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Open for Debate


22 August 2022

We care about knowledge. Given a choice between getting information about my illness from a doctor or a quack, I’d always go with the doctor. Why? Because, unlike the quack, the doctor knows what they are talking about.

Explaining what the value of knowledge consists in is one of the main tasks in the theory of knowledge. It is widely recognised that it is not all that easy to accomplish. To see why not, note first that there is reason to think that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. To see this, let’s return to the doctor and the quack once more. Suppose you have Lyme disease. The doctor comes to know that you do via competent diagnosis. The quack, in contrast, flips what they take to be a magic coin on the question: if it lands heads, they come to believe it’s Lyme disease, if it’s tails, they don’t, and they test another hypothesis with their ‘magic coin’. As luck would have it, the coin comes up heads and the quack forms a belief that it’s Lyme disease. Now, since you have Lyme disease, the quack’s belief is true. Crucially, even though the belief is true, it doesn’t qualify as knowledge. The quack is too lucky to have hit upon the truth here. The key point for present purposes is that the doctor’s state of knowledge is still better than the quack’s state of belief even though it’s true. If this isn’t immediately obvious, note that you’d still prefer to be in the doctor’s shoes than in the quack’s. In this way, there is reason to think that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. Accordingly, any adequate account of the value of knowledge must explain why this is so.

Now, the trouble is that, at the same time, there is also good reason to think that knowledge isn’t more valuable than mere true belief. After all, mere true belief will get you want just as well as knowledge. If you want some medicine to remedy your poor health, you will get the right prescription no matter whether you consult a doctor or a quack, so long as the quack’s belief on the matter is true. So, the task of explaining the value of knowledge faces difficulties from the very beginning.

This problem dates back as far as Plato’s Meno. And while one might think that this is already a hard nut to crack, recent epistemology has provided reason to think that the task is even harder. Many would now agree that what is needed is not only to show that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief, but that this difference must be a difference in kind, not merely a difference in degree. After all, if the value of knowledge is on a spectrum with the value of belief that falls short of knowledge, then we might wonder why we should care about the point occupied by knowledge, rather than some other point further up or down on the spectrum. Now, we really have our work cut out for ourselves.

What I want to suggest here is that this is still not the end of the road. More specifically, I want to suggest that our account will be better if it situates the value of knowledge in a broader value-theoretic picture. In other words, what we want is that, on our account, the value of knowledge turns out to be an instance of a broader value-theoretic phenomenon. To be sure, I don’t mean to suggest that an account of the value of knowledge is doomed to failure if it doesn’t achieve this. Rather, the thought is that an account that achieves is, all else equal, preferable to one that doesn’t.

Fortunately, there is reason to think that this desideratum can be met by what I will call the virtue-based account of the value of knowledge. A key idea of this view is that knowledge is a kind of achievement, i.e. a kind of success from ability. More specifically, it is an epistemic achievement: true belief from ability to form true beliefs. The key value-theoretic idea is that achievements in general are valuable. In this way, knowledge is but an instance of a more general value-theoretic phenomenon and the desideratum is met.

What’s more, champions of the virtue-based account have argued that this account can solve the other challenges as well. Here is how. According to a tradition dating back to Aristotle, it is achievements that are finally valuable, i.e. valuable for their own sake, mere successes aren’t. Knowledge is a kind of achievement, and so it is finally valuable. Since mere successes aren’t finally valuable, and the success at issue in knowledge is true belief, it follows that knowledge enjoys a kind of value that mere true belief doesn’t.

The virtue-based account does have a lot going for itself. It has even been argued that it’s the only account that can meet all challenges. Now, I think this would be a mistake. There is a promising alternative. For reasons that will become clear momentarily, I’ll call it the inquiry-based account. According to this view, what makes knowledge valuable is not that it is a kind of achievement, but a kind of success. More specifically, it is an epistemic success: a success in inquiry, i.e. the activity of engaging with questions. The key value-theoretic idea is that successes in general are valuable. In this way, knowledge once again turns out to be an instance of a more general value-theoretic phenomenon. Once, again, the desideratum is met.

Finally, the inquiry-theoretic account also promises to meet our challenges. After all, success in inquiry is knowledge. Mere true belief – or, more generally, belief that falls short of knowledge – isn’t success in inquiry. In this way, the value that attaches to knowledge is not merely on a spectrum with the value of true belief. Rather, we get exactly the difference in kind of value that we are looking for.

Much remains to be said about these two accounts. What I’d like to focus on here are the underlying value-theoretic ideas about what explains the value of knowledge. Is there any reason to prefer one view over the other here?

To answer this question, let’s look at a familiar problem for the virtue-based account. There is excellent reason to think that not all achievements are valuable for their own sake. In particular, evil achievements are not valuable for their own sake. For instance, a shot that successfully kills an innocent person from ability is simply not valuable for its own sake.

Now, the same problem arises for the inquiry-based account. Evil success aren’t valuable either. For instance, succeeding in killing an innocent person just doesn’t seem to be valuable.

Even so, the inquiry-based account has a nice resource to deal with this problem. It can allow that activities with aims such as shooting and inquiry constitute domains of value such that successes have value within these domains even if they don’t have value outside of it. Crucially, this is something that we want anyway. To see this, note that we do want to allow that the shots of heroes and cold-blooded killers can be equally good shots, that they can be equally good shooters, etc., no matter that one uses their shooting for good and the other for bad.

Is this resource available to the virtue-based account? There is excellent reason to think that the answer to this question is no. To see this, recall that the central value-theoretic idea is thought to trace back to Aristotle. Now, plausibly, on the Aristotelian view, the reason why achievements are finally valuable and mere successes aren’t is that achievements but not mere successes are constitutive of human flourishing. But if that is the story, then we wouldn’t want the kind of resource under consideration in the first place. Here is one easy way to see this. What the resource allows us to do is solve the problem by allowing us to explain how it can be that the shots of heroes and cold-blooded killers can be normative equals. But this is just what we wouldn’t want on the Aristotelian view. The reason for this is that while the shots of the hero may well partly constitute their flourishing, the same isn’t true of the shots of the cold-blooded killer.

With these points in play, we can now appreciate why there is reason to favour the inquiry-based account over its virtue-based rival. While both views can meet the challenges as well as the additional desideratum on accounts of the value of knowledge, the objection from evil achievements does apply to the virtue-based account, due to the Aristotelian value theory that’s in the background. At the same time, the value-theoretic ideas in the background of the inquiry-based account can provide an attractive resource to dealing with this problem.

Photo: Back to School by Siora Photography on Unsplash


1 comment
  1. HermioneJane

    Would the notion that knowledge leads to beliefs, and that beliefs in turn are confirmed by knowledge (think of tumeric), affect the argument? Also, how about when knowledge changes or is refuted?

    There seems to be the position that knowledge is inviolate, and that beliefs are quackery.

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