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Ethical and Epistemic Egoism and the Ideal of Autonomy
Linda Zagzebski
In this paper I distinguish three degrees of epistemic egoism, each of which has
an ethical analogue, and I argue that all three are incoherent. Since epistemic
autonomy is frequently identified with one of these forms of epistemic egoism,
it follows that epistemic autonomy as commonly understood is incoherent. I
end with a brief discussion of the idea of moral autonomy and suggest that its
component of epistemic autonomy in the realm of the moral is problematic.
In this paper I argue that the ideal of epistemic autonomy is incoherent.
I’ll begin with an exploration of three forms of epistemic egoism, each of which
has an ethical analogue, and will argue that each form of epistemic egoism is
inconsistent. Given that epistemic autonomy is often described in a way that
makes it indistinguishable from epistemic egoism, it follows that epistemic
autonomy as widely understood is incoherent. I will end by raising some
questions about the coherence of autonomy in the moral sense.
Let us begin with the strongest form of epistemic egoism, the position I
will call extreme epistemic egoism.1 The extreme epistemic egoist maintains
This is the position Richard Foley (2001) calls “epistemic egotism,” but he drops the
that the fact that someone else has a belief is never a reason for her to believe
it, not even when conjoined with evidence that the other person is reliable. If
she finds out that someone else believes p, she will demand proof of p that she
can determine by the use of her own faculties, given her own previous beliefs,
but she will never believe anything on testimony. Similarly, the extreme
ethical egoist maintains that the fact that someone else has an interest is
never a reason for her to take it into account when she acts. She will act for the
sake of the interests of others only if it can be demonstrated to her that doing
so serves her own interests.2 So the extreme epistemic egoist puts no epistemic
value on the beliefs of others. The fact that another person has a belief does
not count in her considerations about what to believe. Similarly, the extreme
ethical egoist puts no practical or moral value on the interests of others. The
fact that another person has an interest does not count in her own desires or
practical considerations.
Extreme ethical egoism is very implausible and it is hard to find a
philosopher who endorses it, but many philosophers have endorsed extreme
term in Foley (2005). The term “egotism” is probably not apt because “egotism” as it is used in
ethics has more to do with the way a person assesses her own importance than with the way she
treats her interests relative to the interests of others.
By “interests” I mean to include desires, aims, values, and things we care about. I do not
mean to limit interests to what is good for one.
epistemic egoism, although of course, it would not be usual to call it by that
name. Elizabeth Fricker describes epistemic autonomy as follows: “This ideal
type relies on no one else for any of her knowledge. Thus she takes no one
else’s word for anything, but accepts only what she has found out for herself,
relying only on her own cognitive faculties and investigative and inferential
powers.” (Fricker, p. 225) Notice that what Fricker calls “epistemic autonomy”
is the same as what I am calling “extreme epistemic egoism.” Fricker finds the
idea that one should trust one’s own epistemic faculties and beliefs but not
those of another laudatory and cites Descartes, Locke and others as supporting
it.3 Her objection is that it is impractical; we would have very little knowledge if
we could not rely upon testimony. A superior being could do so, however, and
such a being would be superior for being able to do so. Fricker says:
..a superior being, with all the epistemic powers to find out everything
she wanted to know for herself, could live up to this idea of complete
epistemic autonomy without thereby circumscribing the extent of her
knowledge. Given the risks involved in epistemic dependence on others,..
this superior being is, I suppose, epistemically better placed than
humans are. That is, if she knew at first hand just as much as I myself
Fricker could have found much earlier support in Plato’s Theaetetus (201B/C) where
Socrates claims that the jury members in a court case do not know what the eyewitness knows
because the jury believes only by “hearsay” (ex akoes).
know in large part through trust in others’ testimony, she would be
epistemically more secure, hence both practically more independent,
and– in some abstract sense– more autonomous than I am. In the same
way that I might regret that I cannot fly, or live to be 300 years old, I
might regret that I am not such a being. (p. 243).
Fricker’s suggestion here seems to be that extreme epistemic egoism
would be an ideal if we could live up to it, but it is undesirable because of our
limitations. The need for epistemic trust is thus due to our inferiority. An
extreme epistemic egoist with superior epistemic powers would not need
epistemic trust in others, and she would be epistemically superior to us.
Why does extreme epistemic egoism seem like an ideal under the name
“epistemic autonomy,” whereas extreme ethical egoism is quite the opposite?
Fricker’s remarks above suggest a partial answer. Ethical and epistemic egoism
differ in their relations to trust. One does not need to trust another person in
order to take into account her desires, interests, and aims, whereas it is
necessary to trust the epistemic faculties and belief-forming history of others in
order to take their beliefs into account in forming one’s own beliefs. So
suspicion of the trustworthiness of others is a consideration in favor of extreme
epistemic egoism, whereas it has no relation at all to the acceptance or
rejection of extreme ethical egoism.
But even if worries about trust make extreme epistemic egoism more
acceptable than extreme ethical egoism, that does not explain why many
philosophers treat extreme epistemic egoism as an ideal. If the problem with
trust is that it leaves us epistemically insecure, given that many people are
untrustworthy, why should I be any more secure if I rely upon myself? I do not
have evidence that I am more trustworthy than all other people. For one thing,
it is impossible for me to obtain evidence of my trustworthiness as a whole
since I have to use my faculties and previous beliefs in order to gather and
evaluate the evidence, so it is in principle impossible for me to have evidence
that as a whole I am more trustworthy than all other people. By relying upon
my powers, I do have evidence that many other people are untrustworthy, but
why should that lead me to fall back on my own powers? Using those same
powers, I also have evidence that I am sometimes untrustworthy, and I have
evidence that in some domains some other people are more trustworthy than I
am. As far as I can see, fear of untrustworthiness can make us epistemically
insecure, but it does not support extreme epistemic egoism.
Furthermore, if the untrustworthiness of others is the ground of the ideal
of autonomy/extreme egoism, that does not explain why the ideal is not one in
which persons are epistemically dependent upon perfectly trustworthy other
persons. Suppose we compare an imaginary community of epistemically
trustworthy persons who collectively acquire the same range of knowledge as
Fricker’s imaginary superior individual. Would the epistemically autonomous
individual still be superior to a member of the superior trustworthy
community? If epistemic autonomy is really an ideal, the answer would have to
be yes, but I do not know what the support for that would be.
A second form of epistemic egoism is the position we can call strong
epistemic egoism. The strong epistemic egoist maintains that she has no
obligation to count what another person believes as relevant to her own beliefs,
but she may do so if she sees that given what she believes about them, they are
likely to serve her desire for the truth, that is, she sees that they are reliable.
Similarly, according to the strong ethical egoist, she has no obligation to
count the interests of another as relevant to her practical considerations. She
might count their interests as relevant if she sees that there is a reliable
connection between serving their interests and serving her own interests, but
she acknowledges no obligation to do that. So the strong ethical egoist
maintains that she has no unchosen obligation to desire what another person
desires because he desires it, and the strong epistemic egoist maintains that
she has no unchosen obligation to believe what another person believes
because he believes it. The strong epistemic egoist will believe on testimony
only when she believes the testifier is reliable based on the use of her own
faculties and reference to her own previous beliefs, but she acknowledges no
obligation to do so. In the same way, the strong ethical egoist will desire what
someone else desires only when she sees that doing so is instrumentally
connected to satisfying her own desires, but she acknowledges no obligation to
do so.
There is a third form of epistemic egoism that I find interesting. What I
call the weak epistemic egoist is someone who maintains that when one has
evidence that someone else’s beliefs reliably serve one’s desire for the truth in
some domain, one is not only rationally permitted, one is rationally required to
take their beliefs into account in forming one’s own beliefs.4 Likewise, the weak
ethical egoist is a person who maintains that one is rationally required to take
into account the interests of others in those cases in which she has evidence
that serving their interests serves her own interests. Otherwise, she has no
obligation to care about anyone else’s interests.
Although strong and weak ethical egoism are not as implausible as
extreme ethical egotism, I assume that both are implausible, and I do not think
there are many philosophers who have defended either one. In contrast, strong
or weak epistemic egoism appeals to those who uphold the ideal of epistemic
autonomy because it preserves fundamental dependence upon oneself while
conceding the fact that we must rely upon the testimony of others for much of
what we believe and know. I interpret Elizabeth Fricker as defending a version
of weak epistemic egoism. Fricker argues for a principle of testimony according
to which one properly accepts a proposition on the basis of testimony only if
Foley (2001) discusses epistemic egoism and its ethical parallel, but does not mention
what I call weak egoism.
one correctly recognizes that the testifier is epistemically better placed than
oneself with respect to the proposition in question. That makes her position a
version of epistemic egoism. Fricker goes on to argue that in such cases it is
not merely rationally permissible, it is in fact rationally mandatory to defer to
the other person. That makes her a weak epistemic egoist.5
One reason to accept epistemic egoism, then, is the desire to retain
autonomy as far as possible while having a healthy amount of knowledge, but
it is hard to see why we should accept epistemic egoism as an ideal. We have
already seen that egoism cannot be defended on the grounds that I am more
trustworthy than others since I have no reason to believe that. Perhaps the
reason is that I must rely on my own powers, but I have a choice about whether
to rely on the powers of others. It is true that reliance upon my own faculties
and previous beliefs is inescapable, whereas reliance upon others can be
escaped if one is willing to give up many beliefs. But that does not support the
position that it is better for me to rely upon my own powers above those of
Fricker defends a Testimony Deferential Principle paraphrased as follows: A hearer, H,
properly accepts that P on the basis of trust in a speaker, S’s testimony that P, if and only if S
speaks sincerely, and S is epistemically well enough placed with respect to P to be in a position
to know that P, and S is better epistemically placed with respect to P than H, and there is no
equally well-qualified contrary testimony regarding P, and H recognizes all these things to be so.
(p. 232).
others. If some form of epistemic egoism is an ideal, that cannot be defended
on the grounds that it is good for me to do only what I must do in any case.
That would be very implausible. The result is that both strong and weak
epistemic egoism are just as puzzling as extreme epistemic egoism. All three
forms of egoism propose an ideal of epistemic autonomy that needs defense,
and all three forms have problematic ethical analogues.
So far we have not seen a reason to accept epistemic autonomy as an
ideal if it is identified with one of the three forms of epistemic egoism, but we
do not yet have a reason to reject epistemic autonomy/egoism either. Perhaps
there is some other reason to treat epistemic egoism as an ideal that I have not
mentioned, or perhaps epistemic egoism is a plausible position, even if not an
ideal. But I want now to argue that the demands of consistency push the
epistemic egoist into weaker and weaker forms of egoism, forcing her eventually
to reject egoism. None of the three forms of epistemic egoism can be coherently
The extreme epistemic egoist trusts only her own powers and previous
beliefs as a means to getting further true beliefs and knowledge. But if she lives
in a universe similar to our own, the use of her own powers will show her that
there are other people who are trustworthy means for giving her the truth. She
finds out that other people are reliable in the same way she finds out that the
grass will grow-- by perception and induction. It takes a further use of her
powers to infer that a particular belief of a particular other person is probably
true, but there is no difference in principle between that inference and many
other inferences she makes routinely and routinely trusts as an extreme egoist.
So by using her own powers she sees that she is permitted to trust the powers
and beliefs of many other people, and she begins to accept some beliefs on
testimony. Trust in her own powers requires her to weaken her extreme egoism
and to become a strong epistemic egoist.
However, if she were only permitted and not required to trust these
people, she would have to have a reason not to trust them based on her own
powers and beliefs. That might happen in some cases. Perhaps the beliefs of
trustworthy others conflict with each other or with her own beliefs, or maybe
the exercise of her faculties gives her conflicting verdicts on the
trustworthiness of another. But again, if she is living in a universe anything
like our own, there will be many cases in which there is no such conflict. By
using her own powers and relying on her own previous beliefs, she will see that
certain other people are trustworthy sources of truth on some occasion, and
there is no reason not to trust them. The use of her own faculties leads her to
see that trusting them is mandatory, not optional. She is then required by a
consistent trust in her own faculties to become a weak epistemic egoist.
Let us now look at the reasonableness of weak epistemic egoism. What
distinguishes egoism in general from its rejection is that all else being equal,
the egoist puts greater trust in her own faculties than in the faculties of others.
As we have already seen, the egoist does not have evidence that she is a more
trustworthy epistemic agent than many others in relevantly similar situations.
She has evidence that she is more trustworthy than some others in some
domains and less trustworthy than some others in some domains, but she does
not have evidence that she is more trustworthy on the whole than all other
people; nobody has such evidence. She therefore lacks evidence for her egoism.
But the lack of evidence for egoism is not sufficient to show that egoism is
unreasonable. After all, I lack evidence that my faculties as a whole are
trustworthy, but I assume that it is reasonable to have basic trust in my
faculties as a whole. Why couldn’t egoism be reasonable in the same way basic
self-trust is reasonable?
I want now to argue that epistemic egoism is inconsistent with the
egoist’s own standards. I am interpreting the epistemic egoist as someone who
cares about the truth. She trusts only her own faculties and the faculties of
others whose reliability she has discovered through the use of her own faculties
because she believes that that is the best way to get the truth. Since she cares
about truth, she commits herself to being a conscientious believer, one whose
epistemic behavior is governed by caring for the truth, and it is rational for her
to trust herself when she is conscientious. She also has evidence that she gets
the truth when she is conscientious, but like everybody else, she must trust
herself in advance of the evidence since she must trust herself in order to
collect and evaluate the evidence. So the rational epistemic egoist trusts herself
when she is conscientious in attempting to get the truth, and this trust is not
based on evidence of her trustworthiness.
Now if the epistemic egoist is rational, she is committed to trusting
others when they are conscientious, when they have the qualities she trusts in
herself. Trusting herself commits her to trusting others when they are in the
same position she is in; that is, when they are in similar circumstances, have
apparently similar powers and abilities, and act as conscientiously as she acts
when she trusts herself. If she is consistent, she must trust them as much as
herself, other things being equal, since she has no basis upon which to trust
herself more than those she perceives to be epistemically equally well-placed.
Let me stress that she is not committed to trusting them because she has
evidence that they are trustworthy. She is committed to trusting them because
there is no relevant difference between her grounds for trusting herself and her
grounds for trusting them. Assuming it is reasonable to trust herself, it is
reasonable to trust others. If she insists upon trusting herself– her faculties,
beliefs, and emotions-- more than others, she must be trusting her faculties,
beliefs, and emotions just because they are her own and not someone else’s.
She cannot consistently do that if she thinks there is any reason to trust
herself. Any reason she can point to is a reason that applies to many others.
There is the possibility that she trusts herself and distrusts others
without any reason other than the fact that her own powers and beliefs are
hers and the powers and beliefs of others are not hers. But if that is what she
is doing, she is valuing her own powers more than the truth. When she has to
choose between relying upon her own powers and beliefs without trusting
others, and relying upon others when she finds by the use of her own powers
that relying upon them is the way to truth, she will choose the former. Such a
person is not an epistemic egoist. Rather, she is an extreme ethical egoist in
the realm of the intellect. I have not given any arguments against ethical
egoism in this paper, but I doubt that many philosophers would want to accept
epistemic egoism at the cost of commitment to extreme ethical egoism of this
sort. Assuming that the latter position is unacceptable, all three forms of
epistemic egoism should be rejected.
Richard Foley offers a different argument that epistemic egoism is
incoherent. Foley begins with an observation we have already discussed: a
normal, non-skeptical life requires a significant degree of self-trust since there
are no non-circular tests of the reliability of our faculties and opinions as a
whole (2001, p. 99). Foley then argues that if I have self-trust, I must trust
those from whom I acquired my beliefs. That is because I would not be reliable
unless they are. In fact, I am not only committed to trusting my precursors, I
am committed to trusting my contemporaries since they acquired their beliefs
from roughly the same sources from which I acquired mine (p. 102).
That is enough to make the three forms of epistemic egoism incompatible
with self-trust, and since self-trust is a rational requirement, the rejection of
epistemic egoism is a rational requirement. We therefore have a prima facie
reason to believe whatever these other people believe in advance of evidence for
their reliability. We should trust them for roughly the same reason we trust
Foley goes on to argue that self-trust commits us to widening the scope
of epistemic trust even farther. Since people all over the world at all times are
more similar than dissimilar in their faculties and environment, the fact that
some person somewhere at some time has a certain belief gives me a prima
facie reason to believe it myself. This is the position Foley calls epistemic
universalism (pp. 103-5). According to the epistemic universalist, the fact that
another person has a belief is a mark in favor of its credibility, no matter who
the person is. The epistemic universalist always treats the fact that another
person has a belief as a reason to believe it herself, but that reason can be
defeated by evidence of the person’s unreliability or by evidence against the
proposition believed. So whereas the extreme epistemic egoist says we should
never put epistemic trust in others, and the strong and weak epistemic egoists
say we should trust them only if we have evidence of their trustworthiness, the
epistemic universalist says we should trust them unless we have evidence of
their untrustworthiness.
My argument against epistemic egoism is that the exercise of my own
powers, powers that I trust, commits me to trusting others. The epistemic
egoist trusts her own powers, and the exercise of those powers in a world like
our own commits her to trusting others, which is to say, she is committed to
giving up epistemic egoism. Foley’s argument is different. He argues that the
fact that I trust myself commits me to trusting others. Since self-trust is
reasonable because it is inescapable, prima facie trust in others is reasonable
because a condition for my own trustworthiness is the trustworthiness of
others. Foley then uses a thesis of broad intellectual egalitarianism to extend
his argument to an argument for epistemic universalism. My argument does
not extend as far as an argument for epistemic universalism.6
Like the forms of epistemic egoism, epistemic universalism has an ethical
analogue. According to the ethical universalist, the fact that someone else has
a certain interest or desire gives me some reason to take that interest or desire
into account in my deliberations. I always have a reason to make someone
else’s interests my interests simply because their interests are their interests.
Again, that reason can be defeated or overridden, but the ethical universalist
maintains that I have a prima facie reason to take an interest in the interests of
everybody else, just as I have a prima facie reason to believe what anybody else
believes according to the epistemic universalist.
Notice that there is no argument for the incoherence of ethical egoism
I find it very hard to know whether epistemic universalism should be accepted because
there are no pure test cases in which all I know in favor of p is that some person of whom I know
nothing believes p. Finding out that somebody believes p invariably brings with it other
information, either about the source of the belief or its content.
that parallels either Foley’s or my argument for the incoherence of epistemic
egoism. My argument against epistemic egoism starts from the assumption
that all sides have a common desire for truth, and the dispute between the
epistemic egoist and the non-egoist is about trust in the attempt to get truth.
But there is no common assumption of the desire for some good that means to
which is the basis for the dispute between the ethical egoist and the non-egoist.
I do not see that the exercise of my taking an interest in whatever I am
interested in commits me under pain of inconsistency to take an interest in the
interests of others.
Similarly, there is no ethical parallel to Foley’s argument because even
though the fact that I trust my own faculties and previous beliefs commits me
to trusting the faculties and beliefs of others since my trustworthiness depends
upon theirs, caring about my own interests does not commit me to caring
about the interests of others since what I care about does not depend upon
what other people care about, and my interests do not depend upon other
people’s interests. Of course, many philosophers have argued that it is
irrational to care about my own interests and not those of others, but it is not
inconsistent, or at least, if there is an inconsistency, it is not as straightforward
as it is in the case of epistemic egoism.
I suspect that the widespread rejection of ethical egoism is primarily due
to the fact that many of us find it morally repellant and we trust the emotion of
moral repulsion. Arguments that ethical egoism is irrational are used to bolster
a pre-existent rejection of the position. In contrast, as we have seen, epistemic
egoism is not repellant, and, in fact, philosophers often find it appealing. A
person who personally disvalues the interests of others upsets us. A person
who personally disvalues the beliefs of others does not. It is interesting to
consider why that might be the case. My conjecture is that we do not get upset
about people with differing strategies to a shared end (the truth), but we do get
upset about people who do not value our ends and may even thwart them.
But that might not be quite right. It seems to me that we do get upset at
extreme epistemic egoists who do not take our word for anything, and we often
get upset at the epistemic egoist who demands proof of our reliability before
believing us, proof that we usually cannot provide. To do so, we would have to
know what they already believe and accept as premises of a demonstration,
and we would then have to lay out the evidence of our reliability, a procedure
that is not only cumbersome and time-consuming, but is unlikely to do much
to foster a relationship with them. In fact, it seems virtually guaranteed to keep
a distance between us.
That suggests that if there is no difference in the behavior of the
epistemic egoist and the non-egoist, we are not likely to complain about
epistemic egoism. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even notice it. It is only when
we are not trusted that we take offense. However, I take it that the dispute over
epistemic egoism is interesting because there typically is a difference in the
behavior of the epistemic egoist and the non-egoist. Epistemic egoism affects
the way epistemic communities function, and it no doubt affects the way other
sorts of communities function. Think of the problem of the legendary
Cassandra, whose ability to foretell the future was not trusted by the Trojans,
with disastrous results when they did not heed her warning that the Trojan
horse was a hoax. But even more telling was the effect on her. Aeschylus tells
us it drove her mad. One of the morals of the story of Cassandra is that we
need to be trusted epistemically, as well as in other ways. I think, then, that
not only is epistemic autonomy a position that cannot be consistently
maintained, but I think that the attempt to live by it probably has undesirable
consequences for community life.
I would like to end this section by noting that the rejection of epistemic
autonomy does not commit us to rejecting intellectual autonomy in all forms. I
have focused on the issue of autonomy in the adoption of belief or non-belief
about standard objects of belief, which are generally understood as
propositions. But the human intellect does much more than form beliefs. An
important state of intellect which we value and to which the arguments of this
paper do not apply is understanding. I surmise that whereas other people can
give us beliefs, other people cannot give us understanding; at least, we cannot
pick up understanding from them in the straightforward way we can pick up
their beliefs. Autonomy may be necessary in the quest for understanding, not
because there is something allegedly better about the autonomous
understander over the non-autonomous understander, but because we can
only get understanding on our own. Similar points apply to traits of intellectual
character. Nobody else can make me open-minded or intellectually cautious or
thorough or fair or humble. But that is not because there is an ideal of
intellectual autonomy to which I should aspire, but because there are certain
things I have to do myself.
It is interesting to consider the connection between epistemic autonomy
and moral autonomy. As I interpret the ideal of the morally autonomous agent,
she is autonomous in two ways:
(1) She figures out the moral law for herself and trusts nobody but
herself to figure it out, so she is an extreme epistemic egoist about morality.
(2) She is self-legislating; she obeys a law she gives to herself.
The issues raised by moral autonomy are among the deepest and most
important of all those examined in ethical theory, but all I will do in this brief
concluding section is to mention some ways the arguments of this paper might
apply to moral autonomy. These remarks are intended only as a prelude to
future work.
Is it coherent to be an extreme epistemic egoist about morality, as the
morally autonomous agent is? Such a person would not necessarily be an
extreme epistemic egoist about non-moral matters. She could even be an
epistemic universalist about non-moral matters. So she might think that there
is something importantly different about moral beliefs that makes them
immune to the argument I gave against epistemic egoism. Perhaps she has the
position that the moral beliefs of different persons do not conflict, or she might
think that the conflict is not cognitive, or she might think that no two people
are ever in the same epistemic situation with respect to moral beliefs. Perhaps
there is something more subjective or distinctively personal about moral beliefs
that would make it appropriate to rely only upon oneself for such beliefs, on
the grounds that no one else can contribute the personal element to her beliefs.
That was notably not the thinking of Kant, of course, but it might be the
thinking of a contemporary upholder of extreme epistemic egoism about the
Suppose instead that I think that I should trust myself in forming my
moral beliefs at least in part because I form these beliefs conscientiously; I try
to figure out the truth about moral matters. I also notice that there are other
people who are just as conscientious as I am in their moral beliefs, and some of
their beliefs conflict with mine. I see for myself that some other people do what
I do when I am conscientious in figuring out what morality requires and what a
morally virtuous person is like. That is, they do what I trust in myself.
Furthermore, I may admire them in the way they think about moral matters
and I trust my emotion of admiration. If so, I can easily trust some of the moral
beliefs of some other people as much as my own and I might trust some of the
beliefs of some people more than my own. With these assumptions, I should
reject epistemic egoism about morality for the same reason I would be led to
reject epistemic egoism about non-moral beliefs.
How would Foley’s argument against epistemic egoism apply to moral
beliefs?7 Recall that Foley argues that I would not be trustworthy in my beliefs
unless many other people are trustworthy also. That is because he assumes
that most of my beliefs were acquired from other people, and I would not be
reliable unless they are. But we probably do not take moral beliefs on
testimony to the same extent that we take beliefs in many other categories on
testimony, at least not after we reach adulthood, so the inconsistency between
self-trust and failure to trust others is not as striking in the moral case as it is
with our beliefs in general. Furthermore, the set of moral beliefs is small
enough that it does seem possible to live by Fricker’s ideal of extreme epistemic
egoism in the moral domain without circumscribing one’s moral knowledge. So
I am not sure that Foley’s argument against epistemic egoism should lead us to
reject epistemic egoism about the moral.
But Foley also has an argument for epistemic universalism, which would
presumably apply to moral beliefs. The epistemic universalist ought to
acknowledge a prima facie reason to accept the moral beliefs of any other
Foley seems to be sympathetic to the view that we should be more reluctant to rely on
others for our moral opinions than for other kinds of opinion (2001, p. 115), but he supports that
contention by expressing sympathy for the view that moral judgments lack truth value, in which
case, neither his argument nor my argument against epistemic egoism would apply.
person. Of course, that reason is often immediately defeated by the conflicting
beliefs of other persons, so the argument does not get us very far in
determining what to believe, but Foley’s argument does require the rejection of
epistemic autonomy in the moral realm. I think, then, that some of the
arguments of this paper should lead us to be skeptical of the first component of
moral autonomy, the component of epistemic autonomy about morality.
What about the second component of moral autonomy? If I should not
value my cognitive powers above those of others just because they are mine,
why should I value my will just because it is mine? The problem is especially
acute if my will depends upon my intellect in a significant way. If the ideal of
epistemic autonomy fails, it may carry with it the failure of the ideal of the
autonomy of the will. But it is doubtful that the ideal of the autonomy of the
will depends entirely on the ideal of the autonomy of the intellect, and there are
some very interesting issues here about the nature of the self and the place of
the will (if there is any such thing) at the core of the self. I have focused on the
way the ideal of epistemic autonomy tends to undermine itself. I cannot say
whether the autonomy of the will undermines itself in the same way.
It is curious that we accept the limitations of a material world, but we
hate submitting to the will of another, and we hate submitting to the intellect of
another. We are right to resist being abused or dominated or controlled, but I
have argued that there is nothing wrong with submitting to the intellect of
another just because it is the intellect of another and not our own. Submission
to a will is a more complicated case because submission implies a will to
submit. We can have a will to submit to the intellect of another, and we can
have a will to submit to the will of another. I do not see that there is anything
inconsistent in refusing to do the latter, but neither do I know of a plausible
argument in favor of refusing to submit to the will of another either.
Foley, Richard. 2001. Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
__________________. 2005. “Universal Intellectual Trust,” Episteme: A Journal of
Social Epistemology 2 (1): 5-11.
Fricker, Elizabeth. 2006. “Testimony and Epistemic Autonomy,” in The
Epistemology of Testimony, edited by Jennifer Lackey and Ernest Sosa, Oxford
University Press.
Linda Zagzebski is George Lynn Cross Research Professor and Kingfisher
College Chair of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at the University of
Oklahoma. She is the author of Divine Motivation Theory (2004), Virtues of the
Mind (1996), The Dilemma of Freedom and Foreknowledge (1991), Philosophy of
Religion: An Historical Introduction (2007), and On Epistemology, forthcoming
from Wadsworth/Broadview Press.