Over the last few years a number of wild conspiracy theories have become popular. Former President Donald Trump embraced a conspiracy theory that the 2020 Presidential Election was rigged (it was not), supported the Qanon conspiracy theory, and did little to push back against conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19. His actions, behaviors, and beliefs demonstrate that thinking conspiratorially can be an epistemic vice. His willingness to believe wild falsehoods obstructed knowledge for himself and his most ardent supporters.
However, thinking conspiratorially is not always an epistemic vice. One reason why conspiracy theories become so gripping and why people sometimes fall into them is because real conspiracies do occur. Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, Trump’s withholding of financial and military aid unless Ukraine announced an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, and fraud schemes uncovered by inspectors general and government auditors demonstrate that nefarious conspiracies sometimes are real. While thinking conspiratorially can become an epistemic vice, the same is true for anti-conspiratorial thinking.
In the book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam quotes Dr. Charles Pigden from the University of Otago in New Zealand by writing, “there is nothing inherently vicious about believing or being disposed to believe conspiracy theories.” Cassam argues that conspiratorial thinking is not an epistemic vice on its own, but is instead a context dependent vice or virtue. He continues, “there are environments in which either way of thinking can be epistemically virtuous or vicious, and a way to capture this context-relativity is to describe these thinking styles as conditionally virtuous or vicious.”
The examples I used earlier show how conspiratorial thinking can be either virtuous or vicious. In the case of our former President, his conspiratorial thinking spread misinformation, suppressed true and accurate information, and created a set of false beliefs that some of his supporters believed so strongly that they stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the election. The context of his conspiracy theories obstructed knowledge and caused substantial harm to life and property. However, a government auditor who notices inconsistencies in paperwork and accounting practices may be rewarded for thinking conspiratorially, at least to a point. Believing that something nefarious could possibly be going on will encourage the auditor to review financial statements and testimony from personnel with more scrutiny, potentially helping them uncover real fraud. Of course, they could still go too far and push the issue beyond reasonable bounds by thinking conspiratorially, but this type of thinking is conditionally virtuous when it discovers true fraud and improves knowledge about fraud schemes.
Given the dramatic consequences of conspiracy thinking over the last few years, it is easy to dismiss thinking conspiratorially as an epistemic vice. However, we should remember that it is only conditionally an epistemic vice, and that sometimes conspiracies do turn out to be true (or at least partially true). We don’t have to give every conspiracy our respect and attention, but when a conspiracy does appear to be grounded in reality and supported by real evidence, then we should not be too quick to dismiss it.