In his book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam argues that patterns of thoughts and mental habits that obstruct knowledge are essentially moral vices. Ways of thinking and mental habits that enhance the acquisition, retention, and transmission of knowledge, according to Cassam, are moral virtues. Cassam defends his argument largely through a consequentialist view.
Cassam is open about his consequentialist frame of reference. He writes:
“Obstructivism is a form of consequentialism. … Moral vices systematically produce bad states of affairs. … The point of systematically is to allow us to ascribe moral virtue in the actual world to people who, as a result of bad luck, aren’t able to produce good: if they possessed a character trait that systematically produces good in that context (though not in their particular case) they still have the relevant moral virtues.”
I think that this view of epistemic vices is helpful. I know for me that there are times when I fall into the epistemic vices that Cassam highlights, and they can often be comforting, make me feel good about myself, or just be distractions from an otherwise busy and confusing world. However, recognizing that these vices systematically lead to poorer outcomes can help me understand why I should stay away from them.
Epistemic vices like scrolling through Twitter to look at posts that bash on someone you dislike are structurally likely to produce bad outcomes by wasting your time, making you more prone to distractions, and prejudicing yourself against people you don’t agree with. What you spend your mental energy on matters, and in the case of Twitter scrolling, you are allowing your mind to indulge in shallow quick thinking, closed-mindedness, and biases. It plays off confirmation bias, giving you the ability to only see posts that confirm what you believe or want to believe about a person or topic. It feels nice to bash on someone else, but you are reinforcing a limited perspective that might be wrong and rewarding your brain for being shallow and inconsiderate. In the moment it is rewarding, but in the long run it will lead to worse thinking, shorter attention spans, and biased decision-making that is hard to get away from once you have closed the Twitter tab. Consequentialism helps us see that the epistemic vices involved in Twitter scrolling, which feel harmless in the moment, are more likely to result in negative outcomes over time. The systematic nature of these epistemic vices, the consequences and outcomes of indulging them, is what defines them as vices.
Consequentialism, Cassam’s argument shows, can be a useful way to think about how we should behave. People who try to do good but experience bad luck and don’t produce the same good outcomes as others can still be viewed as morally virtuous. Even though in their particular situation a good result did not occur, those who practice moral virtues can be praised for behaving in a way that is systematically more likely to produce good. Conversely, people who behave in ways that systematically produce negative outcomes can be deterred from their negative behavior through social taboos and norms, even if a poor behavior might provide them with an opportunity to succeed in the short term. It is hard to take absolute stances about any position, but consequentialism gives us a frame though which we can approach difficult decisions and uncertainty by recognizing where systematic patterns are likely to lead to desired or undesired outcomes for ourselves and our societies.