5 Epistemic Value, Duty, and Virtue

Guy Axtell

Chapter Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, readers will be able to:

  1. Identify questions about value associated with the pursuit of knowledge and justified belief.
  2. Critically evaluate claims about epistemic entitlement, such as the assertion that a person’s beliefs or attitudes are either responsibly or irresponsibly held.
  3. Demonstrate analytic writing and reasoning skills in articulating philosophical concepts of epistemic value, duty, and virtue or vice.

Epistemic Value and the Value Problem

You need to go to Larissa, but you do not know the way. We can agree that someone who knows the way would be a good guide. But what about someone who has “a true opinion about which way was the right way,” but who hasn’t gone there and isn’t directly acquainted with the path? (Plato [ca. 380 BCE] 2015, 97b). In the Platonic dialogue Meno, Socrates asks his friend whether such a person with “right opinion concerning that which other people know . . . will not be a worse guide than one who knows” (97b). Meno concurs that this person would not be a worse guide because the conveyed belief, or guidance, would be essentially the same. But upon receiving this response, Socrates observes an oddity: if true belief can serve our practical purpose of successfully guiding action just as well, then why do we value knowledge over true belief? Indeed, why (and how) do we try to distinguish knowledge from merely true belief?

Bust of Plato from the Vatican Museum. Photo by Dudva via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 4.0

These searching questions leave Meno in the uncomfortable, perplexed state of mind the Greeks termed aporia. Meno now seems to be without resources to answer Socrates’s initial question about the nature of knowledge. But Socrates immediately offers Meno a way out. It seems correct that an assertion or transmitted belief, insofar as it is true, would serve practical ends as well as would knowledge. But for the testifier in our example, the belief lacks justification, and in sharing it that testifier would be “offering guesswork in lieu of knowledge” (98b). If we abstract from the single-iteration cases in which the belief happens to be true, we find that relying upon luck, guesswork, or weakly supported beliefs is quite unlikely to serve well. If so based, our own beliefs are not likely to “stay put” even for us. So, “True opinions, for as long as they remain, are fine things and do nothing but good. But they don’t hang around for long. They escape from a man’s mind, so that they are not worth much until one tethers them” with a logos or “account” (97e–98a).

Socrates does not say much about the nature of this logos. It might refer to the good reasons for a belief that an agent finds available upon self-reflection. It could also be something more like an explanation for why the agent reliably formed the belief—something that makes clear why it was more than extreme good luck that they came to hold this true belief, rather than some other false belief. But it is clear, firstly, that Socrates is talking about something like “justification” or “warrant,” to use terms debated in contemporary epistemology (see Chapter 2 of this volume, “Epistemic Justification” by Todd R. Long). Secondly, it is clear that he takes this “tethering” of the belief by a logos to provide what differentiates knowledge from true belief. Thirdly, he clearly maintains that the stability which results from such tethering affirms why we should value knowledge above merely true belief. Hence, Plato (ca. 428–347 BCE) is seen as a source of the traditional, “justified true belief” (JTB) analysis of knowledge (for more on the JTB account, see Chapter 1 of this volume, “The Analysis of Knowledge” by Brian C. Barnett).

John Dewey at the University of Chicago in 1902. Photo by Eva Watson-Schütze via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

The sufficiency of this traditional analysis has been challenged in recent years, and some have even questioned the necessity of reflective justification for knowledge possession. But we owe Plato for having vividly presented the concern about what we mean in attributing knowledge to someone, together with a question about why we value different epistemic standings as we do. While the value problem is approached in different ways by different epistemologists, facing these questions head-on has arguably added much depth to contemporary epistemological debates. It has helped the field to expand beyond a mere “spectator” theory of knowledge, which American philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) characterized as an account which makes the metaphor of vision primary, so that knowing is fundamentally a passive, or “beholding” relation between an individual “subject” knower and an external “object” known ([1929] 2008, 19). For as epistemologist Alvin Goldman points out, while a few decades ago epistemology and ethics were “positioned in opposite corners of the philosophical establishment, the former the epitome of ‘theoretical’ philosophy and the latter the epitome of ‘practical’ philosophy, with little contact made between them, today an active interest in both analogies and disanalogies between ethics and epistemology abounds” (2015, 132–3). [1]

Important for appreciating the connection between ethics and epistemology is the concept of normativity. A normative task does not aim at description or causal explanation, but rather at assessment or guidance of some kind, according to values (norms) deemed pertinent to some practice (the value of art or particular artworks, for example), or the domain of discourse (ethics, politics, economics, epistemics, aesthetics, etc.). What has been discovered—or perhaps recovered—through recent interest in the value problem is that normative epistemology and normative ethics have important parallels. This is why duty, consequentialist, and virtue theories in ethics each have analogues in contemporary epistemological theories. [2] The study of value (axiology)—in particular the study of epistemic value (epistemological axiology)—helps to highlight the similarities and differences of ethical and epistemic evaluation. Moreover, similarities or analogies imply something quite different from identity: their claim is weaker than the claim that we can reduce the one kind of value to the other. The value problem is best addressed by carefully distinguishing the kinds of value in play, rather than reducing value to a single kind. So, as Duncan Pritchard (2014) insists, to understand and respond to the problem we must first recognize that different kinds of value (epistemic, ethical, practical) are in play.

The claim of veritism (also truth monism or T-monism) is that truth is the natural “goal” or “aim” of belief (since belief is the acceptance of a proposition’s truth), and true belief is the fundamental epistemic good. While truth is, as in the traditional account, a condition on knowledge, the value of truth is not grounded in knowledge or anything else. Other epistemic states or standings (e.g., justification or warrant) are good as they promote the epistemic value of true belief. T-monism has many critics as well as defenders. Linda Zagzebski (1996), for example, argues that (externalist) reliabilism (a view introduced in Chapter 2 of this volume) offers an inadequate account of epistemological axiology, or epistemic value. [3] Although Pritchard (2014) defends reliabilism and T-monism, he makes the useful methodological point that authors on both sides of the debate are sometimes guilty of confusing “epistemic value” (associated with truth or other epistemic ends) with “the value of the epistemic” (the instrumental value of holding true beliefs, knowledge, or understanding for realizing our moral or practical ends). [4] Epistemic value does not imply value proper, or value for life (Pritchard 2014, 112). [5]

Opposed to epistemic value monism is epistemic value pluralism. This axiological thesis denies the T-monist claim that the natural aim of belief is truth. The pluralist finds no clear hierarchy among epistemic goods, but rather an ununified order of values. A Jamesian point often discussed as a challenge to T-monism is that “truth” as the fundamental epistemic good is ambiguous between a positive and negative good: “Believe truth! Shun error!” (James [1896] 2009, sec. VII, 18). Seen as prescribing how to conduct inquiry, these two commands are not the same. Instead of marching in lockstep they can sometimes come apart, leading to different prescriptions. As an example, think about beliefs derived from testimony. If I take my epistemic aim as acquiring as many true beliefs as possible (“Believe truth!”), then I should believe any claim made by any source of testimony (friends, books, media, etc.) and not worry that I will very likely acquire lots of false beliefs along with true ones. If I instead think I am a better epistemic agent to avoid false beliefs as much as possible (“Shun error!”), I will be far more cautious and risk-averse in what I come to accept.

William James in 1890 via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

This shows that the epistemic good of true belief is not as unified as it may at first appear. Further, if there is no single best way for agents to balance these two ideals of inquiry (the “councils” of intellectual courage and caution, as James describes them), then recognition of the range of ways to achieve a balance becomes an argument in support of the possibility of reasonable disagreement even among evidence-sharing epistemic peers (Kelly 2013).

Critics of veritism have either (a) maintained a value monism but elevated to final value status a different aim, such as understanding; or (b) jettisoned monism’s “primary aim” thesis in order to embrace “radical pluralism about both the nature of the epistemic and about epistemic value” (Pritchard 2016, 407). On this latter, pluralist view, “there is no base-level account of the epistemic available, and nor is there a fundamental epistemic good—i.e., fundamental in the sense that the epistemic value of other epistemic goods is reducible to the fundamental epistemic good” (407). Here we are presented with an array of the epistemically desirable—truth, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, justification, reliability, cognitive agency, explanatory power, and so on—but “with no straightforward hierarchy in play” (407). [6]

The Ethics of Belief

The ethics of belief raises questions of our responsibility (praiseworthiness or blameworthiness) for how we conduct our inquiries and settle our beliefs. It is a broad and perhaps ambiguous phrase, which Andrew Chignell (2018) describes as referring to a cluster of questions at the intersection of epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind, and psychology. Susan Haack (2001) defends an “overlap model” relating epistemic and ethical evaluation. On this model we should not reduce epistemic value to ethical values, but having first properly differentiated them, we can then go on to acknowledge a good deal of overlap or “traffic” between them. Moral responsibility is widely held to have an epistemic condition, the failing of which is the reason why not knowing something, when the ignorance is non-culpable, is generally an excusing condition for one’s wrongful action. [7] Doxastic responsibility, the kind of responsibility someone has for what they believe, seems similarly to draw from the ethical side: although we lack the direct control over our beliefs that we often have over our actions, we have enough indirect control over how well or poorly we inquire that some portion of our beliefs are subject to moral evaluation.

Haack argues that the portion of our beliefs that are properly censured on moral grounds is substantially smaller than the full set of our epistemically unjustified beliefs. For there are numerous cases where one’s belief may lack epistemic justification, but where the agent is not vicious or blameworthy for believing something on scanty evidence. This may occur because the person’s believing something unjustifiably is due to “cognitive inadequacy” and does not involve willed ignorance, negligence, or the covert (self-deceptive) operation of hopes or fears. To demonstrate, Haack revisits the classic debate between the evidentialist W. K. Clifford (1849–1879) and the permissivist William James (1842–1910). [8] The focus of James’s rebuttal of Clifford (highlighted in Table 1 below) was the latter’s bold, impermissivist claim:

William Kingdon Clifford by Leslie Stephen and Fredick Pollock via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

Clifford’s principle: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” ([1877] 1999, 77)

It is clear that the presupposed sense of “wrongness” in Clifford’s principle is an ethical sense. But the idea of doxastic responsibility, and (accordingly) of projects of guidance, also raise issues about “ought implies can” (control as a precondition of responsibility) and about the degree of control humans have over their doxastic attitudes. If all beliefs are completely involuntary, it would hardly make sense to speak of doxastic responsibility. That we are responsible for our actions does not mean we are responsible for our beliefs or that we can change them in the same way. This would likely be false. [9] Differences over these issues help explain why debate over the ethics of belief often involves competing models of the relationship between epistemic, ethical, and pragmatic value. But Haack provides a quite helpful taxonomy of five models of the relationship between ethical and epistemic evaluation. It is worth reproducing the taxonomy verbatim:

  1. that epistemic appraisal is a subspecies of ethical appraisal—henceforth, for short, the special-case thesis ;
  2. that positive/negative epistemic appraisal is distinct from, but invariably associated with, positive/negative ethical appraisal—the correlation thesis ;
  3. that there is, not invariable correlation, but partial overlap, where positive/negative epistemic appraisal is associated with positive/negative ethical appraisal—the overlap thesis ;
  4. that ethical appraisal is inapplicable where epistemological appraisal is relevant—the independence thesis ;
  5. that epistemic appraisal is distinct from, but analogous to, ethical appraisal—the analogy thesis . (Haack 2001, 21)
Susan Haack at the University of Miami in Spring 2005 by Atfyfe via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

Haack’s taxonomy brings a good deal of clarity to an oft-muddled debate. Zagzebski’s early “pure virtue theory” is a clear instance of the special-case thesis. Clifford can be seen to presuppose the correlation thesis in coining the term “ethics of belief,” yet other evidentialists like Trent Dougherty (2014) criticize that thesis and appear to endorse the independence thesis instead. [10] The overlap thesis is the most plausible, according to Haack. She argues that it helps to clarify and properly restrict the domain in which instances of believing may be judged on ethical as well as epistemic grounds. Clifford’s principle presupposes the correlation thesis: it assumes, Haack points out, that “whenever a person believes unjustifiably, his so believing is always also subject, all things considered, to unfavorable moral appraisal” (24). But, Haack argues, “there is, not an invariable correlation, but partial overlap, where positive/negative epistemic appraisal is associated with positive/negative ethical appraisal” (21). As she explains, “Unlike the correlation thesis, which requires that unjustified believing be always (at least prima facie) harmful and always something for which the subject may properly be held responsible, the overlap thesisJ [11] requires only that unjustified believing sometimes causes (at least prima facie) harm and sometimes be something for which the subject may properly be held responsible” (25).

John Rawls in 1971. Photo by Alec Rawls via Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

Haack’s application of the overlap thesis to the ethics of belief functions by (a) restricting the domain in which instances of believing may be judged on ethical as well as epistemic grounds; (b) identifying circumstances that serve to exonerate individuals from unfortunate epistemic failures; and (c) distinguishing appraisals of character from epistemic and ethical appraisal, and role-specific responsibilities from those more generally appropriate to all of us. [12] This approach arguably delivers an ethics of belief that is moderately permissivist and supportive of William James’s plea for a “spirit of inner toleration” ([1896] 2009, sec. X) and of what the political philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) termed “reasonable pluralism” (1993, 4). Barring more specific objections, Rawls’s form of permissivism may align with Thomas Jefferson’s view in Notes on the State of Virginia : “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” (1787, Query XVII, “Religion,” 285). This is an advantage in that we are not bound to over-easily associate disagreement with error or irrationality. The view also appreciates the holistic and trait-dependent reasoning that attends our deepest-held or “worldview” beliefs—the many different kinds of evidence and the many contextual factors including upbringing or early educational influences. These tend to weigh heavily upon reasoning in domains of controversial beliefs, such as morals, politics, philosophy, and religion. But another advantage is that this approach remains concerned (as was Clifford) with the many harms and injustices that us/them or ingroup/outgroup beliefs, as a prime example, inflict upon others. It remains what I call a permissive yet risk-aware ethics of belief (Axtell 2020).

This leads directly to our next topic, but the ethics of belief remains a topic of lively debate, so I conclude our discussion of it with a table describing the key issues and arguments between Cliffordian moral evidentialism and proponents of a more permissive ethics of belief, as James presented them in his famous 1896 paper “The Will to Believe.” James primarily intended to rebut Clifford’s principle, which appeared to demand agnosticism (withholding or suspending judgment) in a wide range of cases , and to rule out virtuous faith ventures including belief in a broad, philosophically stated “religious hypothesis.”

Table 1 – Clifford vs. James on the Ethics of Belief [13]
Dimension of Comparison The Cliffordian Evidentialist as “Faith-Vetoer” The Jamesian Believer
A. Primary Aim Avoid believing what is false! Believe what is true!
B. Risk of Losing the Truth Remaining in ignorance; through skeptical paralysis, never coming to believe something that is true. Falling into error; through credulous manner of uptake, coming to believe something that is false.
C. Guiding Rule or Prescription Evidential reasoning should always prevail in our deliberations:
“The rightness or wrongness of belief in a doctrine (proposition) depends only upon the nature of the evidence for it, and not upon what the doctrine is” (Clifford, EOB, 102). Stated negatively, “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (EOB, 77).
In specific instances, pragmatic reasoning should be treated as a normal element in making up our minds:
“The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option [14] that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds ” (James, WB, sec. IV).
D. Applied to the Religious Hypothesis (RH) Withhold assent to the RH, as to more particular over-beliefs, until sufficient evidence is present. An agnostic stance of suspension is uniquely rational, and deontologically required. “The lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith,” since the option between the alternatives of accepting or doing without the RH are argued to meet the conditions of a “genuine option.”
E. Justifying Moral Argument Public duty: There is a public duty to withhold assent, based on harm done by irresponsible and dishonest habits of belief-acquisition. Private right: There is a private right to “faith ventures,” and there is value in a robust marketplace of spiritual and philosophical “over-beliefs”; we ought to promote an “inner tolerance” for them when they are tolerant themselves.
F. Risk-Related Primary Intellectual Virtue Intellectual caution: Since “we must avoid error,” we should maintain the “skeptical balance,” and remain uncommitted until sufficient evidence is presented either for or against a belief. Intellectual courage: Since “we must know the truth” on some questions of existential concern, we may have to dare to be wrong. Under the conditions of the genuine option, we may commit to belief “in advance” of sufficient evidence, yet continue to inquire.
G. Motivating Passion Fear: “Better risk loss of truth than chance of error, —that is your faith-vetoer’s exact position” (WB,  sec. X). [But Clifford would reverse this, with the evidentialist exemplifying fearless open inquiry into truth, and his opponent fear and intellectual dishonesty.] Hope: “If religion be true and the evidence for it still be insufficient, I do not wish . . . to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side” (WB,  sec. X).

Recent Trends in Normative Epistemology

Study of the value problem and of epistemological axiology more generally has been part of a broader trend that includes the development in recent decades of social, feminist, performance, virtue, and vice epistemologies. These accounts themselves display numerous overlaps not just in what epistemological views they claim to supersede, but also in what they affirm as the proper scope of normative epistemology (see also in this volume Chapter 7, “Social Epistemology” by William D. Rowley, and Chapter 8, “Feminist Epistemologies” by Monica C. Poole). Authors associated with these trends have explored the relationship between knowledge and power, the relationship between individual and group knowing, and the relationship between coming to know and performing inquiry responsibly. This section highlights just three of the many important recent developments in normative epistemology: virtue epistemology, vice epistemology, and the emerging debate over epistemic paternalism within social epistemology.

Virtue epistemology is the philosophical study of the nature, identity, and epistemological significance of intellectual virtues. While such virtues may play a role in the analysis of knowledge (see Chapter 1 of this volume), virtue epistemology covers a range of recent approaches that grant characterological concepts (including specific habits, dispositions, or strategies which constitute excellences or “virtues” for agents engaged in inquiry) an important or even fundamental role in epistemology. [15] Virtues such as intellectual humility have received a good deal of attention, along with open-mindedness and others . [16]

While most “character epistemology” has focused on one particular class of character traits—virtues (whether in the broader “intellectual” or the more restrictive “epistemic” sense)—a good deal of interest has recently been shown in the complementary focus on intellectual vices , often directly informed by studies in social or cognitive psychology. Quassim Cassam’s Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political (2019) somewhat ironically mirrors the title of Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind (1996), noted for having spurred a great deal of initial interest in virtue or character epistemology. Cassam defines vice epistemology as “the philosophical study of the nature, identity, and epistemological significance of intellectual vices. Such vices include gullibility, dogmatism, prejudice, closed-mindedness, and negligence. These are intellectual character vices, that is, intellectual vices that are also character traits” (2016, 159). [17]

Quassim Cassam at Senate House by Philafrenzy via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Given that our intellectual virtues and vices have social implications, character epistemology overlaps with social epistemology, which studies how social relationships and interactions affect the epistemic properties of individuals, groups, and collectives (see again Chapter 7 of this volume). These relationships may include existing or ideal divisions of labor in the search for knowledge and questions of power relations. Social epistemology raises socially significant questions both about our epistemic agency in the world and about the efficacy of our epistemic practices. Some of these questions involve the improvability of our habits of inquiry. Education, of course, offers the opportunity for such improvement, but there is controversy about the need and justification for more overt policies or interventions to correct for flawed or biased thinking.

“Paternalism” refers to actions or policies intended to aid others for their own good—but without their consent. Helmet and seatbelt laws, for example, require something of us for our own safety, and we aren’t free to just ignore them. But our inquiry and access to information can be similarly interfered with on the paternalistic ground that this is for our own epistemic benefit. Indeed, epistemic practices which have a paternalistic profile affect our private and public lives, often in ways of which we are not aware. Epistemic paternalism (EP) provides a rationale for such interferences; in its primary sense EP is a normative thesis, a thesis of advocacy for (or justifiable participation in) some specific interferences or limitations in the ways in which we might seek knowledge. Restricted access to information sometimes improves people’s reasoning and supports veritistic outcomes, as for instance in “blinded” scientific experiments, and in judicial rules prohibiting the disclosure of a defendant’s past criminal profile to a jury. But what entities are entitled to undertake a paternalistic practice, and in virtue of which features does such entitlement accrue to them? For example, are media sites like Facebook permitted to paternalistically tag or remove “fake news” or extreme content? Should they be expected to have policies to filter out certain potentially harmful content, and to remediate the ill-effects of “echo chambers” where biased and polarized ideologies are fostered?

The debate over justified EP at times leans on the interpretation of findings in psychology, which are often claimed to suggest intractable human irrationality, biases, and problematic heuristics (i.e., the shortcuts by which we make quick judgments, usually subconscious and automatic). But while biased reasoners might be one threat to the legitimacy of democratic practices, so might be certain censoring or coercive testimonial practices rationalized by the epistemic improvements they promise. So, paternalistic epistemic practices and their proper limits are today a topic of interest, at least where contemporary social epistemology and concerns for political legitimacy overlap. Alvin Goldman introduced and defended EP early in social epistemology’s emergence (1991). While epistemic paternalism may appear to suggest epistemic injustice, EP’s defenders think that intelligent interventions can in fact be a form of epistemic justice, insofar as applications of epistemic paternalism respect persons as actual knowers and facilitate their epistemic capacities.

Distinguishing between Epistemology’s Normative Projects

Alvin I. Goldman, who first introduced process reliabilism. University of Michigan News and Information Services Photographs, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. License: CC BY 4.0

Questions about epistemological axiology that interest many philosophers today—questions of what epistemic goals there are and why we value knowledge, understanding, and wisdom—were not always considered very central questions in epistemology. The traditional project of the analysis of knowledge (undertaken in Part I of this book) remains one of epistemologists’ primary tasks, but the turn to the study of knowing agents (rather than propositions known), and to collectives (rather than just individuals) broadens and transforms contemporary normative epistemology (hence this chapter opens Part II of the book—Expanded Epistemology). It requires us to rethink issues about how we inquire and how we should conceive the relationship between epistemic and moral evaluation. Thus, epistemologists are increasingly concerned with agency both of individuals and collectives, and with the role of particular virtues and vices (epistemic or moral) in inquiry. Contemporary normative epistemology also hosts lively debate over the importance of concepts of responsibility, reasonableness, willful ignorance, and epistemic justice/injustice. These and related concepts are important for projects of guidance aimed at addressing real-world agents and problems of diversity among beliefs—concerns discussed here under the ethics of belief. But these projects of guidance or amelioration (improvement of performance) involve human psychology and attention to the non-ideal agents we actually are. For these reasons, it is important to clearly distinguish the forward-looking concerns with guidance from the project of conceptual analysis of knowledge.

Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways is the evaluation of responsible belief similar to the evaluation of responsible action? In what ways is the evaluation of belief different from the evaluation of actions?
  2. What is the highest epistemic good? Is there one main epistemic good, or are there several?
  3. How are norms of rationality connected with norms of the ethics of belief? Should our ethics of belief be permissive or impermissive? If permissive, does that mean any belief is a reasonable one, or are there limits to reasonable belief and reasonable disagreement?
  4. W. K. Clifford argued that “It is wrong always, anywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” ([1877] 1999, 77), while Thomas Jefferson argued that “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” (1787, Query XVII, “Religion,” 285). Are Clifford (the evidentialist) and Jefferson (the permissivist) speaking about the same kinds of harms? Whose stance on the ethics of belief do you most agree with, and why?
  5. Is the study of intellectual “virtues” and “vices” valuable? Can such virtues as intellectual humility and open-mindedness be taught? Are virtues simply skills, or is there a motivational component to virtues that distinguishes their acquisition from, say, acquiring the skills of riding a bike?
  6. What examples can you find of epistemic paternalist practices, for instance, in medicine, in the law, in education? Are there justified instances of interfering with people’s inquiry without their consent, for their own epistemic good, or does the value of personal autonomy always outweigh the interest in promoting truth?

Further Reading

Bernal, Amiel, and Guy Axtell, eds. 2020 . Epistemic Paternalism Reconsidered: Conceptions, Justification, and Implications. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Carter, J. Adam, Duncan Pritchard, and John Turri. 2018. “The Value of Knowledge.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-value/ .

Chignell, Andrew. 2018. “The Ethics of Belief.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/ .

Clifford, W. K. (1877) 1999. “The Ethics of Belief.” In The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays, edited with introduction by Timothy J. Madigan, 70–96. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Dunn, Jeffrey. n.d. “Epistemic Consequentialism.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/epis-con/ .

James, William. (1896) 2009. “The Will to Believe.” In The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. Urbana, IL: Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/26659/26659-h/26659-h.htm .


Axtell, Guy. 2001. “Teaching William James’ ‘The Will to Believe.’” Teaching Philosophy 24 (4): 325–45.

———. 2020. “Well-Founded Belief and the Contingencies of Epistemic Location.” In Well-Founded Belief: New Essays on the Epistemic Basing Relation, edited by Patrick Bondy and J. Adam Carter, 275–304 . London: Routledge.

Battaly, Heather, ed. 2010. Virtue and Vice, Moral and Epistemic. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

——— , ed. 2019. The Routledge Handbook of Virtue Epistemology. London: Routledge .

Berker, Selim. 2013. “The Rejection of Epistemic Consequentialism.” Philosophical Issues 23: 363–87.

Carter, J. Adam, Jesper Kallestrup, and Duncan Pritchard, eds. 2016. “Intellectual Humility.” Special issue, Logos & Episteme 7 (4).

Cassam, Quassim. 2016. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist 99: 159–80.

——— . 2019. Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chignell, Andrew. 2018. “The Ethics of Belief.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/ .

Christian, Rose Ann. 2009. “Restricting the Scope of the Ethics of Belief: Haack’s Alternative to Clifford and James.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77 (3): 461–93.

Church, Ian M., and Peter L. Samuelson. 2019. Intellectual Humility: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Science. Bloomsbury Academic.

Clifford, W. K. (1877) 1999. “The Ethics of Belief.” In The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays, edited with introduction by Timothy J. Madigan, 70–96. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Dewey, John. (1929) 2008. “Escape from Peril.” In The Later Works of John Dewey, 19251953. Volume 4: 1929, The Quest for Certainty, ed. Jo Ann Boydston, 3–20. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dougherty, Trent. 2014. “The ‘Ethics of Belief’ is Ethics (Period): Reassigning Responsibilism.” In The Ethics of Belief: Individual and Social, edited by Jonathan Matheson and Rico Vitz, 146–66. Oxford Scholarship Online.

Fairweather, Abrol, ed. 2014. Virtue Epistemology Naturalized: Bridges between Virtue Epistemology and Philosophy of Science . New York: Springer.

Fairweather, Abrol, and Owen Flanagan. 2014. Naturalizing Virtue Epistemology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldman, Alvin I. 1991. “Epistemic Paternalism: Communication Control in Law and Society.” Journal of Philosophy 88: 113–31.

——— . 2015. “Reliabilism, Veritism, and Epistemic Consequentialism.” Episteme 12 (2): 131–43.

Greco, Daniel, and Brian Hedden. 2016. “Uniqueness and Metaepistemology.” Journal of Philosophy 113 (8): 365–95.

Haack, Susan. 2001. “The Ethics of Belief, Reconsidered.” In Knowledge, Truth, and Duty: Essays on Epistemic Justification, Responsibility, and Virtue, edited by Matthias Steup, 21–33. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jackson, Elizabeth. 2020. “Epistemic Paternalism, Epistemic Permissivism, and Standpoint Epistemology.” In Epistemic Paternalism Reconsidered: Conceptions, Justification, and Implications, edited by Amiel Bernal and Guy Axtell, 199–216. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

James, William. (1896) 2009. “The Will to Believe.” In The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. Urbana, IL: Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/26659/26659-h/26659-h.htm .

Jefferson, Thomas. 1787. Notes on the State of Virginia. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. (Preserved by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.) http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/JefVirg.html .

Kelly, Thomas. 2013. “Evidence can be Permissive.” In Contemporary Debates in Epistemology, edited by Matthias Steup, John Turri, and Ernest Sosa, 298–311. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kelp, Christopher, and John Greco, eds. 2020. Virtue-Theoretic Epistemology: New Methods and Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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  1. We should note that I am for simplicity introducing the value problem as a single problem, whereas Pritchard (2007) argues that we should really distinguish at least three overlapping sub-questions.
  2. See Goldman (2015) and Berker (2013) debating the relationship between T-monism (a theory I introduce in the next paragraph) and consequentialist accounts of epistemic normativity. See also the Ethics book in the Introduction to Philosophy open textbook series for more on duty, consequentialist, and virtue theories of ethics.
  3. Zagzebski (1996) charges Goldman, Pritchard, and other defenders of a reliabilist account of epistemic value with what is now called the “swamping problem.” If the value of an epistemic state is only instrumentally valuable relative to a further good and that good is already present in that item, then it can confer no additional value. The value of reliability will be “swamped” by these further values. Thus, the notion that a belief must be reliably formed in order to constitute knowledge seems unable to tell us why knowledge is more valuable than merely true belief. Pritchard (2014) defends the adequacy of a fairly traditional truth-centered monistic axiology, but he doesn’t think it implies a consequentialist way of thinking about epistemic value (as its critics charge), and as the swamping problem assumes. Goldman (2015) relatedly endorses only a formal similarity between reliabilism and consequentialism. He urges us not to run together “(A) a theory of epistemic value called ‘veritism’ and (B) a theory of belief justifiedness called ‘process reliabilism’” (139). Practices, rules, and institutional arrangements, Goldman argues, “should be evaluated [consequentially] in terms of ‘downstream’ effects such as the truth-ratio of jury verdicts” (140). But this leaves open that agents and any particular beliefs they hold are evaluated in other ways. Indeed, reliabilists like Goldman hold that epistemic standing is assessed by the reliable etiology or causal history of the belief, which is an “upstream” matter. So, both Goldman and Pritchard warn us not to associate too closely epistemic value truth monism with consequentialism.
  4. Pritchard (2014) finds a crucial ambiguity in the use of the term “epistemic value.” He thinks it should be restricted to the “attributive” sense: something that is valuable in a specifically epistemic way. He argues that veritism’s critics confuse the meaning by understanding “epistemic value” in the “predicative” sense: as something that is both epistemic and of value (e.g., morally valuable, practically valuable, or aesthetically valuable).
  5. Similarly, we should not simply presuppose a close overlap between issues in the “ethics of belief” (introduced in the next section) and the “epistemology of disagreement” (introduced in Chapter 7 of this volume), even though both are often divided between proponents of “uniqueness” and of “permissivism.” See Greco and Hedden (2016) for a defense of uniqueness and impermissivism. See Jackson (2020) for a defense of a permissivist ethics of belief based upon epistemic permissivism and standpoint epistemology. See Axtell (2020) for further discussion of differences between epistemic assessment and guidance, especially with respect to beliefs in domains of controversial views.
  6. Epistemic value pluralists sometimes also reject the sweeping primacy claims that “internalists” and “externalists” respectively make about the relationship between “propositional justification” and doxastic norms (see Chapter 2 of this volume for the internalism/externalism debate). Propositional justification is a property of propositions and evidence, while doxastic norms apply to agents and their beliefs. These different norms seem to be intertwined (Melis 2016), but when epistemologists discuss their relationship, they often present them in a more dichotomous way that fuels an incompatibility between internalism and externalism.
  7. See Robichaud and Wieland (2017) for an exploration of the epistemic condition on moral responsibility. Note also that it may be useful to take our beliefs as “actions” of a sort, and moral and epistemic responsibility as to some degree intertwined, even as one allows that beliefs have not nearly the same voluntary quality that most actions do. Virtue theorists and pragmatists have highlighted these connections, and regulative epistemology and performance epistemology are approaches which develop this. See Roberts and Wood (2007) and Vargas (2016) for exemplary work in this area.
  8. The permissivism/impermissivism debate in the ethics of belief has focused around whether there is any “slack” between a body of evidence and the propositional attitude it supports. Impermissivism, more formally, is closely associated with the rational uniqueness principle (RU) and permissivism with its rejection. RU holds that for a given set of evidence E and a proposition p, only one doxastic attitude about p is rational. So, impermissivists hold that only one doxastic attitude about p is epistemically rational (belief, disbelief, or suspension of judgment). RU leaves little if any place for permissible beliefs that are not reducible to epistemic duties to believe, disbelieve, or suspend judgment. One who does not exhibit the single appropriate doxastic attitude must be committing a performance error. So, is disagreement always (or regularly) evidence of a rational failing on the part of one or more party to the dispute? Permissivism, through rejecting RU, rejects this view of disagreement, and defends the possibility of reasonable or blameless disagreement, at least in domains of controversial views (philosophy, morals, politics, religion, aesthetics, etc.). Of course, there are more and less moderate versions of permissivism and impermissivism defended in the literature. See Chapter 7 of this volume for more on RU and its role in the epistemology of disagreement.
  9. See Vitz’s “Doxastic Voluntarism” for an overview of the debate about doxastic control.
  10. Chignell (2018) points out that “Clifford’s view is not merely that we must be in a certain state at the precise time at which we form a belief. Rather, the obligation always and only to believe on sufficient evidence governs our activities across time as well.” Dougherty (2018) argues that the ethics of belief is “only ethics,” and holds the overlap thesis to be ambiguous. The synchronic relationship of epistemic fit between an agent’s attitude towards a proposition at time t and the evidence they possess bearing probabilistically upon that proposition, exhausts without remainder the nature of epistemic obligation. Haack would at least agree with Dougherty if he is, in her terms, asserting the inadequacy of the correlation thesis that Clifford assumes.
  11. The overlap thesis, as originally stated, leaves open the type of epistemic appraisal in question. Haack adds the subscript “J” in this instance to specify justification as the relevant type of appraisal.
  12. I paraphrase Christian’s (2009, 468–9) useful elaboration of Haack (2001). James Pryor (2001) finds that personal justification and epistemic blamelessness can also “come apart,” such that (a) being blameless does not necessarily make one justified (or rational), and (b) holding an unjustified belief does not necessarily make one blameworthy (or irrational). Recognition of the distinction between justification and blamelessness, Pryor goes on to argue, “militates against any deontological [duty-based] conception of justification” (115) which Clifford and most other evidentialists are committed to. Whenever normative concepts of belief assessment can come apart in such ways, epistemologists are invited to explore analogies and disanalogies in order to illuminate their entanglements, or what we termed the “traffic” between them. The overlap thesis, if correct, also undercuts the reductive ambitions of the special-case thesis and the correlation thesis, and the assumption of a fact/value dichotomy, as in the independence thesis.
  13. This table is adapted from Axtell (2001). By his term “religious hypothesis,” James does not mean that religious belief is a mere hypothesis to the believer. But belief in a transcendent reality, a “more” as James put it, referring to a moral order to the universe (rather than to any one specific conception of this higher reality), can be placed aside its opposite, the “naturalistic hypothesis,” for the purposes of bringing adherents of these different worldviews into philosophical dialogue and better mutual understanding.
  14. James placed three conditions on “genuine option[s]” besides their being evidentially underdetermined. They must be “options” (choices) that are “live,” “momentous,” and “forced” ([1896] 2009, sec. I). “Live” options, James says, are ones which make some appeal to an actual agent A, and which A considers it a real possibility to accept. A “momentous” option presents a unique opportunity, an irreversible decision, or a decision with a highly significant stake. A “forced” option is one where there is “no standing place outside of the alternative,” so that not to accept d is for practical purposes to accept not-d, even if only by default (e.g., bring an umbrella today or do not bring an umbrella).
  15. For development of contemporary virtue epistemology, including East-West connections, see Fairweather (2014), Fairweather and Flanagan (2014), Slote and Sosa (2015), Battaly (2019), and Kelp and Greco (2020).
  16. There is too much work on intellectual humility to mention, but see especially the journal special issue edited by Carter, Kallestrup, and Pritchard (2016), and the recent collection edited by Church and Samuelson (2017).
  17. On intellectual vices and vice epistemology, see also Battaly (2010 and 2019).


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