On Whether Reflection Is A Virtue

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).

Recap

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.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

10 thoughts on “On Whether Reflection Is A Virtue”

  1. Hello Dr. Byrd,

    It seems like we think rather similarly; I hope you are not a bot. I find reflection to be of the utmost importance.

    To subjectively and concretely define virtue and reflection, I’ll simply state how I consider them. I like Aristotle’s model of virtue. Virtue is moderation. Reflection is to self-consciously consider one’s environment and actions.

    Reflection is not inherently good or bad, it’s like running a computer program. The mind wants to believe it’s doing something novel, putting together ideas. Realistically, the brain is running the “human” algorithm, which is a quite flawed model. I believe this to be a separate discussion.

    Thankfully, our definition of virtue saves us in answering your question. Processing information requires energy. If the amount of energy used to process the information is excessive or lacking, the processor will not function correctly (regardless of the algorithm).

    To put it another way, if we believe that the continuation of the self is inherently virtuous, one must moderate. The only way I know to moderate is to reflect. The only lesson I got from War and Peace was that in times of uncertainty, the bast action is inaction. I’m not sure about Tolstoy’s stance on Aristotle.

    Thank you for putting so much on your site.

    1. Thanks for the perspective and the kind words, Nathaniel!

      Aside: I can neither confirm nor deny that I am not a bot. I often want to be a bot, and many of my officemates have told me that I work like a bot, but I have yet to undergo Turing testing. 😉

      1. I had another thought on this that I’d like to have on the record. Self-relfelction is like garbage collection.

  2. Apologies, I meant: please run with the idea as you understood it, given your field. I don’t like thinking I corrupted your version of an idea by stating mine.

    What I meant is, in short, if we take Sartre’s pre-reflective cogito and call that garbage collection, reflection could be “free will” or something that I haven’t considered. Reflection is the chance to choose which data is garbage.

    Thank you for bearing with my coronapacted dialogue.

    1. I see. So reflection is more like garbage sorting, on that view. What I like about that analogy is that it fits with the idea that all thoughts begin pre-reflectively and can then be processed more reflectively, depending on various factors (e.g., perhaps free will). One processed reflectively, we might reject some of the pre-reflective thoughts (like garbage), but keep or endorse other pre-reflective thought (sort of like recycling). So thoughts may begin like a single-stream of material that gets can be sorted into waste and recyclable material.

  3. Yes! The “decision” to choose is where our morals lie. Humans decide, autonomously (in theory), what things are good or bad. If we hear that people are approaching the border of our country, is that good or bad? We get to decide, and that is where our morals lie: reflecting on what we think is right or wrong information and how to deal with.

    The other path to follow is: what of this data we “consciously” choose to filter, moral or not? What of the data entering our eyes is turned into something we can see? What of it is there but ignored by the human algorithm? I don’t mean aliens. I mean we literally ignore most of the light and sound spectrum. Then there’s dark, matter, gravity, etc.

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