Book Discussion of Christopher Norris’ “Epistemology: Key Concepts in Philosophy”
Chapter 5: Making for Truth: Some Problems with Virtue-Based Epistemology –
Grand finale for this chapter. One more chapter after this, with only two sections in it.
Marie McGinn notes there is an “intuitive disanalogy between ethics and epistemology”. I’ll say. How do you determine if you’ve got moral truth, if you insist that epistemology must follow the true moral rules/virtues? This is something my co-member in the philosophy club, Grant Crawford, caught when Jonathan Homrighausen was doing a presentation on virtue-based epistemology.
Norris quotes McGinn and says she is contesting Hookway’s requirement of a self-evidential ‘immediate’ experience. This does not critique at all my discussion of “the hunger” (or “the question”) for true meaning evident in every culture in history, because this hunger is not self-evidential proof that there is true meaning. “The question” does halt a vicious regress, since we don’t need rules for the application of rules (etc.), we just need the answer to the question, and a realization that the answer may not correspond to anything, despite all clues to the contrary. The hunger, the question, is in the context of discovery, and does not trespass into the context of justification, except to say that any theory which does not answer the question, cannot pass as moral truth.
It seems Hookway does not speak for all virtue theorists, but McGinn’s critique applies to them, as well. Although “distinctively virtue-based theories…involve no such dubious appeal to ‘immediate’ states of mind that by very definition cannot be assessed on cognitive or rational-evaluative terms … it could also be held … the virtues adduced, whatever their precise specification, are likewise construed as taking epistemic priority over any of the more traditional (objectivist) criteria for what constitutes veridical knowledge…” That sets virtue theory apart from more traditional approaches which allow for the motivating influence of certain traits so long as they are confined to the epistemological “context of discovery” and not the “context of justification”—into which virtue theory does trespass.
Although Norris doesn’t put it in these exact words, what I gleaned is that virtue-based epistemology replaces the vicious regress of “rules for the application of rules” with a vicious circle. Like I said earlier, How do you determine if you’ve got moral truth, if you insist that epistemology must follow the true moral rules/virtues? It is circular reasoning—to insist that you use moral truth to justify any endeavor into truth, including moral truth. So the virtues are left with no justificatory warrant.
Even if the virtue-realist specifies that the virtues are realist virtues (like “the disposition to believe that truth is independent of any disposition”), they are still placing emphasis on an attitude or disposition, and therefore contradict realist virtues, which may truly only apply to the context of discovery, not the context of justification.
So virtue theory does no better than RD theory in its attempt to resolve the dilemma between realism and anti-realism, since it clearly takes an anti-realist bias toward truth that is epistemically constrained (“best judgment”-dependent), rather than verification-transcendent.
It also fails to explain how virtuous thinkers could ever have managed to get things wrong. It fails to grasp that truth can come apart from “the standing consensus of best judgment at some given stage in the progress of inquiry to date. …the chief source of disagreement concerning virtue-based epistemologies is what some would regard as their overcommitment to a practice-based (Aristotelian) approach that pins its faith to those epistemic virtues which currently enjoy widespread acceptance, and which thus tends to preclude—or downplay—the possibility of holding them to critical account. Whence the danger…of a slide toward the kind of Wittgenstein-influenced communitarian thinking whereby it simply cannot make sense to question or criticize the values and beliefs embodied in some given practice, language-game or communal ‘form of life’.” Indeed, Lorraine Code has linked virtue-epistemology with a ‘socialized’ conception of knowledge as well as a feminist epistemology, a communalist way of thinking which is at conflict with her insistence on certain ground rules.
There is a “tendency for such arguments to oscillate between a basically Aristotelian conception of those virtues which defines them chiefly with reference to the various knowledge-conducive practices wherein they play a salient role and a more Kantian (deontological) approach that treats them as subject to certain ‘internal’ checks and constraints. This latter requirement is most often introduced—as for instance by Sosa and Greco—by way of strengthening the normative component of virtue-based theories and marking their difference from straightforward reliabilist (Goldman-type) accounts.”
Norris’ own view (of course) is that these problems arise when virtue-theory trespasses into the context of justification, rather than confining itself to the context of discovery. When it stays in the context of discovery, it is superior to the “cultural-relativist or ‘strong’-sociological view whereby the distinction between truth and falsehood amounts to no more than that between beliefs which enjoy a high measure of social or peer-group acceptability and beliefs which (by common assent) lack any such status.” However, when it trespasses into the context of justification, it is at risk of sliding back into just that communalist way of thinking. It will not concede to “the realist’s cardinal point that the objective truth-value of certain propositions may (now or forever) elude our best powers of epistemic discernment just as knowledge—by very definition—transcends any possible specification in terms of currently accepted best belief.”
To equate truth with best belief, again, merely replaces the vicious regress with the vicious circle. Best to restrict the virtues to the context of discovery, where they will not fall prey to “sceptical, relativist or anti-realist fortune.”
Well done, Norris. Well done.