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The Epistemic Relevance of the Virtue of Justice


Recent literature on the relationship between knowledge and justice has tended to focus exclusively on the social and ethical dimensions of this relationship (e.g. social injustices related to knowledge and power, etc.). For the purposes of this article, I am interested in examining the virtue of justice and its effects on the cognitive faculties of its possessor (and, correspondingly, the effects of the vice of injustice). Drawing upon Thomas Aquinas’s account of the virtue of justice, I argue that in certain cases justice can be a criterion of epistemic evaluation and that it deserves more attention than it has been given among virtue epistemologists. More precisely, the virtue of justice may become a criterion of epistemic evaluation in cases when a belief is formed on the basis of testimony. It would seem that there are cases when A’s assent to proposition p is something that is owed to B on the basis of B’s testimony; or there may be instances when A is culpable for declining to let B’s testimony have any effect on A’s belief. I briefly sketch four distinct scenarios in which this bears out.

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  1. For a recent, systematic treatment, see Fricker 2003 and 2007. My treatment of epistemic justice and injustice differs from Fricker’s in the sense that, where she is concerned primarily with the transmission of knowledge, I am concerned in this article with the reception of it. Her project is more concerned with broadening epistemology’s range of analysis by describing the harms of epistemic injustice; I am more concerned with the application of the virtue of justice to more traditional concerns of epistemology. Our projects are complimentary but distinct. Although the case of simple prejudice (see below) comes close to her account of “testimonial injustice,” in my example the cognitive defect of the agent lies not in some prejudice against another person on account of race, gender, or class (as in most of Fricker’s examples), but rather in the agent’s willing something so strongly and unreflectively such that it precludes his belief from arriving at the level of knowledge. The kinds of prejudices which concern Fricker do become relevant in the case of basic testimonial authority (see below), but, again, they are applied to different ends.

  2. For an illuminating analysis of justice as a self-regarding virtue, see Bloomfield 2011. Bloomfield, however, does not discuss the epistemological implications of justice, nor does he engage Aquinas’s thought. Kawall addresses the concept of other-regarding epistemic virtues in Kawall 2002, but my account differs from his because, although justice is a mostly other-regarding virtue, in my account it is being applied reflexively to the agent for the purpose of assessing her own cognitive formation.

  3. By “criteria of epistemic evaluation,” I mean something similar to William Alston’s description of a plurality of factors which can lead to various epistemic desiderata and in which “each item in the plurality deserves some attention as a possible contributor to a positive epistemic status of beliefs” (Alston 2005, p. 39).

  4. Roberts and Wood, for example, analyze a remarkably wide range of virtues, yet justice is only used as an example of why one should not mislead others with deception (Roberts and Wood 2007, p. 137). There is no mention of the role of justice in the reception of knowledge.

  5. For Aquinas, virtues are distinguished according to the powers of the soul they perfect, where ‘power’ simply refers to an ability to bring about action: “In the rational part [of the soul] are found (i) a power of desire, which is called the will, and (ii) a power of apprehension, which is called reason. That is why there are two cardinal virtues in the rational part, practical wisdom, which belongs to reason, and justice, which belongs to the will” (On the Virtues in General, a. 12, ad. 25 in Aquinas 2005). Furthermore, “For each domain there ought to be a cardinal virtue that deals with whatever is most important in it. There are, however, virtues that deal with other elements of the matter, and they are called secondary, or additional, virtues. […] [I]n actions that relate to those external things that we use for living, the first and most important thing is that everyone is given what is his due. Justice ensures that” (Ibid., a. 12, ad. 26).

  6. Thomas Hibbs persuasively demonstrates that none of the modern labels such as “internalist,” “externalist,” or “virtue epistemology” neatly maps onto Aquinas’s theory of knowledge in Hibbs 1999.

  7. In making this qualification, I do not mean to suggest that Aquinas is oblivious to the relationship between knowledge and justice. He classifies truth (or truthfulness) as a virtue annexed to justice: “Now the virtue of truth has two things in common with justice. On the first place it is directed to another, since the manifestation, which we have stated to be an act of truth, is directed to another, inasmuch as one person manifests to another the things that concern himself. On the second place, justice sets up a certain equality between things, and this the virtue of truth does also, for it equals signs to the things which concern man himself. Nevertheless it falls short of the proper aspect of justice, as to the notion of debt: for this virtue does not regard legal debt, which justice considers, but rather the moral debt, in so far as, out of equity, one man owes another a manifestation of the truth. Therefore truth is a part of justice, being annexed thereto as a secondary virtue to its principal” (ST II-II, q. 109, a. 3, in Aquinas 1981). This article is an exploration of the reverse relationship, namely, when the reception of truth is what is owed to another, rather than the manifestation of it.

  8. I use the somewhat vague term “epistemic” virtue intentionally, since the dispute between internalist virtue epistemologists and externalist epistemologists reflects a disagreement on whether the epistemically relevant virtues are states of character or faculties (for a helpful summary of this difficulty, see Moros and Umbers 2004). I take the following as paradigmatic of internalist-leaning virtue epistemologists: “Knowledge is a state of true belief arising out of acts of intellectual virtue” (Zagzebski 1996, p. 271). And I take the following as paradigmatic of externalist-leaning virtue epistemologists: “A belief p has positive epistemic status for a person S just in case S’s believing that p results from stable and reliable dispositions that make up S’s cognitive character” (Greco 1999, p. 19). Greco has refined his articulation of knowledge to be understood as “a kind of success from ability” (Greco 2010, p. 1), or, in other words, credit-worthy true belief, but his overall model remains broadly externalist-leaning.

  9. For examples of an account that attempts to unite faculties and character traits as both contributing in different ways to the acquisition of true beliefs, see Baehr 2006 and Lepock 2011.

  10. For a helpful survey of some recent varieties of virtue epistemology, see Baehr 2008.

  11. See fn. 5 above.

  12. Cf. also Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. V, Lecture 1, 889 (in Aquinas 1993).

  13. All references to the Summa Theologiae are from Aquinas 1981. Subsequent references to the Summa will be cited using the traditional notation.

  14. “[I]ustitia est habitus secundum quem aliquis constanti et perpetua voluntate ius suum unicuique tribuit.” All Latin quotations of Aquinas’s works are from the Leonine edition found in Aquinas 2012.

  15. In De Veritate, q. 22, a. 5 (in Aquinas 1994), among other places, Aquinas explains that the will necessarily inclines toward happiness as its last end, but it inclines toward specific means voluntarily, inasmuch as it perceives them (through the intellect) to be means to that last end. Thus, the will is indeterminate.

  16. On the Virtues in General, a. 5, Reply, in Aquinas 2005. “[S]ed ad bonum quod transcendit proportionem potentiae, indiget habitu virtutis. Cum autem uniuscuiusque appetitus tendat in proprium bonum appetentis; dupliciter aliquod bonum potest excedere voluntatis proportionem. Uno modo ratione speciei; alio modo ratione individui.”

  17. Although, in light of the concerns of this article and what Aquinas says about the virtue of religio (a virtue annexed to justice; see ST II-II, qq. 81–100), it does raise some interesting questions about what is due to God in regard to testimony and about what might constitute testimony from God.

  18. On the Virtues in General, a. 5, Reply, in Aquinas 2005. “Ratione autem individui, hoc modo quod aliquis quaerat id quod est alterius bonum, licet voluntas extra limites boni humani non feratur; et sic voluntatem perficit iustitia, et omnes virtutes in aliud tendentes, ut liberalitas, et alia huiusmodi. Nam iustitia est alterius bonum, ut philosophus dicit in V Ethic.”

  19. An anonymous reviewer suggests that perhaps assent is due, not to the testimony, but to the person giving the testimony, i.e. on the merits of the testifier rather than the merits of the testimony. The difficulty with articulating the scenario in this way is that the jury members presumably do not know anything about the persons giving the testimony and thus have no grounds for assenting to their testimonies based some sort of prior reputation. All the jury members have to go on is the cogency and plausibility of the testimonies they hear, and thus what is due to the testifiers is that assent be given to their testimonies without any sort of bias. I believe the sort of deference to persons that the reviewer has in mind will become more relevant in the case of the epistemic renegade (below).

  20. This assumes that, whatever the criterion that distinguishes knowledge from mere belief, it is something that comes in degrees and crosses the threshold of knowledge at a certain point.

  21. Of course, there is also the possibility (c) he is uncertain. The case of (c) is interesting, because in many scenarios, it will be difficult to determine whether an agent’s transition from belief p to an uncertainty about p reveals something about the agent’s possession of the virtue of justice. If the scenario is one in which p is a deeply seated belief which grounds much of how the agent understands the world, then it does not seem that the agent’s refusal to believe ~p is a violation of justice, even if it entails the rejection of a Harold-like testimony.

  22. If we can assume that Joe’s reasons for holding his belief are so thin that in scenario (b) the weight of Harold’s testimony renders them obsolete, then my analysis of this scenario is in accord with Lackey’s account of testimonial knowledge: “For every speaker S and hearer H, H comes to know that p via S’s statement that p only if (i) S’s statement that p is appropriately connected with the fact that p; and (ii) H has no defeaters indicating the contrary” (Lackey 1999, p. 490).

  23. I grant that Harold’s explanation in this example would not fall under ‘testimony’ in the narrow sense. Clearly it falls somewhere between basic perceptual knowledge and straightforward testimony (i.e. a report). Any instance in which one requires a teacher to explain a truth that lies beyond the grasp of that person’s unaided cognitive abilities is of this sort. It describes most people’s understanding of common scientific theories (gravity, evolution, etc.). Nevertheless, such instances are examples of knowledge which requires “reliance on others,” which is why I have been using ‘testimony’ in the inclusive sense. Robert Audi draws a helpful distinction in his grammar of testimony between ‘propositional telling’ and ‘imperative telling’ that is relevant here (Audi 2006, pp. 25–26).

  24. “I answer that, The subject of a virtue is the power whose act that virtue aims at rectifying. Now justice does not aim at directing an act of the cognitive power, for we are not said to be just through knowing something aright. Hence the subject of justice is not the intellect or reason which is a cognitive power. But since we are said to be just through doing something aright, and because the proximate principle of action is the appetitive power, justice must needs be in some appetitive power as its subject. Now the appetite is twofold; namely, the will which is in the reason and the sensitive appetite which follows on sensitive apprehension, and is divided into the irascible and the concupiscible, as stated in I, 81, 2. Again the act of rendering his due to each man cannot proceed from the sensitive appetite, because sensitive apprehension does not go so far as to be able to consider the relation of one thing to another; but this is proper to the reason. Therefore justice cannot be in the irascible or concupiscible as its subject, but only in the will: hence the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 1) defines justice by an act of the will, as may be seen above (Article 1)” (ST II-II, q. 58, a. 4). Although Aquinas seems to suggest that justice is irrelevant to knowledge, he is simply making the point that the virtue of justice is not directly tied to any cognitive power. He certainly denies that justice is a necessary and sufficient condition for knowledge, but this comports with my more modest claim that in some cases justice can positively contribute to the wider process of belief formation and is thus an epistemically relevant virtue.

  25. This is a variation of the “Chicago visitor” example in Lackey 2007 and 2009. The most significant difference is that in my example the person being consulted is not a random passerby, but a clearly designated authority figure. This important detail is central to my analysis of the scenario.

  26. Although Zagzebski is primarily concerned with the notion of self-trust in Zagzebski (2012), her articulation of epistemic trust in that essay is also relevant here. I would slightly modify her claim that “many of the intellectual virtues either restrain or enhance epistemic trust” (2012, p.20) to include moral virtues as well, since justice is not typically classified as an intellectual virtue.

  27. Aquinas would classify this as the vice of “respect of persons”, which is a vice opposed to justice (n.b. “respect” is here meant to refer to unjust preferential treatment). He explains, “Respect of persons is opposed to distributive justice. For the equality of distributive justice consists in allotting various things to various persons in proportion to their personal dignity” (ST II-II, q. 63, a. 1).

  28. Aquinas acknowledges that “justice is first of all and more commonly exercised in voluntary interchanges of things, such as buying and selling, wherein those expressions are properly employed,” yet he goes on to state that “they are transferred to all other matters of justice. The same applies to the rendering to each one of what is his own” (ST II-II, q. 58, a. 11, ad. 3). Thus he concedes that “it belongs to justice not only to distribute things duly, but also to repress injurious actions, such as murder, adultery and so forth” (ST II-II, q. 58, a. 11, obj. 3), and we might add to that list “acts of prejudice”.

  29. I am drawing upon Wayne Riggs’s helpful distinction between “praiseworthiness” and “attributability”, which he utilizes in his response to Lackey in Riggs 2009.

  30. Baehr argues that “responsibilist character virtues” such as those described by internalist-driven models of virtue epistemology should “satisfy virtue reliabilists’ formal conditions for an intellectual virtue, and that consequently virtue reliabilists must include these traits in their repertoire of intellectual virtues. Indeed, failure to do so leaves virtue reliabilists unable to account for some of the most valued kinds or instances of knowledge” (Baehr 2006, p. 194).

  31. For example, the case of the epistemic egoist (see Zagzebski 2007). While there is some overlap between the egoist and the renegade, the two are distinct. It is true that, in the event that an epistemic superior argues for p (suppose that p is a claim about some event that occurred in the past), neither the egoist nor the renegade will accept p. The renegade rejects p on the grounds of a firmly held conviction that ~p, in spite of the superior’s arguments that produce defeaters for ~p. The egoist, however, refuses to assent to p simply on the grounds that she herself did not witness the event in question.


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I owe much to criticisms and suggestions from Paul Griffiths, Reinhard Hütter, and an anonymous Philosophia reviewer on an earlier draft of this article. I am also grateful to participants of the 2012 Society of Christian Philosophers Midwest Conference who offered insightful questions and feedback when a version of this paper was presented.

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Correspondence to Stewart Clem.

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Clem, S. The Epistemic Relevance of the Virtue of Justice. Philosophia 41, 301–311 (2013).

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  • Justice
  • Virtue epistemology
  • Testimony
  • Thomas Aquinas