt shot), and (2) aptness not only implies accuracy and adroitness but it ties them together so that they are no longer independent conditions from one another. The change from reliabilism (which can be thought of as describing knowledge as accurate, adroit belief) to virtue-reliabilism is not adding a new independent condition but instead it is telling us how the accuracy and adroitness of a belief must be related to one another.

Aptness can be translated from virtuous archery to epistemic virtues by considering what it means for beliefs to be accurate, adroit and apt. Beliefs are accurate when they are actually true. They are adroit when they are formed by a reliable process. They are apt when they are true because they were formed by a reliable process. Therefore, for Sosa, a virtuous intellectual act is an act that produces a true belief and it produces that belief due to the utilisation of a reliable process.

Gettier cases and other problemsEdit

The aptness condition is motivated by the type of problem underlying Zagzebski's general critique of JTB+X theories. As justification is fallible and, therefore, vulnerable to Gettier cases, so too are reliable processes and so the simple addition of an extra independent condition to reliabilism is not enough to solve the Gettier problem. Instead, Sosa introduces a condition that is supposed to rule out the possibility of epistemic luck by tying truth and reliability of process together in such a way that excludes luck from playing a role in knowledge. Because knowledge is apt belief and because apt belief is true because it is formed by a reliable process, knowledge cannot be true by luck because luck is not a reliable process. However, some philosophers question the legitimacy of this line of thought. Consider the fake barn county example again. In that example, a person is driving through fake barn county where it is custom to erect realistic cardboard cut-outs of barns. This person looks at a real barn whilst driving through fake barn county and forms the belief that they are seeing a barn. Here, a belief is formed from the reliable process of eyesight and that belief is true because the eyesight was reliable and acting as it should. But the person had already formed the belief that they were seeing a barn many times in fake barn county in the exact same way and had been completely wrong! Some philosophers use this example to argue that virtue reliabilism is still vulnerable to Gettier cases even with the added condition of aptness. Others argue that this isn't really a case of apt belief because the belief is true more because of luck than because of the reliability of eyesight and so the belief can't be apt. Sosa himself argues that this actually is a case of knowledge. The reason that this seems so counterintuitive, according to Sosa, is because when we usually think of knowledge, we are thinking of a special type of knowledge that Sosa calls reflective knowledge.

The difference between what Sosa calls "animal knowledge" and what he calls "reflective knowledge" is a difference between our evaluation of our beliefs. For Sosa, animal knowledge is just apt belief. When we see things in front of us or hear something besides us, we have an apt belief formed from a reliable process but we haven't necessarily thought to consider whether we should really trust that reliable process. Therefore, animal knowledge describes cases where it seems that we do have knowledge (such as knowing that a table is in front of you when you see one) without a requirement that we have any consciously thought-out justification for whether or not we should hold that belief. Another advantage of the concept of animal knowledge is given by its name: Sosa wants to be able to describe the knowledge that animals have and apt belief sets the bar for knowledge low enough that animals can have knowledge formed via their senses. On the other hand, Sosa describes reflective knowledge as "apt belief aptly noted". This is the type of knowledge where we don't only have apt belief about the world but we have also evaluated the reliability of this belief itself. Upon this evaluation, which would be some reliable method for evaluating beliefs, we have come to the apt belief that our initial belief about the world is reliable. This type of knowledge is valuable because it makes us reflect upon our beliefs and come not only to know things about the world, but also to come to a greater understanding of the world and the ideas in which we believe.

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