Epistemology and Virtue Ethics

The aim of this post is to present Linda Zagzebski’s introductory remarks In an intriguing work namely Virtues of the mind: an inquiry into the nature of virtue and the ethical foundations of knowledge (1998, Cambridge University press). In the first few pages she highlights the significance of an epistemological theory which is modeled on the basis of  theories in virtue ethics.

In the introduction of the book Virtues of the Mind Linda Zagzebski says: ‘[T]he deepest disputes in epistemology focus on concepts that are quite obviously ethical and often are borrowed directly from theoretical moral discourse’ (One need to think of some examples for it; I am not sure that what are the examples). According to Zagzebski, almost all epistemological theories are modeled on act-based moral theories. According to Zagzebski, most ofthe theories in epistemology parallel to deontological ethical theories whereas reliabilism is parallel to consequentialism. According to her, no epistemological theory is clearly modeled on a pure virtue theory. According to Zagzebski, though Sosa introduced the idea of ‘intellectual virtue’ and mentioned the association of epistemology with virtue ethics, he did not develop it. Zagzebski thinks, after Sosa, ‘virtue epistemology’ has become another name for ‘reliabilism’. Zagzebski points out that, in recent years virtue ethics has developed a lot. She thinks that if a virtue based ethical theory has advantages over an act-based theory, it must be helpful for analyzing knowledge and justified beliefs.

In this book Zagzebski propose to develop a virtue theory that is inclusive enough to handle the intellectual as well as the moral virtues within a single theory. Zagzebski attempts to argue how such a theory can be used in analyzing some of the principal concepts in normative epistemology. Zagzebski propose to argue that intellectual virtue is the primary normative component of both justified belief and knowledge. In this book, she proposes to show how a virtue-based epistemology is preferable to a belief based epistemology for some of the same reasons that a virtue-based moral theory is preferable to an act-based moral theory.

According to Zagzebski, the evaluational aspect of knowledge and of the related states of justified, rational or warranted belief has led to numerous parallels between moral and epistemic discourse. As a result, epistemologists referred to epistemic duty, epistemic responsibility, epistemic norms, epistemic values and intellectual virtues.

Using moral theory in epistemology

According to Zagzebski, the relationship between ethics and normative epistemology is both close and uneasy. The ‘ethics of belief’ debate has called attention to the idea that we can be criticized for our beliefs and other cognitive states. Zagzebski comments that Christopher Hookway has argued that epistemic evaluation ought to focus on the activity of inquiry rather than on beliefs and that the ethics of inquiry will show the proper place of self-controlled personal responsibility in epistemic evaluation.

Contemporary epistemic theories and their ethical models

ccording to Zagzebski, a significant way in which contemporary epistemic theory parallels moral theory is that, the locus of evaluation is the individual belief, just as the locus of evaluation in most modern ethics has been the individual act. According to Zagzebski, epistemologists assume that the normative concepts of their inquiry are properties of their beliefs in one of the two senses of ‘belief’. Beliefs are either the properties of the psychological state of believing or they are properties of the propositional objects of such states. Disputes between foundationalists and coherentists, and between internalists and externalists are disputes about the nature of such properties.

Zagzebski holds that ‘to be justified’ can be understood as a way of ‘being right’. According to her, having a belief that is justified or rational or well-founded is one way of being right. According to her, another way to be right is to have whatever it takes to convert a true belief into knowledge. According to Zagzebski, in each case, the epistemological concept is the analogue of the right act. Just as the right act is usually the primary concept for moral philosophers, justified (rational, warranted, well-founded) belief is the primary concept for epistemologists.

Since contemporary epistemology is belief-based, the type of moral theory from which these theories borrow moral concepts is almost always an act-based theory, either deontological or consequentialist. According to Zagzebski, epistemologists often ask the following questions.

1. Does the belief violate any epistemic rules or any epistemic duties? Is it epistemically permissible, within one’s epistemic rights? Zagzebski comments that theories which attempt to answer these questions take deontological moral theories as their normative model.

2. Was the belief formed by a reliable process for obtaining the truth? Theories responding to this question are the forms of relaibilism, which structurally parallel to consequentialism.

Zagzebski argues, thus, both deontological and reliabilist theories in epistemology have structural similarities with act-based ethics.

Zagzebski notes that Sosa has argued that epistemologists should focus on intellectual virtue, a property of a person rather than a property of belief states. However, Zagzebski argues that Sosa has not adapted his concept of virtue from a virtue theory of morality and is act-based. Zagzebski points out that Sosa’s definition of intellectual virtue is: ‘an intellectual virtue is a quality bound to help maximize one’s surplus of truth over error. She notes that this definition is consequentialist. Zagzebski notes that Sosa’s idea of justification is deontological. According to Zagzebski, Sosa’s definition of justification involves the adoption of a belief through ‘cognizance of its according with the subject’s principles, including principles as to what beliefs are permissible in the circumstances as viewed by the subject’. Thus, Zagzebski claims, Sosa’s theory combines consequentialist and deontological approaches with an ‘informal concept of virtue’ that is not embedded in the aretaic ethics. Zagzebski points out that Sosa’s example of intellectual virtues are faculties such as eye sight and memory. She claims that these are not virtues at all in traditional virtue theory. Zagzebski argues that, therefore Sosa’s plea for a turn to the concept of intellectual virtue has little to do with the concept of intellectual virtue in the classical sense. However, Zagzebski points out that, in fairness to Sosa it should be noted that virtue ethicist have had little to say about intellectual virtue either.

With a brief account of various epistemologists, Linda Zagzebski conclude that no one has developed an epistemological theory that is based on a carefully developed virtue theory.


Virtues of the mind: an inquiry into the nature of virtue and the ethical foundations of knowledge, Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski. Cambridge University press, 1998.pp.xiiI-xvi, 1-20

2 comments on “Epistemology and Virtue Ethics

  1. Excellent piece. Well argued and thought provoking! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks Justin. I find this approach very interesting too.

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