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A robust enough virtue epistemology


What is the nature of knowledge? A popular answer to that long-standing question comes from robust virtue epistemology, whose key idea is that knowing is just a matter of succeeding cognitively—i.e., coming to believe a proposition truly—due to an exercise of cognitive ability. Versions of robust virtue epistemology further developing and systematizing this idea offer different accounts of the relation that must hold between an agent’s cognitive success and the exercise of her cognitive abilities as well as of the very nature of those abilities. This paper aims to give a new robust virtue epistemological account of knowledge based on a different understanding of the nature and structure of the kind of abilities that give rise to knowledge.

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  1. 1.

    Initial virtue epistemological accounts of knowledge—e.g., Sosa (1991)—did not appeal to performance normativity. The advantage of using performance normativity is that one can bring together in the same normative framework not only an account of the nature of knowledge with an account of the source of its normativity, but also with an account of its value.

  2. 2.

    The evaluative norms that are relevant are not moral. In other words, robust virtue epistemologists are not concerned with whether performances are right or wrong from a moral point of view but with whether they are good or bad performances qua performances. Torturing people is repugnant. But a torturer’s performance might be assessed—with moral disgust—for accuracy, adroitness and aptness. For example, one can judge whether the torturer attains his atrocious goal of inflicting pain in his victim, whether he does so with skill, and whether his despicable success is due to that skill.

  3. 3.

    See Greco (2012) for an exhaustive review of all the current interpretations of the attributability relation.

  4. 4.

    Greco (2010) upholds the stronger reading. Pritchard (2012) opts for the weaker one.

  5. 5.

    Authors advocating MA are Kelp (2013), Palermos (2013), Sosa (2011, 2015) and Turri (2011, 2016).

  6. 6.

    Sosa assumes that cognitive performances are beliefs, but that seems mistaken: while performances are dynamic, beliefs are stative—see Chrisman (2012) for this line of criticism. Instead of identifying cognitive performance with the doxastic state resulting from an instance of belief formation, cognitive performance seems to be better conceptualized as belief formation itself. By doing so, one can attribute the properties of being accurate, adroit or apt to the way agents form their beliefs and derivatively to their beliefs—although then the question is how can one account for their value. On a different note, belief revision might also count as a way to perform cognitively. For example, one can judge whether an agent has a competent belief in virtue of whether she has competently maintained her true belief in the presence of misleading defeaters.

  7. 7.

    See Greco (2000) for a seminal defense of agent reliabilism, according to which a true belief is justified and constitutes knowledge just in case it is the product of a reliable belief-forming process and the process is grounded on a stable disposition to form true beliefs that is integrated in the agent’s cognitive character. A predecessor of that view may be found in Goldman (1979), where he offers a classic defense of process reliabilism, according to which a true belief is justified—and thus a candidate for knowledge—just in case it is the product of a reliable belief-forming process.

  8. 8.

    See Zagzebski (1994) for the view that standard Gettier-style cases have this “double luck” structure. See Blouw, Buckwalter & Turri (2016) for a different interpretation of Gettier-style cases.

  9. 9.

    The term has been popularized by Pritchard (e.g., in Haddock et al. 2010, p. 36). But see McKinnon (2014) for an argument to the effect that the terminology is not intelligible, although it remains a useful metaphor.

  10. 10.

    But see Greco (2012), who argues that inferential Gettier-style cases put pressure on AAA views precisely because the inferred beliefs meet that requirement. In those cases, the relevant Gettiered beliefs are true because of the reasoning abilities of the agent. Although I share the spirit of Greco’s criticism, I think that inferential cases need separate treatment, mainly because they involve belief-dependent cognitive processes—namely, inferences—, which means in turn that the lack of inferential knowledge might not have to do with a failure of the aptness condition in the transition from the premise belief to the conclusion, but with the premise belief’s poor epistemic status. My own view is that in order to account for inferential knowledge we need an aptness condition on evidence selection for the premise belief, and that condition fails in inferential Gettier-style cases. However, since the issue requires careful treatment, I will leave it for another occasion.

  11. 11.

    The original case is in Lackey (2007, p. 352).

  12. 12.

    The original case is in Goldman (1976, pp. 772–773).

  13. 13.

    The way Lackey (2007, 2009) and Pritchard (2012) formulate the dilemma is different in two relevant respects. On the one hand, Lackey formulates it in terms of the whether the agent deserves credit for her cognitive success, i.e., in terms of whether her cognitive success is praiseworthy—hence the name the creditworthiness dilemma. By contrast, Pritchard formulates it in terms of whether or not the agent’s cognitive success is attributable to her cognitive abilities—hence the name the attributability dilemma. On the other hand, for Lackey the first horn of the dilemma concerns Gettier-style cases in general, while for Pritchard it only concerns cases of environmental luck, such as Fake Barns. The reason why I use Pritchard’s presentation of the dilemma is that it makes more clear how the two independent problems relate to robust virtue epistemology and in particular to EA and MA.

  14. 14.

    Greco (2012), for example, reinterprets the attributability relation in pragmatic terms.

  15. 15.

    See Pritchard (2010) for relevant discussion.

  16. 16.

    In such cases, the safety of one’s beliefs is partly explained by the unnoticed intervention of an agent—which triggers the ignorance intuition—and partly by fact that one is able to eliminate defeaters that would easily have made one believe false propositions—which is sufficient to make the conditions of anti-luck virtue epistemology obtain.

  17. 17.

    See Sosa’s 2007 book (passim) for this kind of solution, where he gives a similar explanation of knowledge from instruments.

  18. 18.

    Readers who are familiar with gambling games involving deception—e.g., poker—will agree that this sort of lie-detection abilities are not only possible but real.

  19. 19.

    It might be argued that cases of uncooperative speakers are not genuine cases of testimony, but whatever way to individuate testimony one favors, it should be compatible with there being cases of easy and difficult acquisition of testimonial knowledge. That is, the fact that there is more effort on the part of the hearer in a given case should not prevent the case from counting as a genuine case of testimony.

  20. 20.

    See Fara (2008), Greco (2012) and Vihvelin (2004) for dispositionalist accounts of the notion of ability, which contrast with the classical conditional analysis according to which an agent is able to \(\upvarphi \) just in case she would \(\upvarphi \) if she tried or chose to. See Maier (2013) for a different account of abilities in terms of having the option to \(\upvarphi \).

  21. 21.

    See Heil (2005, p. 350).

  22. 22.

    The example is from Pritchard (2006, p. 15).

  23. 23.

    The original case is in Goldman (1976, p. 779).

  24. 24.

    The original case is in Bogardus (2014, pp. 300–301).

  25. 25.

    A possible way out consists in reinterpreting one’s safety condition as method-safety and then proposing a principle for individuating methods of belief formation that restricts safety to close possible worlds in which there are no dog-looking wolves (Dachshund) or broken clocks (Clock). I have tried that strategy elsewhere in order to defend safety from counterexamples to its necessity (see Broncano-Berrocal 2014b). But although I think that it is the best strategy a safety theorist and therefore a defender of safety-based robust virtue epistemology can adopt, giving an adequate principle for method individuation proves to be extremely difficult. See Bogardus and Marxen (2014) for some objections.

  26. 26.

    Most robust virtue epistemologists find that move unwelcome, as they still think that there is hope for a reductive analysis of knowledge.

  27. 27.

    In Millar’s case, the dilemma goes as follows: if one’s knowledge-first view does not understand cognitive abilities in a fine-grained way, then it is not clear what necessary condition for knowledge fails to obtain in cases of knowledge-undermining error possibilities such as Fake Barnsfirst horn—, but if it does, then the view cannot explain the difference between those cases and cases of epistemically harmless error possibilities such as Dachshund or Clocksecond horn.

  28. 28.

    Relevantly, Hawley also remarks that “although some tasks in a family may be more difficult than others, (...) not every family is neatly ordered in this way” (Hawley 2003, p. 21).

  29. 29.

    The distinction that I will make between broad and narrow abilities will mirror this discussion.

  30. 30.

    The degree and threshold of reliability of an ability obviously depends on the kind of tasks the ability serves to complete and the domain to which the ability pertains. See Greco (2012) for a similar but relevantly different definition of the notion of ability.

  31. 31.

    I borrow the terminology from Kallestrup and Pritchard (2014), but I modify their distinctions slightly.

  32. 32.

    There might even be very narrow abilities, i.e., dispositions to complete token tasks only under local conditions.

  33. 33.

    Proper functionalists—see for instance Graham (2012)—and philosophers of biology—see for instance Millikan (1984)—have largely discussed these issues.

  34. 34.

    In this way, an agent who does not form any belief in any condition—out of pathological fear or because of being maximally cautious—fails to exhibit reliable precautionary cognitive ability, because she prevents belief formation when the circumstances are appropriate for belief formation. Thanks to an anonymous referee for giving the example.

  35. 35.

    Fluency refers to the easiness and quickness with which a cognitive task —e.g., a perceptual task— is completed. See Kahneman (2011) and Proust (2013) for excellent introductions to the psychological and philosophical issues surrounding metacognition.

  36. 36.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting the example.

  37. 37.

    See Pritchard (2012, pp. 268–269) for a similar case with a pianist.

  38. 38.

    See Fara (2008, pp. 846–847) for relevant discussion on masking.

  39. 39.

    One could modify the submarine case so that close possible worlds —i.e., regional conditions—are such that the archer is able to take the shot but a missile hits the submarine thereby preventing the shot from being successful, while the archer survives the whole episode retaining her shooting ability. This modification makes the case analogous to the force fields case: in both cases the circumstances are very demanding —because the relevant precautionary abilities of an archer do not typically include being sensitive to incoming missiles or invisible force fields. But all the cases show is that being sensitive to determining factors is sometimes more difficult than usual and, in this sense, achieving complete aptness might be a difficult task without external aid—e.g., without relevant information about the environment, i.e., information that would locally endow one with an adequate precautionary disposition for that kind of unusual circumstances.

  40. 40.

    See Goldman (1976) for a similar treatment of Dachshund.


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Thanks to Chris Kelp, two anonymous reviewers for Synthese, and the audiences of the LEG seminar (Leuven), the University of Copenhagen, and the Virtue Epistemology Conference (Leuven).

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Correspondence to Fernando Broncano-Berrocal.

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Broncano-Berrocal, F. A robust enough virtue epistemology. Synthese 194, 2147–2174 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1043-y

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  • Robust virtue epistemology
  • Ability
  • Cognitive ability
  • Aptness
  • Safety