Alvin Plantinga

Defending a Eudaemonist Account of Virtue Ethics.

Part 3: Moral Epistemology.

John Fisher 2.0
17 min readMar 5, 2022


In our first installment, we looked at how to understand the term ‘good’ as an evaluating term that refers to some member of a kind k, such that they are acting in accord with their kind’s relevant properties to a certain degree. As social beings, the relevant property is that they act socially. As rational beings, they act rationally. Etc.

In our second installment, we looked to our kind’s proper functions as those relevant properties and made the case that proper functions are irreducibly normative. From that, we can infer what we ought to do from what we are. This gives normativity a kind of logic.

In this installment, we will look to moral epistemology and give an account of how we are warranted in deriving, the conclusion “therefore, John ought to work and contribute to society” from the premise “John is a human”. We will also look at avoiding an issue philosophers Stephen Finlay and Mark Schroeder call the Central Problem.

Part 1: The Issues.

The first issue is a logical issue. There doesn’t seem to be any necessity to infer the conclusion from the premise. Unlike the conclusions of modus tollens or obversion — which must necessarily follow if the proposition is true — this normative inference is more akin to induction where the conclusion is not contained in the premise.

Suppose all the swans we have discovered have all been white, and that’s the way it has been for years. We are warranted in believing the conclusion “all swans are white” from the premise “all swans we have discovered from a sufficiently large sample size have been white”. While such an inference is defeasible, it would seem we would be warranted in believing in the conclusion. This is a claim I will get to later.

The second issue is the incompatibility of the following three claims.

1. Humean Theory of Reason: If there is a reason for someone to do something, then she must have some desire that would be served by her doing it

2. Moral absolutism: Some actions are morally wrong for any agent no matter what motivations and desires they have.

3. Moral Rationalism: You have a justification for why you ought to act in such and such a fashion (Finaly and Schroeder, 2017, Sect. 2.1.1.)

These propositions are incompatible with one another since my rationale for obeying some absolute moral ought — which are stance independent — is reducible to and motivated by my desires. These desires are definitionally stance-dependent. Hence, all three cannot be true, and we must either admit that there is no justification for why you ought to act in such and such a fashion, or that there is another account of reason.

I will argue that an adequate model suitable to get around this issue would be a form of moderate foundationalism, with a reliabilist mechanism of justification. Specifically, the model I have in mind is one that combines the insights of both Alvin Plantinga, as well as Robert Koons.

Part 2: Warrant and Proper Function.

Shifting from ethics to epistemology, there are a few relevant issues worth discussing. The first is the difference between foundationalism (moderate and strong), coherentism, and infinitism. The second is the difference between internalism and externalism about warranted belief.

Part 2.1: Foundationalism and the Structure of Reasoning.

In epistemology, there are roughly three approaches towards the structure of justification and reasoning as outlined by Klein and Turri in their article on Infinitism. Infinitism is just one school of thought, but they provided and define the other two approaches — foundationalism and coherentism — as well. They write,

Infinitism is a family of views in epistemology about the structure of knowledge and epistemic justification. It contrasts naturally with coherentism and foundationalism. All three views agree that knowledge or justification requires an appropriately structured chain of reasons. What form may such a chain take? Foundationalists opt for non-repeating finite chains. Coherentists (at least linear coherentists) opt for repeating finite chains. Infinitists opt for non-repeating infinite chains. Appreciable interest in infinitism as a genuine competitor to coherentism and foundationalism developed only in the early twenty-first century (Klein & Turri, 2013).

A belief is a propositional attitude like “The sky is blue”, these attitudes have a truth value of being true or false. Justifications are the reasons why you believe a proposition is true or false. For example, I believe the sky is blue because that’s the color I see when I look up.

Foundationalists hold that there are a finite number of things we believe and that when we reason from one belief to another, we will cite a justification in another belief. We will eventually hit a stopping point of beliefs that are the foundation of the rest. These foundations may be self-evident and propositional, or proto-propositional (seemings are examples of this) which do not require any inference.

Coherentists also agree that chains of reasoning are finite. The difference is that the structure isn’t linear. They hold that these beliefs justify one another in a grand coherent web. One way of considering it is like a man out at sea, each belief is like a plank of wood on his ship. When he finds a new piece of driftwood, he must judge if he wishes to replace the old piece based on whether it is a better fit with the rest of his ship. The whole ship could hypothetically be replaced, but it is a piecemeal project (Neurath, 1973, p.199).

Infinitists claim beliefs and their justifications go back ad infinitum. Unlike foundationalism, there is no first set of beliefs. And unlike coherentism, there is no circularity or mutual support.

I won’t provide conclusive refutations against non-foundationalist positions, but I will give some reason to doubt infinitism and coherentism. These are, after all, philosophically rigorous positions and it would take too much time to provide the full attention they require.

In response to infinitism, the American philosopher Laurence BonJour provides the following argument,

the justification conferred at each step is only provisional, dependent on whether the beliefs further along in the chain are justified. But then if the regress continues infinitely, all of the alleged justification remains merely provisional: we never can say more than that the beliefs up to a particular stage would be justified if all of the others that come further on (back) in the sequence are justified. And if this is all that we can ever say in such a case, and if all chains of inferential justification were infinite in this way, and if there were no other account of how beliefs are justified that did not rely on inference from other beliefs, then we again would have the unpalatable skeptical result that no belief is ever genuinely justified (BonJour, 2010, Kindle Location 3532).

BonJour’s point is simple, provisional justifications based on beliefs with justifications you cannot verify are open to skepticism. What’s worse, suppose my infinite chain of beliefs each has a justification, and they were true. If I cannot reflect and reconsider it’s my justification of it, and I did not arrive at it consciously, it seems to be based on luck.

One reason to doubt coherentism is that it relies on a notion of coherence that can be either unhelpful in providing an analysis of knowledge, or strong enough where is becomes a sort of overall thesis of knowledge, which acts as a sort of de facto foundation.

For example, if we take coherence in the loose sense of the term where we just believe in propositions that don’t interact, then we don’t really have a helpful set of beliefs. If I believe only,

  1. I am a man.
  2. Doves are birds.
  3. Nothing can be both blue and green all over.

Then these three beliefs are coherent — in the sense, they can all be true without contradicting one another — but aren’t really going to be helpful since they aren’t interrelated. Instead, the coherentist will explain coherence in terms of “a much stronger and more demanding relation among beliefs in mind, a relation in virtue of which a coherent set of beliefs will be tightly unified (BonJour, 2010, Kindle Location 3689–3696)”

But the issue is that any comparative assessment of coherence requires some basis to justify and understand it in the first place. Which makes it insufficient. As BonJour writes,

comparative assessments of coherence… are needed if coherence is to be the sole basis that determines which beliefs are justified or even to play a significant role in such issues. There are somewhat fuller accounts of coherence available in the recent literature, but none that come at all close to achieving this goal. Thus practical assessments of coherence must be made on a rather ill-defined intuitive basis, making the whole idea of a coherentist epistemology more of a promissory note than a fully specified alternative (BonJour, 2010, Kindle Location 3825).

If coherentism requires some intuitive basis to delineate between notions of coherence, then that just strikes me as foundationalism by some other means.

With some reason to doubt coherentism and infinitism, we can now look to foundationalism. As to which form, there are two kinds, a strong and moderate variety. Strong foundationalism, or what Alvin Plantinga calls classical foundationalism, is,

the thesis that basic beliefs must be either self-evident, or incorrigible, or immediately evident to the senses, in order to be rationally acceptable (Anderson 2007. pp.166–167).

To use the words of philosopher James Anderson, moderate foundationalism can be defined as the view that “basic beliefs can obtain their warrant by a variety of means, not merely by way of coherence with other beliefs” (2007. pp.166–167).

Or, to use the definition of Ted Poston, on moderate foundationalism,

basic beliefs have a level of positive epistemic status independent of warranting relations from other beliefs. In light of this weaker form of foundationalism the attacks against infallibility, incorrigibility, or indubitability did not touch the core of a foundationalist epistemology (2010, Section 5.ii).

Our basic beliefs, that is those foundational views we have, don’t need to be beyond all reasonable doubt. They are just requisite in building up other beliefs for certain principled reasons. One does not need to know they have knowledge these beliefs are true to be warranted. Rather, the belief just must be non-inferential, intuitive in that it creates an occasion to assent to other beliefs, and it has hitherto been undercut by any sufficient evidence (Plantinga, 2015, p.64–65).

Consider the belief “the world was not created 5 minutes ago, along with my memory”. The history of the world and of my own life is not something I can prove or give evidence for but is a belief I have always assumed, and when I consider affirming it, its possibility is not something my powers of contemplation could ever bring myself to consider, let alone believe, in good conscious.

Now, Christianity is not as strong, but Plantinga himself argues that such a belief is at least as strong as holding other minds exit (Anderson, 2007. pp.166–167). However, I will dispense with that hypothesis, as I won’t be needing it. Rather, we can take some of Plantinga’s insights and provide the following stipulations for a properly basic belief, in conjunction with Robert Koon’s teleological insights.

You are warranted in holding some belief, only if

1. if it is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, subject to no disorder or dysfunction (Plantinga, 2015, 26),

2. if the cognitive faculties that produced that belief did so in an environment similar to the one which they were selected to — either by evolution or God — function in (Plantinga, 2015, 27),

3. if the cognitive faculties — that produced said belief — belong to the human being is such that those faculties causally explain (at least in part) the existence of a causal law linking having true beliefs and human beings to the function of cognition as cause to effect.

4. if the cognitive faculties — that produced this belief — and possession of true beliefs contributes to the overall harmony of a human being’s other sum total of functions and states that would, in their own right, meet condition 3. This sum total of functions and states also forms a mutually supportive whole.

5. The existence of human beings is causally explained (at least in part) by the harmony mentioned in condition 4 (Koons, 2000, p. 145).

I will break with Plantinga in two respects. The first is that his criteria — that our cognitive faculties need to be (1) aimed at truth, and (2) the design plan to which they are aimed at truth is a good one (Plantinga, 2015, 28) — seem to both lack specificity in the case of the former, and already smuggle in providential design in the case of the latter.

This gives the added benefit of showing that God’s existence from morality is not inextricably linked to an epistemology that presupposes his existence. But instead, it allows us to get to that conclusion.

Part 2.2: Externalism vs Internalism.

Furthermore, The model above on offer is a externalist model, as opposed to an internalist one. According to BonJour,

The fundamental claim of internalism… is that epistemological issues arise and must be dealt with from within the individual person’s first-person cognitive perspective, appealing only to things that are accessible from that standpoint. The basic rationale is that what justifies a person’s beliefs must be something that is available or accessible to him or her, that something to which he has no access cannot give him a reason for thinking that one of his beliefs is true (2010, Kindle Location 4023).

Whereas, the opposite view is externalism. This is the view that,

epistemic justification can depend in part or perhaps even entirely on matters to which the believer in question need have no cognitive access at all, matters that are entirely external to his or her cognitive viewpoint. Thus, to take the most widely-held recent externalist view, a belief might allegedly be justified for a particular believer simply because the causal process that led to its adoption is cognitively reliable, that is, is a process of a general kind that in fact produces true beliefs in a high proportion of the cases in which it occurs (2010, Kindle Location 4006).

Whether or not I know all my beliefs meet the above criteria is irrelevant, I do not need to know that I know x, to be warranted in believing x. I can presume, as everyone would need to, that my cognitive faculties meet the above criteria. Therefore, I would fit better in the externalist camp.

This does not mean my beliefs are infallible. There are two reasons I should come to doubt my beliefs have warrant. The first is I have a rebutting defeater. Suppose I come to learn that my prized student cheated on his assignment, my belief that he did so was rebutted when another student recorded him doing the deed. This would suffice to falsify — what I thought was — a true belief.

The second is an undercutting defeater. Suppose I lacked access to the video. I believe my prized student did not cheat on the test because of his excellent class record of arriving on time, doing well on prior tests, and his class participation. However, I have come to learn that he has cheated in a class last year and was nearly expelled, a point of evidence I did not take into account. I also learned that another teacher suspects him of cheating after, on approach, he ate a piece of paper during a test. While I could not show the student did in fact cheat, I have considerably less support that he did not cheat.

These would be examples of when inferential beliefs are questioned. However, even non-inferential beliefs can have rebutting defeaters. Suppose instead of seeing a video of my prized student cheating, I see him in the act. I do not need to infer my eyesight is working, I just work of the presumption. But if I were on some hallucinogenic, that would undercut my belief since it would violate criteria (1). However, suppose that I do see it happening, but 5 honest and impartial witnesses, and a video record of him not cheating. This would seem like a rebutting defeater. I might not know what happened to my eyes to make it appear he cheated, but I do have enough evidence to establish that it did happen.

The reliability of our senses is a presumption that, while not infallible, is warranted until we have some defeater. This position comes with the territory of reliabilism, the view which holds,

what makes a belief justified is the cognitive reliability of the causal process via which it was produced, that is, the fact that the process in question leads to a high proportion of true beliefs, with the degree of justification depending on the degree of reliability. If the belief-producing process is reliable in this way, then (other things being equal) it will be objectively likely or probable to the same degree that the particular belief in question, having been produced in that way, is itself true (Bonjour, 2010, Kindle Location 4115).

From reliablism, we not only justify sense perception, but also features of reasoning, like thinking deductively or inductively (a point I will get to later).

The main motivation for externalism is in avoiding Gettier cases. A Gettier case would be a case like I discussed in the last post, where a belief was established based on luck.

To use an example from Edmund Gettier (with some modification), suppose that Smith is driving through Kentucky and is on his way to Tennessee, but gets lost and ends up in West Virgina, thinking he is in the former. As he pulls in the gas station, he starts showing off his 1960 Cadillac Eldorado. When another patron says “that’s not a 1960 Cadillac Eldorado, but a 1970 Cadillac Eldorado (1963, 122–123). Smith asserts,

“Either this is 1960 Cadillac Eldorado, or I’m in West Virgina” [p v q].

The above proposition is true, since Smith is in West Virgina. And from the fact p is justified (that the car is a 1960 Cadillac Eldorado) you can infer p or q is also justified through disjunctive introduction.

So long as either p, or q, or both q and p is true, p or q is also true. As for the justification, Smith might be trusting a person who is a reliable source, something which we all do, to come to the belief that p is true.

So the belief is true, it is justified, but it is not knowledge. Why? Smith does not know p v q through any reliable means, but by luck. And luck, as we know, is not a reliable process by which our cognitive faculties can be linked to true beliefs.

The internalist lacks the warrant to know whether or not his beliefs are a result of luck, or through a genuine reliable process. At the very least, it seems to be the case, and while epistemologists are still undecided on this matter, I think this path is a reasonable one to go down.

P3: The Logic of Normativity and Reliabilism

In our last post, we discussed the logic and nature of normativity. Proper functions require normativity. From knowing the nature of a thing, we know what it ought to be doing. But what is it that warrants such an inference? It’s not a matter of definition, since “ought to pump blood” is not really a part of the definition of the heart (after all, there are dysfunctional hearts that no longer perform that role), but neither is it inductive since it isn’t something we know by enumeration or some sort of quantification.

Instead, this is a sort of inference known as a process of abstraction. Abstraction is the process whereby, through being acquainted with the nature of some kind, you gain a sort of universal knowledge about how each one is supposed to function through knowing their shared essence. Why suppose we have this sort of capacity?

Consider the following argument,

P1. Abstracting our proper functions is indispensable to accurately recognize a state of health in human organisms.

P2. Recognizing a state of health in human organisms was indispensable to our evolutionary adaptation.

C1. Abstracting proper functions is indispensable to our evolutionary adaptation.

In the last post, we went over how exactly to best read proper functionality and provided arguments for a normative reading over a statistical or etiological reading of functions. This will be the definition going forward.

The defense of the first premise rests on the fact that acquaintance with the proper functions in other beings is indispensable for the activities that lead our ancestors to choose our mates, recognize diseases and deformities in others, and reinforce rules with other agents with social behavioral functions — like keeping promises, and reasoning — and this would go a long way to explaining why our ancestors were capable of surviving and passing on their genes. I would go far as saying, if they lacked such a capacity and still survived, such an outcome would be a result of pure luck.

Health, as I will be defining it here, is a certain state of overall harmony in the body. Humans who lack the qualities that give harmony to the whole of their functions and states, which enable them to survive, can be said to be unhealthy. Given that it would be doubtful to think we could survive without knowing what states are healthy or unhealthy for us, we are warranted in believing that is the case. And hence, we are warranted in holding to premise 2.

Admittedly, this argument would benefit from more information from our ancestor’s evolutionary developments. However, let the following question serve to provide some doubt to those who might not agree. If someone asks why should we trust our senses when they are picked for survival and not necessarily truth-tracking, and we respond “because there is a big overlap between survival and having true beliefs”, how much more should we believe it in identifying those of good health, which is integral to survival?

Part 4: The Humean Trilemma.

In response to the trilemma, we only need to do one thing, reject the Humean theory of reason. Instead, we should posit the following,

Reliabilist Theory of Reason: If there is a reason for someone to do something, then she must have some epistemic warrant in doing x, without undermining that basis for our warrant.

Following one’s desire is neither rational nor irrational in and of itself. Nor is it the only thing that gives you a reason to act. Rather, desires become irrational when following them undermines the overall harmony of the person. For instance, the belief you ought to act on your suicidal desires, the desire to commit self-harm, and anti-social behavior are all irrational since being willing to believe you ought to engage in these behaviors would result in disharmony between our cognitive functions, and our other functions.

This disharmony undercuts the reliability of those cognitive functions since they undermine one of the requirements for your cognitive functions to be proper, namely that they work in promoting the harmony of the whole.

Suppose the anti-realist digs in her heels and insists on asking “why ought I care if my desires are rational?”, at this point you have nothing to say. How are you expected to provide a reason to act rationally?

This leads us to the basis of the eudemonic life, which is the belief we ought to pursue a life of well-ordered desires. That is desires which lead to the greater overall harmony of the person and their proper bodily, behavioral, and psychological functions, and which do not undermine their harmony. Different lives come in different degrees of harmony, and some are better than others, but no one is warranted in living lives that undermine the very harmony provided by their cognitive faculties.


In this post, I have provided reasonable doubts to somewhat undermine strong foundationalism, coherentism, infinitism, and internalism. I have responded to the Humean Trilemma by rejecting the Humean theory of reason and replacing it with a reliabilist theory of reason. A theory of reason is stance independent since justification is entirely spoken of in third person terms and requires that following our desires does not undermine the overall harmonious functionality of the person.

Join me next week, and I will discuss how from teleology we can make a reasonable inference for the existence of God, the privation theory of evil, and provide an answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma.


Anderson, J (2007). Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of its Presence, Character and Epistemic Status (Paternoster Theological Monographs). Paternoster. Kindle Edition.

Bonjour, L (2010). Epistemology: Classic Problems and Contemporary Responses (Elements of Philosophy). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Finlay, S., & Schroeder, M. (2017, August 18). Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from

Gettier, E. (1963). Is Justified True Belief Knowledge. Analysis, 23(6), 121–123. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from

Koons, R. C. (2000). Realism regained: An Exact Theory of Causation, Teleology, and the Mind. University Press.

Klein, P. D., & Turri, J. (2013, September 1). Infinitism in Epistemology. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from

Neurath, O. (1973). Empiricism and sociology. (M. Neurath & R. S. Cohen, Eds.). Reidel.

Plantinga, A.(2015) Knowledge and Christian Belief. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

Poston, T. (2010, June 11). Foundationalism. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from



John Fisher 2.0

Catholic blogger, my views are not necessarily reflective of the Church’s. Please post corrections to help me avoid heresy.