Pacific APA 2016 – Developments in Virtue Theory

This year’s Pacific APA featured numerous scholars of virtue theory. Perhaps the most prominently featured was Linda Zagzebski, who works on Virtue Epistemology. Zagzebski was this year’s choice for the Pacific APA’s Dewey Lecture, and her talk explored the origins of her interest in philosophy as well as the importance of Virtue Epistemology.

Zagzebski began with an account of her upbringing and the events which led to her interest in virtues. Because she grew up in a Catholic household and attended numerous religious schools, the language of virtues was a part of her social environment both in and out of the home. Additionally, a bout of rheumatic fever which she suffered as a child and which left her unable to leave her bed gave Zagzebski an appreciation for the life of the mind. These more contemplative influences combined with the political and social activism of her parents to encourage her to speak out about social problems. While not activists per se, Zabzebski’s parents got involved in important issues of the day. Zagzebski described her mother as a “natural feminist” who gave Zagzebski a “halfway feminist upbringing,” while Zagzebski’s father was a New Deal Democrat who participated in the movement opposing abortion, which he felt was a human rights issue.

At this point, Zabzebski transitioned to a discussion of how the field of epistemology was filled with evidentialists when she began her studies. These individuals were arguing that theists cannot not meet the standard that is demanded for truth. Evidentialism’s major claim is that a religious belief is only justified if there is conclusive evidence for it, and many evidentialists felt that theism’s arguments for God, inasmuch as they lack the certainty needed to be considered true, were at best only plausible.

During her graduate school and junior scholar years Zagzebski discovered a way to overcome the skepticism of the evidentialists through a clever use of virtue theory. After reflecting on the epistemologies held by philosophers of religion, she realized that religious epistemology could benefit from an account of intellectual virtue. Specifically, she felt that a right belief can be justified by its relation to intellectual virtues in the same way that a right act can be justified by relation to ethical virtues. In her work, intellectual virtues consist of the values we look for in ideas held to be true, such as certainty and understanding.

By beginning with the idea of intellectual virtues, it is possible to see how these values are at the heart of all epistemological debates. For example, knowing something is better than just believing something since knowing something comes closer to the values which underlie truth (like demonstrability and reason).

The importance of this line of reasoning for Zagzebski is that it allows us to recognize the intellectual value of authority. In particular, it helps us recognize that certain communities or people can be taken as authorities (such as the church) without violating the principle of autonomy that in other situations might require us to be skeptical of truths uttered by certain groups. In other words, one does not have to give up religious belief in order to be a true skeptic, nor does one have to leave behind scientific reason to take religious figures as authorities. What is required is that we understand the nature of the intellectual virtues underlying the claims to truth made by religions and by scientists, and learn how to properly relate them to one another.

Zagzebski closed her comments with a call to stop turning morality into a battlefield, and to instead return to a focus on exemplary people and our admiration for them. This can best be done by adding teaching of virtues to our public school system. Students should be learning much earlier about the values that make one an ethical person.

Zagzebski was not the only one discussing virtue theory at the Pacific APA. There was also an excellent session on Virtue Ethics on Thursday. The session featured three papers that each took the field in notably dissimilar directions. The first speaker, Yujia Song, engaged the topic of open-mindedness. Asking how we can consider open-mindedness a moral virtue, she began by questioning the view that says open-mindedness is important because of its epistemic contributions. Song felt that this ‘intellectualist’ approach is wrong to say that open-mindedness is important primarily because of how it helps us find truth and prevents us from becoming dogmatic. This account treats open-mindedness not as a virtue itself but something which contributes to virtues. Song believed a stronger defense of open-mindedness comes by modifying our account of it. Rather than see open-mindedness as important because of how it leads us to revise our beliefs in light of new evidence, open-mindedness can be defended because it is necessary for morality. According to Song, morality is defined by a constant counteraction to self-interest and an opening of oneself to new viewpoints. Given this, being moral of necessity requires us to be open-minded since it is impossible to counteract our own personal viewpoints without being willing to encounter those of others. Song emphasized that open-mindedness is not just understanding the thoughts of others, but being willing to see the difficulties, conflicts, or sufferings that others are encountering. This is different than tolerance, since tolerance only requires us to put up with others, while open-mindedness requires us to be attentive to their particular viewpoint.

The second speaker, Matthew Taylor, focused on the way virtue ethics helps to overcome the objections of situationists, who claim that behavior is determined by circumstances rather than individual traits. Citing studies like Milgram’s obedience experiments as well as Isen and Levin’s mood study, Taylor discussed the evidence that situationists cite when arguing that actions are determined by circumstance before he concluded that there is evidence that people are affected by their circumstances. Yet Taylor reject the idea that our being affected by our circumstances means that we cannot improve our character through training. Virtue ethics can be defended by arguing that, while we are affected by our surroundings, we are not determined by them. It is possible to develop a virtuous character even in light of the evidence marshalled by the situationists. To defend this claim Taylor cited a number of studies which show that, with proper training, people can resist the influence of circumstance and act morally. For instance, Taylor mentioned a 1988 study by Cramer et al. which said that while the average person would be less likely to help a bystander in need, registered nurses were just as likely to help as control subjects who were alone. Taylor concluded from this research that if people adopt “if-then” plans about what they will do in certain circumstances, it is still possible to live a virtuous life.

The last speaker, Steven Haug, looked at the connections between Maurice Merleau-Ponty and virtue ethics, claiming that virtue ethics cannot function properly without Merleau-Ponty’s concept of habit. Specifically, Merleau-Ponty argues that learning is not rote memorization, but the ability to repeat an action or idea observed earlier in a new situation. We learn through perceiving similarities between old situations and new ones, and understanding how we can apply ideas from the past in the present. It is through this process that we can become virtuous people. Virtue doesn’t come from memorization or mindless repetition. It is important to see how one can apply virtues perceived in the past in new situations. Virtue, in other words, requires us learning how to orient ourselves in the world in a virtuous fashion. Haug concluded with the thought that the learning of virtue is a never-ending process. Merleau-Ponty argued that the world is always calling us engage it, and we end up continually performing the actions we observe in those around us. This constant communication means that we are regularly grappling with what it means to be virtuous, and thinking about how to enact virtue in new and different circumstances. What is important, then, is learning how to create virtues anew as we go through life.