Some philosophers think of rationality in terms of virtue. For them, the rational thing to do is what the epistemically virtuous person would do. One type of reasoning that I study is reflective reasoning in which we step back and reconsider a gut reaction. So I have found myself asking, “Is reflective reasoning a virtue?” In this post, I’ll briefly consider reasons for answering “yes” and reasons for answering “no.”
1. Reflection seems virtuous
On the one hand, it seems that reflection is virtuous. After all, relying on our gut reaction can get us into trouble. Gut reactions are often biased, emotional, and otherwise regrettable. So any action that involves improving upon gut reactions would seem to be virtuous. And reflection is often defined as deliberate and consciously represented thinking about our initial impulses. In other words, reflection is—almost by definition—an attempt to improve upon a gut reaction. So perhaps reflection seems like a virtuous thing to do.
Reflection might also have good consequences. So perhaps epistemically virtuous reasoning can be identified by how reliably any type of reasoning produces desirable outcomes or prevents undesirable outcomes (Dewey, 1933; Bishop & Trout, 2008). For instance, people who reason more reflectively have been found to be less likely to accept fake news headlines, regardless of how well they align with their ideology (Pennycook & Rand, 2019). So, insofar as good consequences are a sign of virtue, reflection might be considered a virtue in some contexts.
2. But can reflection be virtuous?
Epistemic virtues are, by definition, virtues that have an impact on—among other things—our beliefs. However, many philosophers think that belief is not voluntary.
We can never be induced to believe [….] belief […] depends not on the will, but must arise from certain determinate causes and principles, of which we are not masters. (Hume 1739/40, Appendix; see also Tebben 2018).
If belief isn’t voluntary, then it is not clear how we can be praised or blamed for our beliefs or belief-forming processes. And if we can’t be praised or blamed for reflective beliefs or reflective belief-forming processes, then it seems like reflection cannot be virtuous—or vicious, for that matter (cf. Zagzebski, 1996, II 4.1.2).
There seem to be reasons to think that reflection is a virtue as well as reasons to think that reflection is not a virtue. I have am not committed to any of these views at the moment, but I welcome your thoughts on endorsing or rejecting any of these proposals.
For now, a closing thought: if reflection is not a virtue, then we need another account of why reflection is valuable. One way to do this is to show that reflection is a skill. That will be the subject of the next month’s post. Subscribe to the blog feed or follow along on social media to be notified when that comes out next month.