What Are Intellectual Virtues?

Believing Responsibly

There is a long tradition in epistemology (or “theory of knowledge”) which says we have responsibilities in our beliefs, and one thinker in particular, W.K. Clifford, has said, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”[1]

Most philosophers today reject Clifford’s requirement as too strict, but the general theme of responsibility still runs through much of the recent literature in epistemology: when is it right to accept a belief as true? How much responsibility do I have to check the grounds for my beliefs? How much evidence is sufficient, and what kind of evidence should I look for? Does knowledge require that I have conscious access to the grounds for a belief? Am I entitled to a belief even if I can’t articulate my reasons for it, or present those reasons in a persuasive way? Should I suspend belief until I can answer every objection to it?

It is beyond the scope of this post to explain the extent of our responsibilities in every context of belief. There may be different requirements for knowledge in different situations, depending on the kind of belief in question or the circumstances of its formation. Nevertheless, I want to align myself with the view that ethics and epistemology are interconnected and that our (specific) investigative practices should be shaped by our (general) duty to seek truth.

Intellectual Virtues

The connection between ethics and knowledge goes back to the Greeks. The tradition of ancient philosophy (specifically Aristotle) tells us that part of becoming fully human means trying to cultivate virtues that point us to truth. Knowledge is not only good for its own sake; it is also a necessary means to living a life marked by love, justice, and human flourishing. Thus, knowledge and ethics are inseparable.[2] But what are virtues anyway?

W. Jay WoodJay Wood (1998) defines virtues as “well-anchored, abiding dispositions that persons acquire through their voluntary actions and that enable them reliably to think, feel, and act in ways that contribute to their fulfillment and sometimes to the fulfillment of those with whom they interact. They allow us to negotiate gracefully and successfully the tasks of life as they arise, and to overcome obstacles in the path of accomplishments.”[3]

An intellectual virtue, then, is a voluntarily acquired disposition that enables one to successfully obtain, maintain, deepen, and communicate knowledge. Examples of these virtues include wisdom, courage, tenacity, openness, attentiveness, studiousness, humility, patience, and intellectual honesty.

Intellectual vices, by contrast, are voluntarily acquired traits which undermine one’s ability to seek knowledge in a virtuous way. Examples include folly, arrogance, pride, impulsiveness, close-mindedness, fear, laziness, gullibility, inattentiveness, and dishonesty.

Since, according to Aristotle, human flourishing is inescapably related to truth, we have a duty to seek knowledge not only for its own sake, but for the sake of other goods which are essential to living a moral life. Doing so means becoming the kinds of people who are motivated to find the truth, who are generally successful at doing so, and who shun the intellectual vices. In other words, we are called to become responsible knowers.[4]

Two Clarifications

Before we analyze some of the intellectual virtues, allow me to make two clarifications:

First, virtues are distinct from natural abilities, talents, and skills. We have no control over the talents and abilities we are born with, so praise or blame cannot be attached to people for having them or lacking them. They are given to us by nature. How these abilities are used is another matter.

Unlike natural talents and abilities, skills are learned through effort and practice. But they aren’t necessarily useful in finding knowledge and they can be used for destructive purposes. This is clearly seen in the case of terrorists who use their intellectual skills for vicious ends.

By contrast, a virtuous person will tend to use her natural powers and skills to obtain knowledge and use that knowledge for moral ends. Such persons are praiseworthy because their virtues have been developed through much effort and personal cost.[5]

Second, being intellectual virtuous does not mean seeking the truth about just anything. A responsible knower will try to have knowledge about matters which are important to human flourishing (such as science, the humanities, ethics, religion, technology and art). It is often difficult to recognize in advance what kinds of knowledge matter most, but we should still try to be well informed about the right kinds of things.[6]

This means, for example, that I should spend more time attending to matters of justice than to memorizing the latest sports trivia. My obligation to be a just person involves a duty to seek the knowledge needed to fulfill that obligation. In other words, I am morally responsible for having certain kinds of beliefs; and I don’t have the right to believe whatever I want to believe.[7]

Analyzing the Virtues

Jay Wood discusses four types of intellectual activity which require virtue. I will discuss two of these activities: the acquisition and maintenance of beliefs.

Virtues of acquisition enable one to gather and interpret evidence so that the resulting beliefs are likely to be true. These include virtues such as “inquisitiveness, teachableness, attentiveness, persistence, and circumspection”.[8]

Being inquisitive means having a tendency to seek knowledge with an eagerness to understand the causes and reasons behind things. This trait is closely related to the kind of persistence which is essential to investigation. As is often the case, investigators run into problems when their theories don’t seem to fit with the facts. When this happens, it is important not to give up too soon because more research might show that the facts actually do fit. Having a measure of tenacity is the only way to see whether one’s beliefs actually stand the test.

Teachableness is also indispensable because it allows others to affirm and critique our assumptions, preconceptions, and expectations. Without the humility and openness that comes from being teachable, we cut ourselves off from truth by assuming we already know everything.

The flipside of teachableness is circumspection – the need to be cautious and vigilant about the kinds of people we allow to influence our lives, discerning whether they encourage or discourage our intellectual maturity. Circumspect persons supervise their intellectual lives by seeking communities where their attitudes, beliefs, and practices can be affirmed, deepened, and corrected by others. They surround themselves with people, places, and institutions that help them gain knowledge.

By contrast, people fail to be circumspect when they allow pride, fear of dependency, insecurity, or a smug sense of superiority to shut others out of their lives. By trying to find knowledge (solo) without depending on others, they prevent their minds from growing and end up with false or distorted beliefs for which they are responsible.

Virtues of maintenance “include a variety of intellectual traits that enable one not only to refine and deepen one’s knowledge but also defend it when it comes under attack”.[9]

First, virtuous people tend to exercise sober judgment in matters of their own competence as well as the competence of others. By contrast, vicious people tend to operate in extremes: either they are so dogmatic that they can’t accept outside criticism, or they are so suspicious of themselves that they end up surrendering their beliefs at the first sign of trouble. Responsible knowers strike a balance between these extremes by aiming for humility in their views while, at the same time, avoiding overconfidence in others’ opinions.

Second, being a good dialogue partner is crucial to maintaining true beliefs and rejecting false ones. This includes analyzing another’s argument into its component parts, drawing out the implications of their opinions, looking for ways to strengthen their case while recognizing weaknesses, making connections that might have been overlooked, and challenging assumptions behind their disagreement with you. These (and other related skills) become virtuous when used in the right way. A responsible knower will use them to arrive at the truth whereas a vicious person will use them in a self-serving way, say to appear smart by winning an argument.

Not everyone will be able to pursue these virtues in the same way or to the same degree, but most (if not all) of us need some measure of wisdom, humility, patience, studiousness, and honesty to live well. Everyone (with rare exceptions) has some duty to exercise care in the maintenance of their intellectual lives, whether they are philosophers, school teachers, nurses, or mechanics. These virtues are important for all people no matter what their vocation in life.[10]


[1] W.K. Clifford (Dec. 1876-May 1877), p.426.

[2] I am indebted to W. Jay Wood (1998) for his helpful explanation of the nature of virtue epistemology when it came to writing this section of my post.

[3] Wood (1998), p.43.

[4] My point isn’t that intellectual virtues are only valuable for reasons of truth and knowledge. They may (and indeed are) valuable for other reasons.

[5] For a more detailed discussion of the distinction between virtues, skills, and natural capacities, see Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski (1996), part II, subsections 2.3 and 2.4.

[6] This consideration helps answer the question, “How much responsibility do I have to check the grounds for my beliefs?” I can’t (nor should I) check the grounds for all of my beliefs (that would be too strict a requirement for epistemic responsibility) but perhaps a more modest requirement is in order: I should do my best (given the resources at my disposal) to check those beliefs which are most important to matters of human flourishing.

[7] The ancient tradition which upholds an ethics of belief is in stark contrast to the “Libertarian” view that I have no duties with respect to my beliefs. According to the latter, I have the right to jettison my true beliefs if doing so is expedient or desirable. I have the moral right to believe whatever I want to believe and conduct my investigations as I see fit. While Libertarianism is an attractive view today, it has serious flaws. First, there is a general presumption against this view because having well-justified beliefs is essential to the actualization of goods such a love, social responsibility, and personal autonomy. Generally, the practice of getting myself to believe something on the basis of inadequate evidence undermines these goods. Second, there may not be an absolute duty to seek well-justified beliefs but the exceptional circumstances in which that duty is over-ridden are abnormal at best. For more discussion of these two points, see Louis P. Pojman (1995), pp.283-298.

[8] Wood (1998), p.35. The following paragraph is my own analysis of Wood’s list of virtues relating to belief acquisition.

[9] Wood (1998), p.37.

[10] This same point is made by Jay Wood (1998), pp.31-2; 51-2.

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