Epistemology/Virtue responsibilism

In response to Sosa's formulation of a virtue epistemology that rested on the virtuous use of reliable faculties, other philosophers began to formulate their own versions. Some thought that although Sosa had been right to bring attention to intellectual virtues, that he was wrong in not conceptualising intellectual virtues as praiseworthy character traits more akin to the virtues of virtue ethics. The contributions of this group of philosophers led to the birth of virtue responsibilism. Although virtue epistemologists had many different motivations for developing this theory, such as to better understand our intellectual responsibilities to others or as a way of guiding intellectual practice, in this chapter we will be focusing on the work of Linda Zagzebski whose project was focused on the use of virtue responsibilism to provide the proper analysis of knowledge. Zagzebski defines knowledge simply: knowledge is "belief arising out of acts of intellectual virtue". However, this simplicity hides a complex theory of intellectual virtues that at once attempts to solve the Gettier problem in a way similar to Sosa, whilst at the same time explaining the acquisition of high-level knowledge such as that acquired by a brilliant scientist or genius detective.

The virtue responsibilist analysis of knowledge: S knows that p if and only if
  1. S believes that p, and
  2. S's belief that p arises from an act of intellectual virtue

where p is a proposition.

An act of intellectual virtue A is an act which:

  1. arises from the motivational component of A,
  2. is the kind of act characteristic of what a person with virtue A would do, and
  3. is successful in reaching the truth because of these features of the act.

Acts of intellectual virtueEdit

Acts of intellectual virtue have three components.

  1. When people have moral virtues such as generosity, compassion, kindness and so on, they are motivated to make the world a certain way. For example, a compassionate person seeing somebody in pain would want to relieve there suffering and so would be motivated to do something to make the person feel better. In direct analogy, the first feature of an intellectually virtuous act is that it must arise from the motivational component of an intellectual virtue. In the case of compassion, the motivational component is a desire to relieve the suffering in the world. In the case of curiosity (as an example of an intellectual virtue), the motivational component is the desire to discover new things and to come to a deeper understandings of the things we already know. Likewise, intellectual humility may motivate us to hear out other perspectives before we form conclusions, and intellectual courage may motivate us to propose creative solutions to problems even if they seem outlandish to others. These are all examples of intellectually virtuous motivations.
  2. Virtuous motivations are part of what makes an act praiseworthy but it isn't the whole story. Consider the example of a person that acts kindly to somebody else but only because they do not want to seem mean to their friends (not because they are genuinely motivated by kindness). It seems that in this case, the act of kindness itself is morally valuable even if it is not motivated by virtuous reasons. In general, people who are not virtuously motivated can still do the "right" thing and this is just as true for intellectual action as it is for moral action. To put it in other words, part of the value of a virtuous act is that it is the kind of thing that a virtuous person would do under the circumstances and, therefore, another component of an intellectually virtuous act is that it is the kind of thing that an intellectually virtuous person would do.
  3. Finally, acts of intellectual virtue must also be successful in meeting the ends of the virtuous motivation because of these previously mentioned features. In the case of the compassionate person described previously, the motivational component of compassion is the desire to relieve the suffering in the world and the end of this motivational component in the given scenario is to make the hurting person feel better. For an act under these circumstances to be truly virtuous, it must succeed in making the hurting person feel better, otherwise it would be a failed virtuous act, and it must achieve this success because it was virtuously motivated and because it was the kind of thing a virtuous person would do, otherwise it would just be lucky. For acts of intellectual virtues, truth is the end that must be successfully achieved and it must be achieved due to the first two components. Similarly to Sosa's aptness condition, this condition requires that the truth of the belief be tied up with the virtuousness of the act and there is a similar argument that because of this it can avoid Gettier cases.

Some virtue epistemologists have critiqued Zagzebski's theory of intellectually virtuous acts. For example, many virtue epistemologists see the analysis of knowledge to be a less important task of epistemology than the task of telling us what we should believe and how we should conduct our intellectual inquiry. These virtue epistemologists, called "virtue anti-theorists", argue that the central task of virtue epistemology is to study particular intellectual virtues to fully understand their unique value and that any attempt to make systematic connections between all virtues and knowledge is doomed to failure. In the next chapter, we will study similar thoughts behind an approach to epistemology called "knowledge first epistemology" which holds that knowledge is unanalysable. A more particular argument against Zagzebski's theory is that the conditions for a virtuous act are too strict. For example, consider a person who donates to charity out of kindness but the money is lost in transaction before it got to the charity. In this case, it seems that even though the act of giving to charity failed to achieve its virtuous end, it is nonetheless a virtuous act. We might also worry that the condition that we have intellectually virtuous motivations for a belief to count as knowledge may be too strict. This will be discussed more in the next section of this chapter and the distinction between high and low grade knowledge.

High and low grade knowledgeEdit

Gettier strikes againEdit


A Gettier counterexample to Zagzebski's virtue responsibilism provided by Heather Battally is shown below:

  • Brenda is a detective investigating the murder of an accountant for a big corporation
  • There are 2 suspects: the CEO of the corporation and the accountant’s husband – there is evidence against both of them and they both have a motive
  • Brenda considers the evidence and comes to the conclusion that, although it’s mixed, it points more towards the CEO than the husband
  • Out of intellectual humility, Brenda is motivated to hear out the opinions of her investigative team so that she can feel more certain that she has come to the truth (virtuous motivation)
  • The CEO of the company knows the evidence against him is strong, so he uses his massive amount of money to hire a hypnotist to brainwash the investigative team into believing that the accountant’s husband committed the murder
  • After listening to her investigative team (the kind of act an intellectually humble person would do), Brenda is convinced and forms the belief that the husband is the murderer
  • It turns out that the murderer actually was the accountant’s husband
  • If Brenda hadn't been virtuously motivated and acted as an intellectually humble person would do, she would not have believed that the husband committed the murder
  • Therefore, Brenda is successful in reaching the truth due to the appropriate features of her actions and so according to virtue responsibilism has knowledge
  • BUT we would never really consider this knowledge because the investigative team was brainwashed - Brenda only has knowledge through luck!
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