Vices & Personalities

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam argues that epistemic vices are different than personality traits. He argues that we can change our behaviors and escape epistemic vices in a way that we cannot with certain aspects of our personality and who we are. This means that we can improve the way we think in order to be more rational and knowledgeable individuals.
“Wishful thinking is what a person does rather than what a person is like,” writes Cassam as an example of a difference between a vice and a personality. We can generally be happy and optimistic people or we can generally be negative and pessimistic, and though I have not studied it, my understanding is that to some extent our genes can influence our general outlook and disposition on life. Nevertheless, we can still engage in epistemic vices like wishful thinking even if we are normally more of an optimist or pessimist. Distinguishing between epistemic vices that are more in our control than personality traits is helpful to see how we can make adjustments in our thinking to improve our knowledge.
To me, the distinction is similar to the difference between the Spanish verbs of estar and ser. Estar is used to describe states of things that change. You would use it to say I am happy today, the house is in good condition, or the vase is broken. Ser captures essential elements of something. You would use it to describe yourself as tall, to say that the house is large, or to describe a vase as blue.
We can generally be positive people, generally excited to talk to strangers, or we can prefer familiar routines rather than unknown situations. But regardless of these essential characteristics, there can be patterns of thinking that we engage in, like wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is a pattern of thought that assumes the best outcomes, discredits information that contradicts our hopes, and ignores the pursuit of additional information that might change our mind. It is a behavior that obstructs knowledge, and is also a behavior we can escape through practice and recognition.
The other epistemic vices that Cassam highlights are similar to wishful thinking. They are behaviors and patterns of thought that we generally have more control over than whether we have a sunny disposition toward life. Being behaviors that obstruct knowledge, they are behaviors that we can and should strive to avoid in order to facilitate knowledge, improve our behaviors and decision-making, and ultimately strengthen the choices in life that we make.

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