Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks whether we can understand the behaviors of an individual based on individual characteristics or if we have to rely on larger structural and systemic explanations for their behavior. The question is important for Cassam because his book focuses on epistemic vices, which are vices that get in the way of knowledge. If such vices change people’s thoughts and behaviors in predictable ways, then they are something we should think about and work to change in ourselves and others. If, however, they don’t make a difference in people’s behaviors because larger structural explanations exist, then they are not worthy of our attention.
Given that Cassam wrote an entire book about epistemic vices, it is not surprising that he believes that they are useful in explaining behavior. He writes, “Epistemic vices are obstacles to knowledge that can in appropriate cases explain how people think and what they do. Sometimes, though, structural or systemic explanations are better.” This sentence feels a little weak, as though Cassam is admitting that epistemic vices can take a back seat to structural factors. However, the sentence is a useful summation of how we should think about individual level factors and larger structural and systemic factors.
Our lives are shaped to a great degree by large structural and systemic forces that are beyond our control. Family structures drive specific types of behaviors. Markets produce predictable outcomes. The rules of a sport determine what actions can and cannot be taken. However, within these larger structures and systems there is room for individual variation. Cassam’s argument is that we can understand some of the individual variation within larger structures by understanding epistemic vices.
Case explanations can include individual choices, characteristics, and epistemic virtues and vices to help us understand behavior. These explanations can be built on top of structural and systemic explanations which shape the range of possibilities and narrow some of the individual variations. We cannot entirely define someone by their individual choices and differences, but we can view them within a system and ask how their choices within a system differed from others, whether their differences were positive or negative, and why.

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