Epistemic Voluntariness

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? 

Teaching Ethical Theory

I've been thinking quite a bit about how I teach Ethical Theory, and two related problems that keep cropping up.

  1. Students come out of the class with the attitude that they should choose between different major ethical theories.
  2. Students come out of the class flummoxed about ethics, thinking that all of their available options fail.

The relationship between these two is, I think, fairly clear.  Students think they have to make a choice, but have become quite good at knocking (intuitive at least) holes in any ethical theory thrown at them.  As a consequence, they tend to reject all of the theories, and end up unsure of how to make use of what we've discussed in class.

I should not be surprised by this, and the way I teach the class is implicated in these outcomes.  I've followed a fairly traditional structure, content-wise at least, where we work through the major theories (with particular emphasis on Virtue Theory, Deontology and Utilitarianism) and contemporary criticisms.  We dive deep into discussions of counter-examples, and the differences between the theories that these counter-examples illuminate.  Counter-examples or intuition-pumps are also such a natural conversation starter, that they can quickly come to dominate discussion. 

What I'd like to do is rethink the way I approach the content of the course, and I want to start with my goals for the students.  One of the goals of my ethics courses is always to empower students to be better ethical reasoners in their own lives (despite problematic empirical evidence).  Wielding counter-examples is not particularly conducive to that goal.  The aim of using counter-examples is to think about the complex judgments about conflicting values that we all have to make.  If this is the goal, then why not go directly for it?

We might think about the differences between the major ethical theories in terms of the different values that they prioritize.  Kant, for example, places great importance on autonomy and fairness before the moral law, both commitments challenged by feminist ethics.  Aristotle's conception of voluntary action shares some similar ground with autonomy, but differs in crucial respects (and likewise between Kant and Mill on fairness).  While one could still organize readings in the same way as the traditional course, the discussion might be refocused onto these values.  Why might we hold to them too?  Why does Kant, say, hold these values but not combine them with others?

I have kicked around this idea for awhile, but was concerned that it would not produce actual changes in my classroom - after all, discussion of the competing values might be a useful frame, but it could still easily lead to the focus on counter-examples that concerns me.  A colleague, however, suggested an assignment that she uses in her class, where students are asked to design their own ethical theory at the end of the term.  Such an assignment might be the linchpin that holds together a values based approach.

In particular, it encourages a focus on consistency.  That is, students will first work through how Aristotle, Kant and Mill develop (or at least attempt to develop) frameworks that consistently integrate these values, and that other values cannot be easily introduced without also introducing inconsistency.  Students then have to take up this task for themselves, identifying the values that matter to them and working to consistently integrate them into a coherent theory.

I see two principal advantages to this approach.  First, it encourages students to make the material personal (values that matter to them) even at the same time that they are developing a theory which applies beyond their own person.  This speaks directly to the goal of helping students develop themselves as moral reasoners.  Second, it encourages students to think through the implications of their commitments in a way that the critical stance does less successfully.  It is this sort of working out of one's commitments that makes Singer's "Famine, Affluence and Morality" paper so compelling (both philosophically and pedagogically), and this approach might make it clear why this argument cannot be so easily dismissed by pointing to intuitive counter-examples.

This is an approach to Ethical Theory that is a long ways off from coming to fruition, but nevertheless one I'm rather excited by.  Any thoughts, both from seasoned teachers of ethical theory and those who have taken such courses?