Professor Fairweather

Philosophy 610

May 1, 2014

Criticism of Greco’s Virtue Reliabilism

The objective of this paper is to assess whether Greco’s virtue reliabilism is resilient to the criticisms presented against it. To begin, I will briefly outline the general implications of reliabilism and the strengths and weaknesses of this epistemic theory. Reliabilism branches off from the externalism account of epistemology, namely, knowledge is obtained based on external factors as opposed to internal factors; the strongest form of externalism is when, “[the externalist] abandon[s] the notion of justification altogether, replace it with something else, and form a new tripartite definition.” (1) Reliabilism seems to venture towards this sector by replacing the notion of justification with the notion that knowledge is a true belief that is produced and sustained by a reliable belief-forming method. (1) Alvin I. Goldman defends a type of reliabilism called process reliabilism, which constitutes a definition of justification as a list of reasons that factor in the formulation of a belief. On this view, a belief is justified based on whether an individual can present a process involving other factors or properties that credit the belief as being justified. (3) Greco’s virtue reliabilism adds greater focus from reliable process to abilities, in that, his theory focuses on the virtue of an individual as a component that mediates cognitive and physical abilities with external conditions in producing knowledge.

Upon first glance, the strength of reliabilism is found in utilizing external factors that are, in large, observable, and thus, verifiable among a variety of observers who are able to base their warrant for knowledge on the standards of external laws and factors. To illustrate, Doug has knowledge that if he drops his glass bottle from a two-story building, then the glass bottle would shatter. This knowledge is accessible to other subjects who produced the same method, thus, knowledge seems to be secure in this matter since the knowledge is based on a reliable process. Greco’s virtue reliabilism promises these sorts of advantages, he writes, “it gives us a nice gloss on the idea that knowledge is incompatible with luck… [And] an elegant and principled answer to the value problem, or the problem of explaining why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief.” (2) However aside from these simplistic examples that reliabilism can handle, the common weaknesses of this theory, which will be discussed in the analysis of Greco’s spin of reliabilism are the generality problem and the problem of epistemic luck or accidental-knowledge.

The generality problem alludes to the problem that entertaining the thought those reliable methods supports reliabilism resorts to circularity by entertaining the thought those reliable methods by reliable beliefs and vice versa. As a result, an internalist view of justification can be used to avoid circularity. This would involve adopting the belief that the justification of certain knowledge pertains independent of or before reliability. (1) A quick illustration would be our belief in our visual experience as a given prerequisite before knowing the intricate explanation of our visual mechanics. (1) The last objection is that the reliability theory is not sufficient for knowledge; one can have a true belief formed by a reliable process but still have no knowledge. This objection draws force from epistemic luck.

Next, we will examine how the one of the two ideas Greco theorized in his paper holds up to addressing two of the three objections raised against his hypothesis that knowledge is a true belief grounded in intellectual ability. Briefly, here are the objections that his hypothesis faces: the generality problem and the objection from testimonial knowledge. One of Greco’s ideas to remedy these objections is that: [b] knowledge attributions serve to flag good information and good sources of information for use in practical reasoning. (2) In the next segment, we will explore how Greco’s hypothesis stands against the two objections against Greco’s hypothesis that was previously noted.

First, we shall scrutinize how Greco’s hypothesis withstands the generality objection. Moving right along, Greco believes that his idea [b] offers the solution for the generality problem. He writes: If [b] is right, then we have an answer to the generality problem: relevant parameters should be specified according to the interests and purposes of relevant practical reasoning. What he is appealing to is Mark Heller’s spin on contextualism. Greco quotes Heller’s work, “ ‘reliable’ is also context dependent in epistemological discourse…. [The] problem of generality only arises because of unreasonable demands placed upon the reliabilist. It is unreasonable to demand a fixed principle for selecting the correct level of generality if what counts as correct varies from context to context.” (2)

Greco vetoes that the generality problem holds any argumentative force by noting that it demands a rigid definition of reliabilism that can be universally applied to every situation. To alleviate this objection, he sought to define the reliable method as ability, furthermore, that the nature of ability depends on the disposition to a particular environment or context. Palle Yourgrau composed one objection against this type of contextualism. He argued that contextualism allows for dialogues such as the following since it claims that the standards for knowledge shifts from context to context. (4) Yourgrau used this dialogue as an illustration:  “A: Is that a zebra? B: Yes, it is a zebra. A: But can you rule out its merely being a cleverly painted mule? B: No, I can’t. A: So you admit you didn’t know it was a zebra. B: No, I did know then that it was a zebra. But after your question, I no longer knew.” (4) This counterargument displays that there is a situation where knowledge does not derive from shifting contexts, as Heller suggests, but there must be a standard-universal method that helps us differentiates between warranted knowledge, false knowledge, and epistemic luck.

As a response, I would argue an internalist theory of justification that would bypass this requirement, specifically, a certain flavor of deontological internalism: knowledge is obtained after fulfilling one’s epistemic duty to faithfully use one’s external and internal faculties to reach an epistemic conclusion. (3) The attractiveness of this theory is the simplicity of the theory’s methodology to producing knowledge; whereas, Greco’s hypothesis, I would argue, leads to further complications. This is not to say that internalism doesn’t have problems, but I hold that the problems the internalist faces is not insurmountable. Therefore, it seems that the generality problem still applies to Greco’s case, in the respect that, he failed to remove the objection against the vague-shift of explanation of the essence of abilities being based on environmental context.

Next, the objection from testimonial knowledge, I argue, rebuts Greco’s hypothesis. The testimonial objection provides an exception to Greco’s hypothesis, in the aspect that, “not all knowledge is creditable true belief… specifically, there are cases of testimonial knowledge where credit for S’s true belief seems due to the person testifying rather than to S herself.” This objection relates to the criticism that reliabilism faces epistemic probability, whether virtue reliabilism can handle a broad range of situations and still promise knowledge; one can obtain a true belief, but still lacking knowledge on Greco’s view. This seems to be the case with the testimonial knowledge objection, according to Greco’s hypothesis, knowledge is obtained through intellectual abilities of an individual, however, Lackey addressed that there are instances where knowledge is obtained through testimony.  In this case, X’s knowledge of b excludes the use of X’s own abilities to cognizing b, therefore, X does not have knowledge of b, where as in fact, Y has knowledge of b since Y used Y’s abilities to generate Y’s knowledge of b. B is true relative to the result of Y’s ability that cognized the truth of b, but that needed relationship to making b true would not apply to X. Therefore, if X were to obtain b, his knowledge of b would not be based on Greco’s hypothesis, instead, it would appeal to Lackey’s testimonial objection.

Moreover, Greco’s response to this problem is unsatisfying and regresses to the generality problem due to the vagueness of his explanation of what reliable reception and expert testimony is. Greco writes, “The purposes of practical reasoning are well served by the reliable reception of testimony and expert testimony. That is, in cases of testimonial knowledge, S has the right sort of ability, and employs it in the right sort of way, so as to serve the purposes of practical reasoning, i.e. those of S and those of the group that needs to depend on S as a source of good information.” (2) This explanation seems to be circular and avoids a clear elaboration of what a reliable reception or testimony is since he seems to be using phrases that spell ambiguity such as, “S has the right sort of ability, and employs it in the right sort of way, so as to serve the purpose of practical reasoning.” (2) The example Greco gives using soccer, as an illustration is not convincing, in the respect that, based on Lackey’s testimonial objection, Ted’s teams involvement in scoring a point does not transfer over to the fact that it was Ted who scored the point. In the strictest sense, Ted was the one who scored the point, therefore, credit can only be attributed to Ted and his teammates involvement are irrelevant.  In the same way, knowledge, based on Greco’s model, seems to only obtain if the subject uses his or her own abilities to do so. There is no transfer of credits. On face surface, this objection seems to halt Greco’s hypothesis. However, in this paper, we did not consider other possibly objections to testimonial knowledge or knowledge derived from communication, specifically that there are hidden abilities at work as information or knowledge is transferred between individuals.

In summary, after assessing Greco’s virtue reliabilism, his hypothesis failed to be resilient based on the objections mentioned above.  First, the generality problem holds force since Greco appeals to contextualism in order to escape the objection, but we have seen how knowledge does not shift from context to context as proposed, instead, there are instances when knowledge dissolves due to the context shift as the example Yourgrau illustrated. Lastly, the objection from testimonial knowledge, showed that there are occasions in which knowledge is obtained independent of an individual’s abilities, therefore, based on Greco’s hypothesis, the individual does not have knowledge because it wasn’t generated by the individual’s personal abilities.


  1. Moreland, James Porter; William Lane Craig (2009-08-20). Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Intervarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Greco, John. (2006) The Nature of Ability and the Purpose of Knowledge. Saint Louis University.
  3. Sven Bernecker. Reading Epistemology: Selected Texts with Interactive Commentary. Kindle Edition.
  4. Black, Tim. (Accessed Spring 2014) Contextualism in Epistemology. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. California State University, Northridge, USA.
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