- The Importance of Being Modest
Vrinda Dalmiya's Caring to Know is a rich and wide-ranging book. Its aim is to extend the insights of feminist care ethics to analytic virtue epistemology. According to the theory that Dalmiya defends, a good knower possesses certain intellectual virtues that are conductive to caring interpersonal encounters. Dalmiya argues that the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata gives us the resources to construct this conception of a good knower.
At a number of places in the book Dalmiya claims that her approach to the Mahābhārata is an instance of comparative philosophy: she takes some concepts from contemporary care ethics and analytic virtue epistemology and uses them to make sense of certain portions of the Mahābhārata. But treating the book merely as a work of comparative philosophy would be doing it an injustice. Dalmiya argues that interpreting the Mahābhārata as an epistemological text can help us make progress in some live debates in contemporary epistemology. However, I worry that the project isn't entirely successful in this last respect. In what follows, I explain why this is so.
I. The Project
Let me begin by laying out the contours of Dalmiya's project. What distinguishes the care-theoretic approach to morality from traditional moral theories is that it presupposes a conception of persons as relational entities, i.e. constituted by a network of social relationships that shape how they think, feel, and act. Since, in the care-theoretic approach, persons are constituted by their relations with particular others, being a good person involves being good toward those particular others. According to this view, then, a morally good person is attentive in her practical deliberation to the needs of particular others who depend on her for their well-being and to whom she therefore is responsible. This is significant: it means that certain patterns of deliberation that are treated as suboptimal by impartialist moral theories turn out to be morally ideal in this view. For instance, the good person may often be guided by her emotional attachments to her loved ones in figuring out what to do. Similarly, she may not always be guided by general moral principles in her decision making; rather, she might carefully weigh the needs of affected persons on a case-by-case basis. The good person, even when she makes the right choice, may not be able to respond adequately to the needs of all those who depend on her. Thus, she will [End Page 870] remain acutely aware of the responsibilities that go inevitably unfulfilled, and thus will be subject to moral uncertainty and feelings of guilt and regret. Dalmiya's aim is to extend this care-theoretic approach to epistemology.
In chapter 1, Dalmiya motivates this project. She distinguishes two different ways in which one could pursue a care-centered approach to epistemology. On both these views, care functions as an epistemic virtue, so both views give rise to a form of virtue epistemology.
1. Care as a Virtue of Mechanism. The first approach involves arguing that the practice of caring is itself conducive to gaining knowledge. For instance, a mother who cares for her child might thereby gain some knowledge of her child that she could not otherwise gain. According to this view, care is a virtue of mechanism, that is, a cognitive skill or process, like normal vision, and by this agent one can reliably acquire certain kinds of true beliefs.
2. Care as a Virtue of Character. The second approach involves using the conceptual resources of care ethics to offer a conception of a good knower. Just like a defender of care ethics, a care theorist in epistemology might argue that a good knower adopts caring attitudes toward others: she is attentive to the needs of particular others when she engages in projects of inquiry, and she can be fruitfully guided by her emotions, like anger or empathy, when she is trying to figure out certain truths about the world. Following this line of thinking, care functions not merely as a virtue of mechanism, but also as a virtue of character that guides inquiry in all domains...