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  • Writer's pictureRobyn Norrah

Epistemic Virtues, Modest Evidentialism, and The Standard View

Considerations of epistemological values of knowledge expansion, truth discovery, and inclusivity. Written for PHI 330: Theory of Knowledge with Professor Watson at Arizona State University on November 7th, 2021. Final Grade: A.

Artwork by Piero del Pollaiolo


The standard view in epistemology maintains that knowledge is a justified true belief, influencing a majority of developed theories of knowledge today. One of the most practical and well-supported theories under this view is modest evidentialism. I investigate the work of modest evidentialist, Scott F. Aikin, against epistemic virtues with substantiative objections inspired by Richard Feldman to illuminate my observations against the standard view and divulge its negligence of epistemically virtuous principles. I argue that, given that modest evidentialism forms on the standard view, the standard view must not be epistemically virtuous because it does not promote the expansion of knowledge, truth-discovery, or epistemic inclusivity.

Every year, legends exchange around an anonymous figure donning a white beard and cheerful glow that doles out presents to children around the globe. You may know him by Santa, Kris Kringle, Père Noël, or some other iteration, but you are more likely not to know him at all. The standard view in epistemology asks what knowledge and its sources are. Defining that knowledge is a justified true belief captured by perception, testimony, memory, introspection, reasoning, and rational insight (Watson, Lecture 1.1). Under these conditions, we could argue that those children who believe in Santa are indeed justified in doing so. Perhaps they met him at the mall, saw a bite taken out of the cookie they left, or received presents mysteriously under a holiday tree. Nonetheless, they do not possess knowledge as Santa is fictional. While this may be a juvenile example to offer, it accurately and realistically drives my concerns around the standard view. The idea of Santa being sold to millions of children is fallacious. However, epistemology should not dismiss the experiences and supposed knowledge attained through believing in such a character on the prevarication. To me, knowledge is far more than a directed fact to some truth. It is multidimensional and multifaceted. The standard view fails to do anything more than define knowledge within constrictive and conservative boundaries. I embrace that we must not merely ask what knowledge is but how we earn it, where it could lead us, and how it might connect us.

In this paper, I will argue that the standard view is not an epistemically virtuous analysis of knowledge by its relation to its most supportive theory, modest evidentialism. I will examine modest evidentialism, against my epistemological virtue ethics which uphold knowledge development, promote truth as discovery, and insist for objectives of inclusivity. Modest evidentialism is a more relaxed, modern take of evidentialism that reinforces how knowledge requires physical evidence. Modest Evidentialism by Scott F. Aikin gives a comprehensive and convincing overview of this theory of knowledge, especially honing in on accidental cases of knowledge and alternative moral norms. Anti-evidentialist theorists have particularly adored these areas, but Aikin's piece explains how these are not troubling plights to the modest view. In my first section, I will offer a review of Aikin's work, highlighting distinct areas of disjointed epistemic virtue. Section two will consist of objections to my argument motivated by modest evidentialist Richard Feldman and obtained from Epistemology. Then, in section three, I will alter my remarks against the general values of the standard view and offer a brief conclusion in section four.

  1. Modest evidentialism fails to influence efforts to expand knowledge.

  2. Modest evidentialism fails to encourage discovering further truths.

  3. Modest evidentialism fails to acknowledge epistemic diversity.

  4. If modest evidentialism fails to endorse efforts to expand knowledge, promote truth-discovery, and embrace diversity, then it must not be epistemically virtuous.

  5. Modest evidentialism must not be epistemically virtuous.

  6. Modest evidentialism is the most supportive theory to the standard view.

  7. The most supportive theory of the standard view should be epistemically virtuous.

  8. Therefore, given that modest evidentialism is maintained on the standard view, the standard view must not be epistemically virtuous.

1. Modest Evidentialism and Epistemic Virtues

The Gettier cases are infamous for luring in questions around justified belief. They reveal a problem where subject S is justified in believing a proposition p which technically validates a claim for knowledge by deduction where the direction to determination was false (Huemer, p. 444-446). Aikins offers and defends a version of this that I observe as a kind of reversed deduction that leans on a bias. Aikin addresses a case where S forms a belief at time t1 that lacks evidential authentication but later can justify the belief on evidence at t2. To modest evidentialists, this is a valid form of attaining knowledge.

Aikins describes how there is more to the theory here, where not just the belief is accounted for but the believer. The subjects' grasp of the evidence must attest that they believe according to the evidence and from the evidence (Aikins, p. 333). However, this notion manifests evidence dependence. Other vital perspectives may become neglected when there is an intense dependence on a distinct feature to justify beliefs. Evidence should control all the navigation of beliefs, but belief could pick and choose evidential support. In Aikin's example, an angsty teenager forms negative beliefs around authority before gaining the evidence that fully justifies their beliefs. In an epistemically virtuous theory, this angsty teenager would not get away with holding this outlook on principle. They would be encouraged to expand what they think they know by observing alternative perspectives and considering beyond what evidence fits their narrative, (1) expand knowledge. Conversely, to Gettier's cases, knowledge would reflect a meaning further from a solidified fact, engrossing a progressive story that reveals multidimensional truths, experiences, and interpretations.

An example of this is in problems with luck, where S is justified in believing p because p has happened or been proven before on evidence without other rationality. In modest evidentialism, S can get away with their justifications based on evidence that validates their belief. The dependence on evidence allows for this, not factoring in other considerations. Epistemically virtuous theories would curate a space of expansive knowledge that might expose how retrieving the same evidential support from the same source, and the same perspective is limiting. Thus, it does not contribute to gaining knowledge. Instead, it would promote that knowing occurs as S gains understanding around p, engaging in new perspectives, experiences, or inquiry. Hence, examples dismiss because they are singularly dimensioned, relying on too few elements within these bounds. S may think they have luck, but they do not have knowledge. An ethical theory of knowledge approaches the definition of knowledge as something to earn and inserts this aspect within its responses to such problems as Gettier, sustained belief, and luck. Modest evidentialism fails to uplift expansive knowledge values and perpetuates epistemically unethical practices. (Watson, Lectures 2.6-3c).

In light of disagreement or inner conflict, modest evidentialists defend synchronic obligation and belief suspension. Synchronic obligation posits that a subject should believe in relation to their evidence. Belief suspension outlines how a subject should withhold from believing a conflicting proposition where no other evidence exhibits its nature of being true or false. Aikin states how these concepts do "not extend to the requirements that a subject be, for example, well-informed or intelligent." (Aikins, p. 322). I assume Aikin intends this to be a sensitive response that favors inclusivity. No less, well-meaning ideologies that insinuate silence and submission over inquiry and exploration invalidate epistemological virtues of truth-discovery. An epistemologically virtuous theory of knowledge would reject synchronic obligations because they disengage subjects from a willingness and curiosity to learn more about some perceived truth. Belief suspension similarly discredits these efforts. Instead of challenging all that there could be to know, these ideas release a need to know anything at all. The beauty of the truth is that it is ever-growing and changing with time. An epistemologically noble theory would acknowledge this and insist that subjects continually chase what there is to know of the world, (2) truth-discovery. Modest evidentialism does not give its subjects the encouragement or responsibility of partaking in this evolution. Thus, it is not an epistemically virtuous theory of knowledge. (Watson, Lecture 7.3).

Aikin's modest evidentialism states that "people are capable of explicitly formulating and endorsing such thoughts overriding the evidentialist norm." (Aikins, p. 339). By 'such thoughts,' he means to include ones that may be conflicting (p but not-p) and morally or practically required, with or without evidence. His claim overrides anti-evidentialist objections by admitting the existence of "bad evidentialists" that inaccurately weigh evidence to sustain a certain belief. A typical example of this is one of parents and their son who becomes a murderer. The parents remember the man as a sweet child, relying on that to measure their sons' character. Except, this dilutes the truth to where they do not believe the conclusive evidence that proves their son is a murderer. To Aikin, what could be a counterexample to modest evidentialism becomes a story of evidentialists with their own minds and means to judge their own evidence. Sustaining beliefs is not considered irrational to modest evidentialism, and it acts as an essential factor to the theory despite its clauses to suspend beliefs only under certain circumstances. The ideal, along with laissez-faire responses around differentiated epistemic norms, can contribute to neglecting other relevant and valid forms of evidence and measurements of knowledge, including an understanding of how individuals, societies, and aspects of space and time attribute to what believers think they know, uplifting (3) epistemic diversity. Thus, showing how modest evidentialism does not inclusively motivate principles. (Watson, Lectures 7.1-7a)

The general merit of ‘sustaining’ is very prominent in Aikin's work, specifically when addressing the duality of reason. He writes, "reasons have a dual character— a reason should not only justify an act, belief, or policy, but that reason should also motivate and maintain the belief, act, or policies justified." (Aikin, p. 333). There is an overall air of conservation around reasonings, justifications, and beliefs. Conventional intentions to protect what is known or perceived as truth do not recognize or encourage epistemic diversity. It is pertinent that epistemological theories include the variance of situations, people, and societies. When problems are paradoxical or seemingly ridiculous, they should be embraced to be understood and accounted for, not dismissed as modest evidentialism would suggest. Theories that amplify how judgments motivate and maintain beliefs neglect that reasons should also introspect, explore, and innovate to understand rationalities beyond a single cause. The approaches around modest evidentialism limit their capacity to extend beyond the self and the connection to others, proving that it is not epistemically virtuous.

2. Objections for Modest Evidentialism

In Feldman's book, Epistemology, he argues that beliefs that essentially rely on falsehood are not considered knowledge. So in the cases of Gettier, for example, if S were pressed to explain their belief, it would not be justified (Feldman, p. 36-37). Feldman might object to the idea that modest evidentialism fails to expand knowledge on premise (1). Still, the added clause that requires subjects to determine the validity of their convictions by observing their dependence on other beliefs can lead to problems of infinite regress. Infinite regress is solved by iterations of foundationalism, coherentism, foundherentism, skepticism, and infinitism. However, I would argue that the real problems lie beyond adjusting stipulations around justification because even with Feldman's principle, it is conceivable that a subject can unwittingly rely on a falsehood. A subject must be actively encouraged by a view and understanding of knowledge to expand their scope, so they are less apt to rely on a fallacy. The theories mentioned above, aside from skepticism, each depend on the standard view, which indicates that subjects may settle within their beliefs, no matter how justified, if the subject can ration their validity with what evidence they have. Then, these stipulations of justified true beliefs from the standard view are not enough. They confine in verbiage and are vague in their scope when they should encompass complexities and encourage expansion. (Watson, Lecture 2.6).

In contrast to what Aikin proposed of modest evidentialism, Feldman describes a possible approach to belief suspension that includes an evaluation of belief in degrees. His observation arises in an objection that shows an imbalance within the concept of risk. S1 and S2 can both have the same evidence, but their attitudes around p could be different, where S1 believes p and S2 believes not-p (Feldman, p. 187). Feldman's analysis and proposal could object to my insertion that modest evidentialism does not promote truth-discovery (2) by explaining how this virtue reflects varying belief levels. Some people may believe with cautious acceptance, while others believe with full conviction. It might not be necessary to press that truth needs steady pioneering, but theories must further define our relationship or belief around the facts.

It is the exact insecurity of belief that I find liability for the situation that S1 and S2 find themselves in. Even if modest evidentialism could better define S1 and S2 as either careful or convinced, where would that leave the puzzle? Explained, but unsolved. Epistemically virtuous theories should not aim to blanket labels. They should seek to discover the truth just as S1 and S2 should be propelled to do. The view that beliefs ought to be held separate but equal confuses this system of thinking. Beliefs do not need to detach from each other or the evidence equation. What I mean by this is that, in the instance of S1 and S2, an epistemically virtuous view would urge that they go beyond their corresponding evidence and selves to understand their disagreement around p. When the truth is multidimensional, knowers can study it from different perspectives. So that even if S1 and S2 were to see from one another's point of view and still disagree, they might come to learn something more about one another, other ways of beholding evidential support, or deciphering the world. Ultimately, the problem of truth-discovery is more than identifying principles of belief; it is about strengthening the principles of epistemology. (Watson, Lecture 2.2).

Relativism is not uniquely distinct from modest evidentialism by its relation to the standard view. While relativism ventures to replace the standard view, Feldman argues that many of its statements are compatible (Feldman, p. 177-189). As I argue against the standard view and advocate against its epistemic amorality, I could envision an objection from Feldman that utilizes this assertion to uphold the foundation of modest evidentialism (3) and (7). Relativism is a view that champions epistemic diversity by putting forward the notion that knowledge is relative to time, space, individuals, society, and more. The concept drives to relieve epistemic biases and promote cultural consciousness. (Watson, Lectures 7.1-7.3).

Feldman addresses four main clauses of relativism and states, "None of this is particularly controversial. Nor does it call into question anything associated with The Standard View." (Feldman, p. 178). As relativism is a theory that aligns with the standard view and it addresses epistemic diversity, then the standard view is epistemically virtuous. It is not far-off to imagine a version of modest evidentialism that adapts some relativistic approaches with this in mind. While it may be true that relativism works to vindicate epistemic diversity, its application with the standard view does not rectify the fact that the standard view does not address these issues from the start. The standard view acts as a foundation to countless theories of knowledge. Its assertions on what knowledge is, its sources, and how principles such as truth are defined supervene on the doctrines built from it. It is entirely feasible to Frankenstein philosophies over the standard view until a theory of epistemic virtue emerges. Nevertheless, it would be more effective for epistemology to rework the foundation altogether. The standard view leaves too much disregarded, including the importance of relative knowledge and extending beyond to perspective truths and fostered learning.

3. The Standard View and Epistemic Virtue

In my example of Santa, I hoped to demonstrate how the standard view operates with over-precision, discounting the knowledge gained by children around the globe on the fact that humanity lied to them. Now I wish to show that there must be some truth to their justified beliefs. Knowledge is more than differentiating between fact and fiction, evidential support, and justifications. Knowledge is a journey deserving of an innovative definition that encapsulates its intricacies and development.

Beyond the flaws of belief and justification, delved into with my analysis of modest evidentialism, I find the standard views most fatal error lies with its restricted description of the truth. The correspondence theory of truth clarifies how the truth is relative to the fact, based on reality (Watson, Lecture 2.3). Such ideals direct an individual path to know a proposition as true. When I reflect on this theory, I see it is essential to experience what I think I know. Someone says the world is flat, another says it is round. How can I be sure if I have not experienced the world in such a way to know it is either for a fact? Knowledge under the standard view does not specify the emphasis of experience. However, its a posteriori and a priori sources of knowledge recognize multiple forms of understanding that arguably account for the generality. I can appreciate its evidentialist responses with this exposition and postulation of truth. Nonetheless, the theory is off to me. It does not teach how subjectivity can skew beliefs around truth or how holding multiple, sometimes paradoxical visions around propositions can align one closer to reality than just maintaining a single position.

There is a common phrase, "I know p like the back of my hand!" Though have you ever really looked at the back of your hand? What do you really know? Even if you genuinely get to know every crevice and hue, would there not be more to learn? What does it look like when you clench your fist? When some creases mute, does that mean what you knew of them no longer counts as truth? Or is something gained? Maybe a new perspective to something you already knew? Can knowledge grow? If so, what around? Can the truth change? Is there more still to discover? What happens if you observe your hand with a microscope, an x-ray, a surgeon's knife? What would it mean to you if the back of your hand became numb, removed, or painted to be art hanging in the Louvre? To me, the truth is a lot like any observable physical object combined with a bit of imagination. With a change of focus, angle, or context, what the senses can observe can lead one to experience a shift of thought or perspective. The idea keeps me in a wondrous ambiguity, riddled with inquiry and amusement.

I speculate that truth is multidimensional, multifaceted, and not limited by stated facts or gathered evidence. It is a cumulation of these things within the perspective of it. It relies on various factors that can affect its interpretation, only limited by the human mind's grasp and retention. Truths are so by our understanding and relation to them. If a subject were to stare only at a single knuckle on the back of their hand, that would become all they know of it. I think an epistemically virtuous account of knowledge would encourage subjects to displace their observation around what they think they know to promote ideas of expansion and truth-discovery. When subjects explore and are motivated to gather perspectives, their grip of facts metamorphose. They may be open to alternative views, inquire beyond evidential backing, and learn to respect and embrace (not just tolerate) epistemic diversity.

The inconsistencies of the standard view drive my vision of the truth and optimism of inspiring truth-seekers. The standard view lacks epistemically virtuous ambition and confines its stances around truth, justification, and belief. It is too concerned with answering whether someone knows p rather than inquiring on what is to know about p. Knowledge is measured by its justifications against truth when its perspectival understanding should measure it. The way I see it, even falsified evidence can lead to some aspect of the truth. The key is to strive to comprehend where it fits in a larger equation. (Watson, Lecture 3a).

In the case of the murderous son, it may be so that the parents have testimony supporting their sons' character alongside evidence that confirms he is a murder. They may side with testimony because of their epistemic virtues. Still, an ethical theory would point out that they are missing perspectives to their truths around the person that their son murdered and introspection on how they were terrible parents. There is always room to discover with dynamic views to explore. It may lead to conflicting thoughts or issues of moral and practical norms, but I see that as an objective task. There are many sides to the truth. It varies in gradience within epistemic virtues and ethical hues. I do not think this should be ignored but expect it to be embraced as a matter of principle. Humanity may be patterned, but it is done so in variance. Theories should embrace it in that aspect instead of reducing it to stringent equations.

4. Conclusion

Modest evidentialism emphasizes epistemically unethical suppressive knowledge, truth, and diversity. Aikin's work shows that concepts of evidence dependence, accidental justification, synchronic obligations, judgment suspension, alternative norm dismissal, and belief conservation contribute to this deduction. Feldman provides compelling objections, which I found insufficient in providing modest evidentialism or the standard view to promote epistemic virtues. Given that modest evidentialism assembles on the standard view, the standard view must not be epistemically virtuous. I argue for this validity, exposing the restrictive lens of the standard view and offering a critique to the topics of justification, belief, and truth in relation to epistemic virtues of knowledge development, truth-discovery, and epistemic inclusion. Given my account of the values absent in modern epistemological thought, I challenge the field of epistemology to rethink the foundation for knowledge into one that is virtuously inclusive, flexible, and innovative to inspire a new generation of inquisitive forward-thinkers.


Aikin, Scott F. “Modest Evidentialism.” International Philosophical Quarterly 46, no. 3 (2006): 327–43.

Feldman, Richard. “Chapters 1-7, and 9.” Essay. In Epistemology, 8–189. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Huemer, Michael, and Robert Audi. “Part III: The Nature and Scope of Justification and Knowledge.” Essay. In Epistemology: Contemporary Readings, 435–606. London: Routledge, 2008.

Watson, Jeffrey. “Units 1-7 Lectures.” PHI 330: Theory of Knowledge. Lectures presented by Arizona State University Online, December 4, 2021.

I would like to credit Dr. Watson for his mentorship and guidance through the development of these positions. Thank you for helping me refine my early thoughts of epistemological virtue.

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