Zhi 智 (Wisdom) as a Metacognitive Virtue in the Mengzi
Zhi 智 (wisdom), for Mengzi, is a trait necessary for full virtue—and yet, his treatment of it is curiously compressed. It comprises a myriad of skills that may seem, on first blush, somewhat unrelated. Bryan Van Norden has noted that it includes the following three features: (1) the ability to properly evaluate others’ character, (2) skill at means-end deliberation, and (3) an appreciation of, and commitment to, virtuous behavior. It is not immediately clear how these seemingly disparate features are supposed to fit together psychologically into a cohesive disposition. For Mengzi, moreover, they must develop from a single, innate psychological attitude—in the case of wisdom, the feeling of approval and disapproval. A cohesive account may also illuminate what is morally good or admirable about wisdom—after all, one might deliberate well about how to knock over a casino, but that’s not intrinsically morally admirable.
This paper explores one solution to these challenges by offering an account of how these are psychologically related. Specifically, (2), the distinctively wisdom-type of means-end deliberation, is informed by (1), the ability to properly evaluate others’ character. These two abilities are cultivated through (3), a deep appreciation of virtue, because the proper objects of wisdom are the other virtues. The wise agent understands her own and others’ motivations. She knows what is likely to elicit amoral, moral, and immoral responses. Therefore, she can manipulate and arrange situations to achieve virtuous ends because she understands how people will react. It’s not just any sort of means-end deliberation; rather, it’s virtue-specific. This account conceives wisdom as a kind of metacognitive virtue, which means that it may serve as a basis for fruitful comparative work in contemporary moral and social psychology.
Cultivating Epistemic Virtue: A User’s Guide (collaboration with Alex Madva, Mellon Post-Doctoral Researcher at UC Berkeley)
We employ many heuristics or “rules of thumb” to form beliefs about the world. For example, according to the so-called “truth effect,” we are more likely to believe a statement simply because we have encountered it before. Familiar statements tend to seem “truer” than unfamiliar ones. Are beliefs formed on the basis of such heuristics ever epistemically justified?
Theorists who have debated the reliability and rationality of such heuristics have taken for granted that these heuristics are fixed, effectively hard-wired into our minds. Both sides of the debate thus overlook the possibility of improving. They dismiss out of hand the possibility of cultivating epistemic virtue. This is a mistake. For example, Unkelbach (2007) found that, with a little practice, individuals can overcome the “truth effect,” and learn that, in certain contexts, familiar statements are less likely to be true than unfamiliar statements. (Consider how, e.g., one learns over time to be wary of news reports made by specific media outlets.)
We are developing an empirically-informed account of the structure of cultivating epistemic virtue. Drawing on emerging evidence that some putatively hard-wired heuristics are revisable, we explain why cultivating epistemic virtue requires, in part, practice. Agents must actively retrain their epistemic dispositions to become more reliable. Certain heuristics do seem relatively fixed, however. We argue, therefore, that distinctive training techniques must be implemented to correct for such incorrigible dispositions. In particular, one can cultivate an ability to identify when to override one’s “gut feelings,” and switch from an intuitive, heuristic-based mode of reasoning to a reflective mode of reasoning. How best to cultivate these epistemic virtues is an ongoing empirical project, but we make some systematic claims regarding which types of heuristics will be more amenable to which interventions, and why. In doing so, we hope to enrich philosophical accounts of epistemic virtue, and defend the notion against a battery of recent empirically-based attacks.