Meet Philosopher Linda Zagzebski

by Max Andrews

The University of Oklahoma philosopher Linda Zagzebski is a leading epistemologist in the field of virtue ethics.  Virtue epistemology is an attempt at unifying virtue ethics; Zagzebski takes the Aristotelian approach, by combining it with historical or cognitive psychology in its approach to knowledge.  Zagzebski is a virtue-responsibilitist, which is an internalist model and includes traits such as open-mindedness and concern when it comes to epistemic endeavors.  There is a rejection of Quine’s naturalized epistemology though it still permits empiricism as a means of belief formation.

Zagzebski argues for a direction of analysis thesis, a unified account of the intellectual and moral virtues, a neo-Aristotelian approach.  She suggests, that by virtue theory that makes the concept of a right act derivative from the concept of a virtue or some inner state of a person that is a component of virtue. This is a point both about conceptual priority and about moral ontology. In a pure virtue theory the concept of a right act is defined in terms of the concept of a virtue or a component of virtue such as motivation. The property of rightness is something that emerges from the inner traits of persons.[1]  The entire epistemological task is thus approached with this ethical theory overlaying each epistemic consideration.

Zagzebski’s model of virtue ethics must be understood as an intellectual virtue.  According to Zagzebski, a morally right act is “what a person who is virtuously motivated, and who has the understanding of the particular situation that a virtuous person would have, might do in like circumstances.”[2]  She also adds the epistemic condition that in order to know whether an act is right, we must not only know whether a virtuously motivated agent might perform it.  Her epistemic concepts are modeled after her definition of right action and offers accounts of justified belief, unjustified belief, and epistemic duty.[3]

A justified belief is what a person who is motivated by intellectual virtue, and who has the understanding of his cognitive situation as virtuous person would have, might believe in like circumstances.[4]  Zagzebski’s account is internalist since the agent must have cognitive awareness of his epistemic state as well as how a virtuous person who is likewise cognitively aware would believe.  A virtuous agent must be reliably aware of the views of others that are worth considering.  A criticism of such a definition is whether or not an agent is capable of knowing such things that the definition requires.  It is quite difficult to maintain that each agent must be aware of what another virtuous person would believe given the present situation.  Hilary Kornblith offers comments suggesting that one way to think of this is to relativize it to the agent’s background beliefs:  what is worthy of my consideration depends on my views; what is worthy of your consideration depends on your views.  She continues to suggest that this cannot be what Zagzebski is considering.  Every idea of the virtuous agent’s understanding of the cognitive situation was supposed to specify what the appropriate background beliefs are against which the intellectually virtuous would do their work.[5]

Zagzebski recognizes this aspect in her moral theory.  She understands that there are reasons for leaving out personal pronouns and inserting identities into any model of ethical theory.  She believes there is a reason why identities are left out and it is left out for a reason.  As long as we are aware of the reason for the choice in question, we might decide that it is not always an advantage to do so.[6]  The identity of some person in certain circumstances may contribute to how one may choose in a particular circumstance.  However, by way of Zagzebski’s note, moral theory is not necessarily intended to be a manual for how one ought to behave or make choices; rather, it should be a guide.  A moral theory should be compared to a map.[7]  A map is a simplification of a more complex referent.  The map does not have all the inner-workings and details that the city has to make it easier to follow and understand the map.  Likewise, a moral theory must be general enough to be able to navigate the theory without the theory being an example manual or depiction of a referent situation.  With this model of ethical theory, which will then be used in her epistemology, the virtue, the right act, the good (or outcome), and the good life all contribute to the good of the person and is a factor of consideration in her approach to epistemic tasks.

This seems to be a major problem with Zagzebski’s definition of justification.  There are two main contentions:  1) the background information involved in belief formation is trivialized and 2) that which is being appealed to as the standard for whether or not the belief in question ought to be formed is hardly objective (as well as a combination of the two).  No matter what the given scenario is there will be no circumstance in which two agents have identical background knowledge.  Certain information and data may be indexed in similar ways and may be aware to two agents but there will always be more background knowledge projected on to that set of indexed information.  Additionally, the appeal to another virtuous agent and applying the circumstance on them in a subjunctive fashion is hardly authoritative nor does an appeal to another virtuous person guarantee that the person being appealed to is a virtuous person worthy of consideration.

Likewise, similar to a justified belief, Zagzebski defines an unjustified belief as a belief, all things considered, that a person with phronesis would not believe in like circumstances.[8]  This, of course, carries with it the same objections and criticisms as her definition of justification.  The only alteration is the negation of belief and the specification of the type of person being appealed to.  The person is, of course, categorically virtuous but the virtue has been specified to someone with practical wisdom and prudence.

Zagzebski defines knowledge as a state of true belief arising out of acts of intellectual virtue.  A belief is a duty, all things considered, is what a person with phronesis would believe in like circumstances.[9]  This concept of knowledge is dependent upon her understanding of an act of intellectual virtue.  An act of intellectual virtue A is an act that arises from the motivational component of A, is something a person with virtue A would (probably) do in the circumstances, is successful in achieving the end of the A motivation, and is such that the agent acquires a true belief (cognitive contact with reality) through these features of the act.[10]

What is attractive and appealing to this concept of knowledge, according to Zagzebski, is that she believes it may circumvent the Gettier problem.  She argues that every case of Gettier follows the same pattern.  As long as there is a small degree of independence between a particular element of knowledge and the truth, Gettier is unavoidable.  Additionally, as long as the concept of knowledge closely connects the justification component and the truth component but permits some degree of independence between them, justified true belief will never be sufficient for knowledge.  Notice how Zagzebski formulates knowledge as a state of true belief arising out of acts of intellectual virtue.  The agent must be cognitively in contact with reality.  With this definition of knowledge, Gettier cannot have a foot in the door.  However, this really blurs the lines of demarcation between ontology and epistemology, truth and knowledge. They are almost one in the same and given the right frame of mind and intellectual and cognitive engagement, knowledge is a necessary consequent of virtuous engagement of reality.  Truth is believed as a result of intellectual virtue.

Consider Zagzebski’s example of dealing with Gettier.  Mary has all the relevant intellectual virtues and no intellectual vices in the process of forming the belief, but she is not led to the truth through those virtuous processes or motives. So even though Mary has the belief she has because of her virtues and the belief is true, she does not have the truth because of her virtues.[11]

It has been argued that Zagzebski does not circumvent Gettier at all.  Suppose a circumstance in which what is believed is a result of being luck because it was believed virtuously.  This does not necessarily adhere to Zagzebski’s model for how Gettier follows a particular formula but this form of Gettier would still apply to Zagzebski’s definition of knowledge and, arguably, displaces the problem altogether.  Another criticism is that her definition of knowledge rules out much of our every day perceptual knowledge.  According to Zagzebski, acting on virtue requires the action to be virtuously motivated.[12]

Much of what we would consider to be knowledge is not virtuously motivated.  Suppose Lewis sees a cat sitting in the corner of the room.  Lewis forms the [basic] belief that he sees a cat sitting in the corner of the room and come to a justified true belief in the proposition, “I see a cat in the corner of the room.”  For Zagzebski to affirm that Lewis has knowledge she would have to argue the Lewis would have had to consider a virtuous person as a referent and would have to have virtuous motivation to have such a belief.  Consider the example that Lisa knows she is hungry and that she should eat an apple.  Lisa’s knowledge of her hunger and belief that she should eat an apple is not virtuously motivated; it is merely the result of certain phenomenological stimuli.  Arguably, Lisa’s ultimate motivation for why she should eat an apple (the consequent of her knowledge) is virtuous in the sense that she should take care of her body lest she get sick or die.  Such a doxastic framework is certainly consistent but it seems hardly the case and seems to be special pleading as an attempt to scramble for virtuous motivation to project back on to the circumstance and belief in question.  Recall Lewis and his cat.  Lewis may have had little or no motivation at all to form such a belief that there is a car in the corner.  Again, Zagzebski could project back on to the circumstance that Lewis had a duty to form the belief based on his phenomenological evidence, but it seems to be another instance of special pleading.

Zagzebski’s contribution to the field of epistemology has been extremely beneficial in the role of persons and virtue.  She has limited the demarcation between ethics and epistemology as well as ontology and epistemology.  Her phenomenological epistemic method is certainly quite attractive but her concept of knowledge, though entirely consistent with ethical theory and approach to epistemology, blurs the lines of ontology and epistemology too close.  The blurring of these lines may certainly be justified and acceptable in other theories but Zagzebski’s seems to create more problems than she solves.  Her theories a certainly quite modest in their scope and where she has made contributions she had success despite the problems and hurdles her theories must overcome.



[1] Linda Zazebski, Virtues of the Mind, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 79.

[2] Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind, 235.

[3] Hilary Kornblith, “Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the MindPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research 60 (200): 198.

[4] Zagzebski, Virtues of The Mind, 241.

[5] Kornblith, 199.

[6] Linda Zagzebski, “Exemplarist Virtue Theory,” Metaphilosophy 41, (2004): 43.

[7] Ibid., 42-43.

[8] Zagzebski, Virtues of Mind.

[9] This, of course, carries similar criticisms of justified and unjustified belief, though of a lesser degree.

[10] Zagzebski, Virtues of Mind, 271.

[11] Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind, 297.

[12] J. Greco, “Virtues in Epistemology,” in L. Zagzebski and A. Fairweather, eds., Virtue Epistemology (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 2002), 296.


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