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Intellectual virtues

Intellectual virtues have often been thought of as qualities that are good for the individual. However, a new AHRC-funded Early Career Fellowship, Intellectual Virtue and the Good Life: Ethical and Epistemic Values, has been looking at how they can benefit communities and society as a whole.

As Dr Allan Hazlett (University of Edinburgh) says, “People talk about what you should believe, what it takes for a belief to be knowledge. The virtue epistemologists’ main insight or idea was that it would be useful, instead of focusing in on particular beliefs, to look at whole people, individual people, and say, ‘What is it to be a good thinking person, and what is it to be a person who forms good beliefs?’” This is the starting point for his research.

He explains that virtues are usually understood as an individual person’s character traits, and so virtue epistemologists began to develop lists of the virtues relating to a person’s intellectual life.

“They were talking about virtues like open-mindedness, curiosity, carefulness in forming beliefs, that kind of thing,” he says.

As he assessed the existing ideas in the field, he began to think about intellectual virtues not just in terms of how they relate to individuals, but in terms of how they could relate to a group.

Hazlett ran a series of seminars and workshops in collaboration with John Ravenscroft, Lani Watson and Lee Whittington, bringing together academics and educators, along with representatives of professional associations and education charities, to discuss the value of intellectual virtues in education.

“It’s a new area,” says Watson, a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh. “Certainly the work around trust and honesty and whether these are intellectual virtues, it’s a really interesting question which works itself into public discourse very easily.”

Indeed, Hazlett has suggested that virtue epistemology offers a new way to interpret political debate.

“I think one of the things we really value in a person, one of the things we think makes someone a good person, is the ability to have a political argument and not let it be nasty,” he says, pointing to elections and votes in the UK and overseas. He grew up in the USA but now lives in Scotland, where he has seen the recent referendum first hand.

“I think politics here is a bit nicer [than in the US],” he says. “The Scottish Referendum is a really good case, because on the one hand it looks like everyone is trying to benefit society. What seemed to break down at a certain point in that discussion was the idea that we will get to the best outcome if we engage in a political dialogue. People had convictions that a certain outcome for the election was for the best, so they wanted to achieve that outcome at all costs.”

He suggests that the “nastiness” of political discourse and people’s inability or unwillingness “to engage with other people who disagree with them in a sincere and productive way” also shows that there could be a better, more societally beneficial way of restructuring these kinds of debates: “debates that lead to better outcomes and compromises in politics are made possible by people having a certain attitude towards discussion.”

Hazlett’s ideas certainly go some way towards explaining the lack of public trust in politicians.

“In the case of politicians, if anything it’s that we sense that their interest in having these debates is not in the quality of the conversation but in furthering themselves,” he says. “I don’t know what we think when a politician just tries to score points in a debate, but it definitely doesn’t look like the kind of thing that we think is best for society as a whole. You can see two people who really disagree have a debate – the benefit may not accrue to them as individuals but each of them might end up having to make a compromise. We think of that as something good for society.”

He posits that point-scoring politics is not necessarily the best or only way to run a democracy.

“There’s a value in having an outcome that results from a public conversation as opposed to an outcome which results from winning an election,” he says. “It’s a bit like the difference between winning an election by formulating a really good argument for your position and winning an election by running a really slick ad campaign.  Is that good for your society? Maybe your policies are the best, but you’ve done something bad for your society at the same time – the leadership that you’ve earned has not been earned through public debate or discourse.”

Hazlett hopes that his work on conceptualising intellectual virtues will help people to think about how particular qualities might benefit society as a whole.

“I want to press back against a couple of ideas,” he explains. “One, the idea that intellectual virtues can be understood as what benefits a person, or as what will make a person flourish or live a happy life. And the other is that intellectual virtues all have something to do with the acquisition of knowledge.

“We could broaden our understanding of the kind of thing that could count as an intellectual virtue by thinking about ways that a person could be that are good in terms of their social benefit, how they benefit society or a community,” he says, “not necessarily in terms of how they benefit the individual, and not necessarily in terms of any connection to knowledge or truth.”

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