A colleague of mine gave an excellent talk this past semester on the Intellectual, or Epistemic, Virtues. In this talk, he drew attention to the shift towards autonomy in ethics in the Modern period, most notably exemplified by Kant. We might think of the intellectual virtue of autonomy as involving the ability and willingness to determine one's own beliefs through an appreciation of the evidence. After the talk, we discussed whether we could really cash out this virtue as an independent virtue, rather than a derivative one. That is, is intellectual autonomy reducible to possession of other epistemic virtues?
Over the course of the conversation, I raised a question whether there might be an important epistemic virtue of epistemic voluntariness. The parallel here is to debates over free will, and the compatibilist and incompatibilsit lines on that question. For the compatibilist, the crucial idea is that one can freely choose something if what they have chosen is what they desire or want to have chosen (though of course, complexities abound and compatibilists offer much more sophisticated definitions). It might be that one's desires are determined, but this is not a challenge to human freedom.
Is there an analogue for epistemic virtue? I'd like to suggest and play with the following hypotheses:
Epistemic Voluntariness : one's beliefs are consistent with reflection on one's available evidence.
Let's illustrate this with a couple of examples. First, let's imagine someone who fails to possess this virtue. Archie believes that the government has a secret weather machine, and it is used to divert attention from political scandal. Now, Archie has lots of evidence available to him, and very little of it would indicate that such a machine could or does exist. He also has a friend, June, who believes that the machine is real. June tells Archie so, and Archie believes her. Archie has no evidence that June is a good authority, and any evidence that would give him reason to believe her is clearly swamped by his own evidence against the hypothesis. Yet, Archie believes June.
In this case, I would suggest that Archie does not possess the virtue, since he is not forming his own beliefs consistently with his available evidence. This is not to make a judgment about the quality of the evidence, lest this virtue really amount to simply being a good reasoner! As such, suppose that June's available evidence really would support the hypothesis (or is at least broadly consistent with it) that the government has a weather machine and they use it in these nefarious ways. June's evidence might be inadequate, and poorly understood, but June's belief would be voluntary in a way that Archie's is not.
What distinguishes this proposal from intellectual autonomy is that it does not require a causal relationship between reflection on one's evidence and one's beliefs. I take it that part of intellectual autonomy is that one, as a matter of fact, reflects upon their own ideas. The key notion (again compare to autonomy with regard to free will) is that the belief comes entirely from the agent. As with voluntariness with regard to free will, the idea here is that a belief could be voluntary even if not every stage leading up to the formulation of that belief was free/based on reflection.
Is this a more useful concept than intellectual autonomy? Voluntariness is useful in the free will debates, because of worries about the intelligibility of agents as loci of contra-causal force. The same worry might be applied to the intellectual virtues (if one holds that our intellectual reasoning is itself determined), and it might be useful for that purpose. But is it useful independently of the free will debate? Could one, for example, be a libertarian about free will but nevertheless prioritize intellectual voluntariness over intellectual autonomy?
I'm not yet sure a positive answer can be given to this question. Indeed, there may be problematic cases of intellectual voluntariness. Suppose that Archie's evidence would support the weather machine hypothesis, but that he doesn't care enough to reflect upon the data. He settles on a rule: "I'll believe whatever June tells me to believe." Sometimes Archie's beliefs are voluntary (when consistent with his evidence) and sometimes they are not. If June's pronouncements happen to align with his evidence the majority of the time, would this make Archie in any way intellectually virtuous? This account suggests that it would. This seems counter-intuitive.
There are three terms in this definition that need precisification as well. First, what counts as reflection? Would the briefest consideration count? Would it be required that the belief is consistent with their evidence in all-things-considered way?
Second, what counts as available evidence? Is it that the evidence is consciously available? That it is "contained" in their mind in some way (represented? there is danger of substituting one mystery for another here)? That the evidence could be represented or understood if the person went out and found it? For example, I could easy pop by the office of a physics professor and get evidence with regards to some question in that field. Is that evidence available to me in the requisite sense?
Third, what counts as evidence here? Surely it should not be understood as a veridical term, if it is to capture the idea that I am after here. That is, it need not be the case that the available evidence actually indicates a truth about the world. If it were understood in this way, then voluntariness would really amount to reflecting on the right data, rather than reflecting on the data that one has. This is, of course, an important virtue (in the above examples, June's evidence is presumably terrible!), but it is a distinct virtue.
On the basis of these reflections, I'm not quite convinced that this notion of intellectual voluntariness has legs, except, perhaps, as a modification of intellectual autonomy to handle objections to the doctrine of free will. I still wonder, however, whether there is something to the idea, and that the problem is only with my formulation of the virtue. Any thoughts - can intellectual voluntariness be saved? Is it worth trying to save?