Quassim Cassam makes an effort to explain what makes an epistemic vice an epistemic vice and to differentiate between various epistemic vices in his book Vices of the Mind. An epistemic vice obstructs knowledge. It is a pattern of thought or a particular behavior related to our thinking that one way or another prevents us from acquiring knowledge, retaining knowledge, recalling knowledge when needed, or transmitting and sharing knowledge. Vices explored by Cassam include closed-mindedness, where we are not open to information that doesn’t fit our existing beliefs, and arrogance, where we assume we already know everything important, and where people are turned off by our personality and don’t listen to what we have to say. Vices such as these can be understood consequentially, by the results they have on our knowledge and the ways in which they obstruct knowledge. They can also be understood by motivations that contribute to them or by general dispositions that end up leading to the vices themselves. Cassam differentiates between the various forms of motivation that may create an epistemic vice and the general habits and tendencies that may also create such a vice.
Distinguishing between the various motivations which may create a vice and the general tendencies that contribute to them he writes, “In the case of epistemic vices that are not definable by their motives, vices are distinguished from another not by their motivational components but by the dispositions with which they are associated and the particular way they get in the way of knowledge.”
For example, someone can be closed-minded because they dislike change or dislike the feeling of being wrong. Someone could be foolish or gullible out of ignorance, wishful thinking, or because they are overly trustworthy. With both closed-mindedness and gullibility, people fail to investigate and obtain sufficient knowledge before making decisions. However, it is unlikely that anyone is motivated by a desire to make decisions based on a lack of information. People likely are not motivated to be either gullible or closed-minded, however other tangential motivations or personality traits lead to two vices that have similar epistemic outcomes. Nevertheless, the two vices have the same outcome despite being fueled by different motivations.
Cassam’s quote also shows that we can differentiate between epistemic vices based on the way they inhibit knowledge. As I wrote earlier, an arrogant person may be off-putting. While they themselves have plenty of knowledge, their ability to transmit that knowledge to others is inhibited by their arrogance. Other people who dislike the arrogant individual will not listen to them, or will not hear what they have to say because they are too busy thinking about how much they dislike the individual. I had a few college professors whose arrogance inhibited their student’s ability to learn from them in this way. The arrogant individual may still be open-minded and be able to obtain necessary information, but their ability to transmit knowledge is limited. Conversely a closed-minded person may be able to transmit the knowledge they have, but they may be limited in the knowledge they gain, being unwilling to listen to new and important facts and details that contradict what they already know or want to know.
Distinguishing between and disentangling epistemic vices is difficult because motivations are not clear for any given vice, and their outcomes can be similar. However, examining different traits and general dispositions which give rise to epistemic vices can help us understand how various patterns of thought or behavior create vices. That insight can help us see how to adjust our thinking and habits to avoid obstructing knowledge and to hopefully begin making better decisions.