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Can Virtue Reliabilism Explain the Value of Knowledge?

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 36, Number 3, September 2006
pp. 335-354 | 10.1353/cjp.2006.0015

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I Introduction

A fundamental intuition about knowledge is that it is more valuable than mere true belief. This intuition is pervasive. We have an almost universal desire to know and nearly no desire to believe the truth accidentally. However, it turns out to be extremely difficult to explain why knowledge is more valuable. Linda Zagzebski and others have called this the 'value problem.’ They argue that the value problem is particularly difficult to unravel for generic reliabilism. According to generic reliabilism, knowledge is true belief produced by reliable belief-forming processes or faculties. But, the critics argue, 'the reliability of the source of a belief cannot explain the [value difference] between knowledge and true belief.’ For reliably formed beliefs allegedly are valuable only insofar as they tend to be true. So if a belief is already true, then the fact that it is also reliably formed adds no further value to the belief. In general, the good of the product makes the reliability of its source good but the reliability of the source does not add value to the product. The critics, furthermore, believe that even if generic reliabilism could find a reason that a reliable source is independently valuable, this would not solve the value problem, because the value of a cause does not transfer to its effect. If we want to guarantee that a belief-producing source confers value on its outcome, we must shift our focus from the belief alone to the overall state of knowing p. For a source can confer value on its effect only if cause and product are internally connected.

Virtue reliabilism is a common response to these difficulties. Virtue reliabilism says that knowledge is true belief produced by one of the agent’s intellectual virtues, i.e., one of her enduring and reliable cognitive abilities. The focus shifts from evaluating the belief itself to the state the agent is in when she is responsible for believing something true. Virtue reliabilism, it is said, thus has more resources for addressing the value problem. When a true belief is virtuously produced, the truth of the belief is attributable to the agent as his or her own doing. When it is produced accidentally, its truth is attributable to lucky circumstances. Forming a true belief in a virtuous way is thus more valuable than doing so accidentally, because the agent deserves more credit in the former case. While the extra credit the knower is due does not make the known belief more valuable, it supposedly adds value to the overall state of knowing that p. A similar response is apparently unavailable to the generic reliabilist, because (1) she fails to remove focus from the true belief to the overall state of knowing that p, and (2) she makes no distinction between the true beliefs that derive from stable and reliable dispositions and those that derive from 'strange and fleeting’ mechanisms.

In this paper I argue that the appearance that virtue reliabilism is better equipped to handle the value problem is illusory. More specifically, I argue (1) that to solve the value problem the generic reliabilist need not make a shift from a focus on evaluating the belief itself to a focus on the overall state of knowing that p, and (2) that it is far from clear that a principled distinction can be drawn between the reliable belief-forming methods that are grounded in the knower’s intellectual virtues, and those that are not. Without a principled distinction of this sort it cannot be established that the extra value of knowledge derives from the extra credit the knower is due. At the end of the paper, I argue that virtue reliabilism fails to address another side of the value problem, which is that of explaining why knowing p is sometimes more valuable than being justified in believing truly that p. I conclude by considering what it would take for a theory to explain this value difference.

II The Machine-Product Model of Belief

Zagzebski compares the reliability of the source of a belief to the reliability of an espresso maker. This tasty cup of espresso is not made any better by the fact that it comes...

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