Epistemic Situationism: Prolepsis 1

In Character as Moral Fiction, I argue that since virtue responsibilists’ define knowledge in terms of epistemic virtues, lack of epistemic virtue would lead to skepticism.  Linda Zagzebski, for instance, defines knowledge as “a state of true belief arising out of acts of intellectual virtue” (1996, p. 271).  Though Zagzebski is of course not the only responsibilist out there, her work is canonical.  I should therefore have taken into account the fact that, for Zagzebski, an act of intellectual virtue need not be an act of an intellectually virtuous person (someone with the trait in question); instead, such an act need merely be the act that such a person would undertake if they were characteristically motivated (p. 279).  Thus, when I argued from the lack of responsibilist traits to the lack of knowledge, I skipped a step, as Miller (forthcoming) and XXX (forthcoming) point out.

However, this step can be filled in.  Suppose for the sake of argument that it’s true that most people lack responsibilist virtues (if it’s false, then the original argument fails anyway).  The challenge for Zagzebski and her fellow travelers is to fend off skepticism: their preferred outcome is that, even if epistemic situationism is true, responsibilism does not entail skepticism.  Skepticism would straightforwardly follow if knowledge required possession of intellectual virtue.  But it threatens even if knowledge is defined more weakly in terms of acts of intellectual virtue.  After all, if most people lack intellectually virtuous traits, whence come these acts of intellectual virtue that give us knowledge?  Consider open-mindedness, for instance: if most people are not open-minded as such, but only good-mood-open-minded, how is it that they perform open-minded acts when in a neutral or bad mood?  Or consider intellectual courage: if most people are not intellectually courageous, but only intellectually-courageous-in-the-face-of-non-unanimous dissent, how is it that they perform intellectually courageous acts when faced with unanimous dissent?

One option is to insist that people actually possess more global intellectual virtues, but that just takes us back to square one.  A second option is to claim that the localizing conditions for the virtues people tend to possess are actually the default: good-mood-open-mindedness is all we really need to get lots of acts of open-mindedness because, by and large, people tend to be in good moods.  But this is preposterous; we evidently experience the whole gamut of moods.  A third option is to argue that, despite the lack of global intellectual virtues, people routinely commit acts of intellectual virtue; that is, they tend to do what the virtuous person would do for the reason the virtuous person would do it.  This looks awfully like a disguised way of claiming that people do in fact possess global intellectual virtues.  What would explain the fact that, despite their lack of virtue, people tend to be motivated as the virtuous person would be motivated and act as the virtuous person would act?  Epistemic luck?  Factitious virtue?  But if factitious virtues are admitted to the fold, then the distribution of virtue in the population may not be nearly as depressing as I’ve argued.

Even if the above fails, a related problem threatens Zagzebski’s (2010) “exemplarist” semantics for moral terms, which relies on widespread virtue possession because it relies on Kripkean direct reference to exemplars.  The basic idea of this view is that all other moral (and, presumably, epistemic[1]) terms are defined by reference to a good person.  So, for instance, a good person is someone like that (referring ostensively to a moral exemplar), and a right action is what a good person would perform in relevantly similar circumstances.  But if intellectually good people are rare, then there won’t be enough of them to ground the meaning of term ‘good person’.  And if the sole foundational term of Zagzebski’s semantics is ungrounded, so too are all the others.

One might think this is too quick.  After all, by relying on experts, we can refer to uranium despite the fact that it’s an extremely rare element.  Perhaps good people are like uranium: by relying on experts, we can refer to good people despite the fact that they’re rare.  One problem that besets this argument is the problem of expertise: who’s an expert on who’s a good person?  Good people, presumably.  The good people are to be identified by the good people – by themselves.  So instead of pointing and saying ‘that person’, the theory relies on pointing and saying ‘me’ or perhaps ‘us’.  This is troublesome for various reasons.  Since, according to Zagzebski (p. 52), our good person-ostending is guided by the sentiment of admiration, it suggests that good people need to admire themselves, and be admired by others who bother to think about them carefully, which in turn suggests that good people can’t be modest or humble.  Together with the admission that virtue is rare, it suggests that there will be a lot of misinformation about who is a good person.  And it seems to be inconsistent with Zagzebski’s own admission that “given the importance of moral understanding by as many people as possible in a moral community, it is important that the ability to identify exemplars is spread as widely as possible” (p. 51, note 6).

[1] So far, Zagzebski has not developed an exemplarist semantics for epistemic terms, but one can only imagine that this is her plan.

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