Norris’ "Epistemology" Ch5, III

Book Discussion of Christopher Norris’ “Epistemology: Key Concepts in Philosophy”

Chapter 5: Making for Truth: Some Problems with Virtue-Based Epistemology –

Section III.


Can a virtue-based epistemology, unlike McDowell’s efforts, “(1) make good the normativity-deficit, and (2) avoid all the usual forms of set-piece sceptical challenge?”

One such challenge is the Gettier-type counter-examples, mentioned briefly in the first section. He challenged Plato’s definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”. His (Gettier’s) point “is that people can hold beliefs which are indeed justified and true, but which for various reasons intuitively strike us as not meeting the requirements for genuine knowledge.” One critique of this is that Gettier skewed things by holding beliefs to be justified by the evidence, though the evidence is oblique, off the point, or actively misleading.

Another critique is a ‘reliabilist’ theory “which requires that knowledge be adequately grounded in some causal nexus or concatenated chain of sensory-perceptual (or strong testimonial) evidence that puts knowers reliably in touch with whatever they claim to know.” But, reliabilist theory is vulnerable to counter-instances as the motorist driving through Barn-Façade County.
1. The motorist knows the local hobby of painting images of barns and considers the current image to be one such image, when it is really a barn. The uninformed passerby would know more than he, with reliable information. Strike one against reliabilist theory.
2. The motorist doesn’t know the local hobby and assumes every image of a barn is really a barn. So, when he encounters the genuine image encountered by the first motorist, instead of saying it is a false barn, he says it is a real barn…but he is lacking the information of the original motorist, and got it wrong with every other image. He didn’t get it right based on his information’s reliability. Strike two against the reliabilist theory.
3. According to Brandom, if the hobby is peculiar to Barn-Façade County and practiced rarely in its state, then we would say the second motorist does know (“truly and justifiably believe on good, epistemically reliable or trustworthy grounds) that this is a real barn. I don’t know how this follows.
4. According to Brandom, if the hobby has a U.S.-wide following of which the motorist was unaware, then we wouldn’t consider his belief to be knowledge.

So…does that knock down Plato’s definition of knowledge as being justified true belief? Virtue-based epistemology attempts a better effort than reliabilist theory to maintain that definition.

Norris mentions this goes back to Kant bridging the gap between “sensuous intuitions and concepts of understanding…via ‘judgment’, to a supersensible faculty of pure reason that provides us with the practical ‘orientation’ in the absence of which our epistemic endeavors would lack any sense of directive or coordinating purpose.” A lot I don’t understand. Norris sees the problem here as being ‘kindred’ to “the problem that arises with Kantian ethics, that is, the problem of explaining just how the categorical imperative and maxims of practical reason may be thought to apply – or provide any guidance – in matters of complex, real-world, humanly situated ethical choice.” Norris says there is reason to doubt an epistemology which is ethics-first or virtue-based, because it courts the same objections.

Virtue-epistemology would counter that it avoids “the kinds of problem that result from adopting such an abstract, formal or deontological approach.” From what Norris goes on to say, it sounds like their main objection w/ Kantian ethics is that 1) the categorical imperative is too general, 2) it is removed from moral feeling or intuition, despite his talk of a “good will” or “virtuous disposition”.

But, according to communitarians, without that ‘rule’—we are left “within some received tradition or communal life-form”.

MacIntyre, says Norris, has swung from considering it “an ethico-political imperative to challenge the prevailing ‘self-images of the age’ to a conservative doctrine that equates virtue with conformity to this or that communal narrative whereby moral agents can make coherent and satisfying sense of their lives.”

‘Liberal’ communitarians (like Walzer), says Norris, “find more room for social criticism as an exercise of independent thought and moral judgment while denying that such criticism could have the least force if it didn’t appeal to a certain range of widely shared values and beliefs.”

There is a debate between those (like Williams) who think ethics can maintain a critical edge w/o Kantian moralism, and those (usually disciples of Wittgenstein) who “reject the very notion that judgement can be exercised from a standpoint outside the various language-games or life-forms that provide the criteria for any valid (communally warranted) belief.”

Communitarians and virtue-theorists are united on one point: “it makes no sense—in epistemological or ethical terms—to adopt a position whereby truth in such matters might sometimes be thought to elude even the best-placed, most fully informed or epistemically virtuous enquirers. Communitarians focus on shared (community-wide) belief, whereas virtue-theorists focus on “distinctive qualities—like attentiveness, caution, open-mindedness or the courage to resist peer-group pressure—that more aptly apply to individual thinkers in particular epistemic contexts.”

So, virtue-theorists claim to avoid the problems resulting from Kant and from communitarians, “by locating the norms of good epistemic practice in just those attributes that serve to mark out competent, good-faith, expert, perceptive and well-motivated enquirers.” But, Norris says, just like Wright’s or McDowell’s Kantian version of the response-dependence argument, virtue-theory “fails to explain how the quest for knowledge can take its bearings from the regulative notion of objective, verification-transcendent truth (and hence avoid a Dummett-type anti-realist upshot).” They all fail in “meeting the realist’s basic objection, i.e., that truth can always come apart from ‘best judgment’ since even the most virtuous, intellectually disciplined and truth-oriented forms of enquiry may still (for whatever reason) fall far short of their aim.”

Positive point of virtue-based approach: “Offers a useful corrective to full-fledged communitarian theories” (Kripkenstein). “It offers a means of blocking the Kripkensteinian regress by maintaining that reasoners can think for themselves and apply certain standards…which are not just those of ‘agreement in judgment’ among members of some given community.”

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About Maryann

Maryann Spikes is the past President of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. She blogs at Ichthus77, and loves apologetics and philosophy. In particular she loves to study all things Euthyphro Dilemma and Golden Rule. A para-educator (autism) for five years, she holds a Certificate in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, an AA in Humanities via Modesto Junior College, and moonlights as a freelancer. You can follow her on Twitter @Ichthus77, connect with the Ichthus77 community on Facebook, or look her up on Google+.
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