From Internalist Evidentialism to Virtue Responsibilism: Reasonable Disagreement and the Ethics of Belief

In Trent Dougherty (ed.), Evidentialism and its Discontents. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011)
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Evidentialism as its leading proponents describe it has two distinct senses, these being evidentialism as a conceptual analysis of epistemic justification, and as a prescriptive ethics of belief—an account of what one ‘ought to believe’ under different epistemic circumstances. These two senses of evidentialism are related, but in the work of leading evidentialist philosophers, in ways that I think are deeply problematic. Although focusing on Richard Feldman’s ethics of belief, this chapter is critical of evidentialism in both senses. However, I share with authors like Feldman and Earl Conee, that epistemology has important prescriptive functions, and that a sound, civic ethics of belief is of more than merely philosophic importance. One reason why an ethics of belief might be important to problems of practice is the need we have for tools to more effectively mediate the renewed round of ‘culture wars’ we are experiencing in Anglo-American cultures. I mean especially that grand cultural clash between science and religion, reason and faith, secularist atheism and religious fundamentalism, etc. Let us start with the genealogical question of why there is such a grand cultural debate in the first place, and why the debate especially as played out in public and popular forums and even in the courtrooms seems so volatile and so often to confusedly drag everything—beliefs, values, passions, etc., with it. These are questions that I think Sigmund Freud’s classic Civilization and its Discontents can help us understand. Freud was a major voice in criticism of the stern and often hypocritical Victorian morality, a voice pointing out the price of its sometimes high-handed, guiltinducing curtailments of the satisfactions sought by the individual. But for Freud while there are real differences in the moral demands that different societies or traditions place upon people, there is something inevitable about the conflict itself, for “replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community constitutes the decisive step of civilization...

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Guy Axtell
Radford University


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