A forum for VE lucubration

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Julia Driver's Egoistic Solution to the Virtue Conflation Problem

Julia Driver’s “The Conflation of Moral and Epistemic Virtues” attempts a solution to a task that, I think, begs for thorough treatment: that task is to develop a principled distinction between moral and intellectual virtues. Hume (and others) have thought that identifying demarcating features of moral and intellectual virtues—to the extent that a principled distinction could be developed—is of exaggerated importance. However, nowadays, the bulk of literature in both virtue ethics and virtue epistemology grants the supposition that there is some relevant distinction between these virtue types; thus, we are left in a position in which downplaying the task of discerning demarcating features between moral and epistemic virtues (or shirking the correlative task of determining if, in fact, a relevant distinction exists) would prevent us from coming to grips with the bulk of literature on virtue theory (ethical and epistemological) which employs these terminological distinctions as central to the arguments advanced.
Driver, in her essay, defends a view that I’ll summarize as follows:

(Initial Assumption: there does exist a distinction between moral and epistemic virtues, and a clarification of this distinction is worth pursuing.)

1. If an account that discerns moral virtues from intellectual virtues is to be adequate, then it must pick out what is distinctively valuable about the traits in question (i.e. it must pick out the respective value-conferring properties of these virtue types.)
2. “Characteristic Motivation” accounts cannot adequately meet the project in (1)
3. The only account available to successfully meet the project in (1) is an account that distinguishes moral from intellectual virtues on the basis of what goods are produced by the respective virtues.
4. Thus, the only available account is a consequentialist account.

In her defense of (2), Driver offers up, and subsequently criticizes, several characteristic-motivation accounts. There is quite a bit to be said about her treatment of these motivation accounts, however, I think what is more interesting is the way she sketches her own account in an attempt to defend (3). In doing so, Driver offers:

“The intuition I would like to explore is that intellectual virtues have—as their source of primary value—truth or, more weakly, justified belief for the person possessing the quality in question, and this is what ‘getting it right’ means for the intellectual virtues, whereas for the moral virtues the source of value is the benefit to others, the well-being of others, and for the moral virtues this is what ‘getting it right’ means. Further, no appeal to motive is needed to make the distinction at the level of value-conferring property. It is not the motive that makes the trait a given type of virtue.” (Brady and Pritchard 107).

Later in her paper, Driver clarifies her claim about the relationship between moral virtues and others, and intellectual virtues, and oneself.

“Moral virtues produce benefits to others—in particular, they promote the well-being of others—while the intellectual virtues produce epistemic good for the agent” (114).

Driver anticipates an obvious objection to this view, which is that moral virtues also produce benefits to oneself, and epistemic virtues can promote the well-being of others. Her response is that something can lead to valuable x, while its value-conferring property is nevertheless y (114). And so, it isn’t damaging to her position that some moral virtues benefit the agent, and some epistemic virtues benefit others. What would damage her view, though, is if some paragon moral virtue happens to not benefit others, or correlatively, if some paragon epistemic virtue failed to promote epistemic good for the agent. I think it’s safe to say that Driver is aware that such cases would be troublesome. This is evidenced in the final lines of her essay, when she writes:

“But note that on the account I offer, if it turns out that [for example, in the moral case] honesty does not have the good effects we think it has, then it may well be that it is not a moral virtue. This seems highly unlikely, but it is possible. Some may find this result problematic for a consequentialist account. However, it should be noted that this problem occurs for any account that weighs consequences at all” (116).

I think we should first take note that her last line here is mistaken. It doesn’t follow that the honesty-reductio that could in principle be problematic for her view would follow from an account that merely, as she puts it, “weighs consequences”; but rather, such a result would arise only if the consequences of virtues are weighed to the extent that traits are classified as virtues wholly by appeal to these weighed consequences. Not all consequence-weighting virtue accounts give such significance to consequences, and so not all consequence-weighing virtue accounts would be faced with the not-labeling-honesty-a-virtue bullet that her view could potentially swallow.

I wish to set this point aside, though, and address what I think might be most problematic about Driver’s proposal, and that is that it seems to embrace a sort of “epistemic egoism.” I say this because part of the distinction she offers between moral and epistemic virtues turns on the agency to whom the good produced by the virtue benefits. Recall that she claims:

“Moral virtues produce benefits to others—in particular, they promote the well-being of others—while the intellectual virtues produce epistemic good for the agent” (114).

The snake in the closet seems to be that her view commits her to accepting that a trait is not an intellectual virtue if it does not produce epistemic good for the agent. This is dangerously analogous to generic ethical egoism’s maxim: an act is not obligatory unless it produces good for the agent.

Rather than to criticize her view via appeal to models of criticism of egoism (i.e. by asking such questions as what is the relevant factual distinction between an agent and others that justifies a defense of the claim that an intellectual virtue’s value is agent-relative rather than relative to others outside one’s agency, etc.) I’ll try the old-fashioned style of counterexamples, which will take the form of presenting two archetypal epistemic virtues. The first, I’ll show, does not produce epistemic good for the agent that possesses it. The second intellectual virtue I’ll consider generates epistemic good for others, but not for the possessor. Either fits the model of a counterexample to her view (as both are instances of IVs that don’t produce epistemic good for the possessor of the virtue).

First case: Openmindedness: Heather Battaly on Montmarquet and the Intellectual Giants

I’m proposing openmindedness as an example of a paragon intellectual virtue that need not produce the epistemic good (which Driver offers as “truth”) for the agent that possesses it. Heather Battaly in her paper “Must the Intellectual Virtues Be Reliable” gives quite a bit of attention to openmindedness and concludes that it (perhaps among some others) requires no reliability condition. Specifically, it need not reliably lead to truth over falsehood. In her defense of this claim, she references James Montmarquet’s work in “Epistemic Virtue and Doxastic Responsibility” and highlights Montmarquet’s four most significant arguments against the claim that intellectual virtues require a reliability condition. Battaly thinks that Montmarquet has three arguments that fail and one that succeeds; she appeals to the latter as a basis for arguing that a reliability condition is unnecessary for an agent to possess the IV of openmindedness.

First, a clarifictory point: When presenting his arguments against the reliability of intellectual virtues, Montmarquet is (Battaly thinks) biting off more than he can chew in the sense that Montmarquet thinks that reliability as a necessary condition can be stripped from all intellectual virtues; it is, rather than reliability, a motivation condition that characterizes all intellectual virtues. Battally thinks this is flawed for several reasons, especially given that some IVs such as “the ability to recognize salient facts” require (obviously) some condition of reliability.

What Battaly wants to highlight, though, is that the “Intellectual Giant argument” that Montmarquet gives in his attempt to strip a reliability condition from all IVs would be successful in demonstrating a weaker but important claim, namely, that at least one intellectual virtue requires no reliability condition, and that is openmindedness.

Battaly’s amendment of Montmarquets intellectual giants argument could be stated something like this:

P1: Aristotle and Einstein both possessed the intellectual virtue of openmindedness in pursuing their respective projects in physics.
P2: Aristotle’s work turned out to be (generally) false, and Einstein’s work turned out to be (generally) true.
P3: If an agent’s possessing the intellectual virtue required that an agent be reliable in reaching the truth because of the virtue, then Aristotle would not possess the intellectual virtue of openmindedness.
∴ A reliability condition that the agent be reliable in reaching truth because of exhibiting openmindedness is not necessary for that individual to possess the intellectual virtue of openmindedness. (From 1, 2 and 3)

If this argument is sound, then Driver’s position is in trouble because we would have a case of an intellectual virtue that needn’t produce the epistemic good (which she labels as truth) for the agent. But surely we want to say that openmindedness is nonetheless an epistemic virtue.

Second case: Blabby and the virtue of “Epistemic Altruism”

I am not aware of much discussion of what I’m to propose as an epistemic virtue—the “virtue” of epistemic altruism, but I’ll try anyway to make a case for it, or at least, a case for the claim that Driver’s view would have to recognize it as an intellectual virtue (and, additionally, that it could in principle fail to produce epistemic good for the agent that possesses it.)

Suppose that there are two erudite scientists, Stingy and Blabby. Each has in his respective mental storehouse millions of useful facts about physics and chemistry. Stingy, who is arrogant and self-interestedly prudential, enjoys sponging into his memory any facts that he can gobble up, but is quite reluctant to share information with others. Stingy, although in possession of quite a few intellectual virtues which allow his own wealth of scientific knowledge to burgeon, has no desire to share his wealth of facts with others, even if such sharing would maximize net useful facts known in the world significantly. Blabby, on the other hand, is comparably as knowledgeable as Stingy, however, he is motivated to spread scientific truth as widely as possible; he is equally concerned with truths that would benefit himself (i.e. that he, and not someone else, be the first to solve some profitable equation) and truths that would benefit others. This said, he is aware about a certain fact: he happens to be in possession of more scientific facts than most others; in recognizing this, he finds that sharing information better satisfies his goal of overall truth maximizing than if he were to place value on maximizing truths that benefit himself over truths that would benefit others.

Shall we say that Blabby’s disposition to be generous with his excessive wealth of scientific facts is an intellectual virtue?

It was once written by Emerson that “the greatest homage we can pay to truth is to use it.” At the very least, it seems that the disposition to share truths it is a more praiseworthy disposition than Stingy’s sponging and misering of facts. Additionally, Blabby’s disposition contributes to what should be seen as an epistemic goal: maximizing truths in the world relevant to people’s lives, given that folks are more likely to better themselves with knowledge of the physical world than if bereft of them.

If we are prepared to grant that Blabby’s epistemic altruism is a virtue, then we have another problem for Driver’s position that a virtue is not an intellectual virtue if it does not produce the epistemic good for the agent. In Blabby’s case, it’s not clear at all that he procures more epistemic good (again, truths, on Driver’s acocunt) for himself by being epistemically altruistic; most likely, Blabby, because of his overall truth maximizing altruism, misses opportunities to silently sponge truths as Stingy does, and hence, maximize his own hoard of epistemic good.

If either of these examples correctly identifies an intellectual virtue that does not tend to produce the epistemic good for the possessor, then Driver’s project doesn’t work, and some other avenue of demarcation should be pursued.

Despite all this, I want to reiterate for the reasons I mentioned at the outset that Driver’s project is an important one. Ignoring this distinction or downplaying the importance of making it is costly to those who intend to understand contemporary arguments that cannot be adequately grasped outside the language of such distinctions. I’d like to end this post by pointing to what I think is a direction that is both potentially promising, and potentially dangerous to the prospects of VE. This proposal is one that Battaly offers in her own paper, and which has bittersweet consequences. She summarizes her conclusion in a provoking paragraph:

“Ultimately, I think that both Zagzebksi and Montmarquet have been too rigid in their analyses of intellectual virtue. Zagzebski has tried to make all of the traits that we intuitively classify as intellectual virtues fit a single mold. While, Montmarquet seems to have restricted his list of intellectual virtues to those that fit the mold he has chosen. In my view, virtues like open-mindedness require motivations for truth, but do not require reliability. In contrast, virtues like the disposition to recognize salient facts require reliability, but do not require motivations for truth. If I am correct, the virtues are a diverse lot. Consequently, there will be no single simple formula for defining knowledge or justification in terms of the virtues” (Must the Intellectual Virtues Be Reliable, 2004 INPC Session).

What is, at this point, provoking is whether accepting her “diversity thesis” (i.e. that some IV require reliability but not motivation, and others motivation but not reliability) does in fact generate the ominous prospects for VE that she thinks it does. Answering this, as I see it, would be a project of its own.

13 Comments:

Anonymous nenad_miscevic said...

It’s a very useful blog, thanks!
Two small comments. The first, about Initial Assumption, i.e. that there does exist a distinction between moral and epistemic virtues.
It might be imprudent to built the distinction into DEFINITION or CONCEPT of respective virtues. For instance, one might think that acting responsibly derives from a virtue, well-known in moral area AND that this very same virtue shows in arriving at one’s beliefs in a responsible way AND that it is the prime justifier, and a prime component of knowledge. In this case one and the very same virtue plays both a narrowly moral role and the central epistemic role. One wouldn’t want to prohibit this by definition, nor would one want to stipulate that as a matter of conceptual necessity there are two virtues in play, one “moral” and one “epistemic”.
This suggests defining epistemic virtues by their typical area, or something akin, and leaving open the question if some moral virtue could be exercized within the same area, and be epistemically valuable, and in this sense “an epistemic” virtue.
Second comment, about Julia Driver’s egoistic solution. One worry about is is the following: there is a long tradition of linking moral virtue to happiness, and construing it thus in a manner that appears agent-directed and “egoistic” in this broad sense. (And some historians say that the intense focus upon other-regarding virtues is historically late, and might have to do with spread of Christianity.) Ancient Greeks and Chinese, plus Spinoza give ample testimony to this self-regarding line on virtue. Should we just STIPULATE that these people didn’t talk about moral virtue? Julia, if you are reading this blog, please enlighten us about the matters.

9:27 AM

 
Anonymous nenad_miscevic said...

It’s a very useful blog, thanks!
Two small comments. The first, about Initial Assumption, i.e. that there does exist a distinction between moral and epistemic virtues.
It might be imprudent to built the distinction into DEFINITION or CONCEPT of respective virtues. For instance, one might think that acting responsibly derives from a virtue, well-known in moral area AND that this very same virtue shows in arriving at one’s beliefs in a responsible way AND that it is the prime justifier, and a prime component of knowledge. In this case one and the very same virtue plays both a narrowly moral role and the central epistemic role. One wouldn’t want to prohibit this by definition, nor would one want to stipulate that as a matter of conceptual necessity there are two virtues in play, one “moral” and one “epistemic”.
This suggests defining epistemic virtues by their typical area, or something akin, and leaving open the question if some moral virtue could be exercized within the same area, and be epistemically valuable, and in this sense “an epistemic” virtue.
Second comment, about Julia Driver’s egoistic solution. One worry about is is the following: there is a long tradition of linking moral virtue to happiness, and construing it thus in a manner that appears agent-directed and “egoistic” in this broad sense. (And some historians say that the intense focus upon other-regarding virtues is historically late, and might have to do with spread of Christianity.) Ancient Greeks and Chinese, plus Spinoza give ample testimony to this self-regarding line on virtue. Should we just STIPULATE that these people didn’t talk about moral virtue? Julia, if you are reading this blog, please enlighten us about the matters.

9:28 AM

 
Anonymous nenad_miscevic said...

It’s a very useful blog, thanks!
Two small comments. The first, about Initial Assumption, i.e. that there does exist a distinction between moral and epistemic virtues.
It might be imprudent to built the distinction into DEFINITION or CONCEPT of respective virtues. For instance, one might think that acting responsibly derives from a virtue, well-known in moral area AND that this very same virtue shows in arriving at one’s beliefs in a responsible way AND that it is the prime justifier, and a prime component of knowledge. In this case one and the very same virtue plays both a narrowly moral role and the central epistemic role. One wouldn’t want to prohibit this by definition, nor would one want to stipulate that as a matter of conceptual necessity there are two virtues in play, one “moral” and one “epistemic”.
This suggests defining epistemic virtues by their typical area, or something akin, and leaving open the question if some moral virtue could be exercized within the same area, and be epistemically valuable, and in this sense “an epistemic” virtue.
Second comment, about Julia Driver’s egoistic solution. One worry about is is the following: there is a long tradition of linking moral virtue to happiness, and construing it thus in a manner that appears agent-directed and “egoistic” in this broad sense. (And some historians say that the intense focus upon other-regarding virtues is historically late, and might have to do with spread of Christianity.) Ancient Greeks and Chinese, plus Spinoza give ample testimony to this self-regarding line on virtue. Should we just STIPULATE that these people didn’t talk about moral virtue? Julia, if you are reading this blog, please enlighten us about the matters.

9:29 AM

 
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