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  • Autonomy, Agency, and the Value of Enduring Beliefs
  • Jason Kawall (bio)

There has been much recent interest in questions of value in epistemology (for a thorough overview of this work, see Pritchard 2007), and in what follows I argue that epistemologists concerned with the value of true beliefs and knowledge would do well to devote attention to the enduring nature of beliefs, and in particular to the essential role that they play in constituting agents themselves.

I begin by considering an analogy commonly drawn by epistemologists between acts in the domain of ethics and beliefs in the domain of epistemology, and argue that it is flawed in important respects. I propose that a better, more fruitful analogue for belief would be desire, or a similarly enduring state of an agent. This revision of a commonly used analogy may be of some value in itself, but I further consider how focusing excessively upon the belief-act analogy (with its implicit emphasis on the process of belief-formation) can lead to flaws or shortcomings in our epistemic value theorizing.

Still, this initial work on analogies is intended as a preliminary step, providing an entryway to the more fundamental proposal that we ought to devote greater attention to the enduring nature of beliefs — a nature not captured by the belief-act analogy. I argue that our enduring beliefs help to make us who we are as agents, and it should not be surprising to find significant value to our beliefs arising through this essential, constitutive role. In particular, I argue that enduring, accessible beliefs [End Page 107] are crucial to the autonomy, self-control, and authenticity of agents. We would lack effective practical identities without such beliefs.

By seeing (i) that the common belief-act analogy can lead us astray by focusing excessively on the moment of belief-formation (rather than on beliefs as enduring states of agents), and (ii) that agents require enduring, accessible beliefs in order to possess effective practical identities, we are justified in holding (iii) that epistemologists would do well to devote more attention to the endurance and accessibility of our beliefs when considering questions of epistemic value. Of course one could embrace any of these three theses while rejecting the others — there are not strict entailment relations between them. But they do form a coherent whole — for example, to the extent that we recognize that the endurance and accessibility of our beliefs is crucial to their value, we should not be surprised to find that the belief-act analogy is flawed (precisely insofar as it fails to capture such concerns), and that we might do better to consider a belief-desire analogy. More broadly, an embrace of the positions defended here should encourage an examination of issues often overlooked in discussion of epistemic value.


It is common for epistemologists to draw upon work done in ethical theory in developing approaches within the theory of knowledge. Reliabilism (taken broadly) is often treated as being analogous to rule-utilitarianism in the domain of ethics (for example, Firth 1998).1 There are epistemic deontologists who speak of epistemic duties akin to moral duties, and who draw upon work by deontologists in the moral realm (e.g., Steup 2000, 2001a; Feldman 2001; Russell 2001). And in recent decades, particularly the last several years, there has been much interest in various forms of virtue epistemology that draw upon work in virtue ethics (e.g., Axtell, 2001; DePaul and Zagzebski, 2003; Fairweather and Zagzebski, 2004; Greco 2000; Montmarquet, 1993; Sosa 1991; Zagzebski 1996). In such work beliefs in the epistemic realm are commonly treated as the analogues of actions in the ethical realm. Indeed, it seems [End Page 108] that most every epistemologist who draws upon ethics makes appeal to such a comparison.

Jonathan Adler, in The Ethics of Belief, compares beliefs to a form of speech act: assertion (Adler 2002; see esp. 274-7). Ernest Sosa likens forming beliefs to an archer shooting at a target, where knowledge is (roughly) akin to an archer's skilful shot that hits its target (Sosa 2003). John Greco similarly uses various baseball analogies — such as hitting homeruns, or making difficult catches — in his discussions of...


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