“Prejudice counts as an epistemic attitude insofar as it is an affective posture toward another person’s epistemic credentials,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind. Prejudices inhibit knowledge, deserve reproof, and are attitudes for which individuals can be blameworthy of holding. Therefore, prejudices qualify as epistemic vices.
Cassam continues, “what makes a prejudice a prejudice is that it is an attitude formed and sustained without any proper inquiry into the merits or demerits of its object.” Prejudices are not based on fact and reality. They are based on incomplete subjective opinions and evaluations of people, places, and things. Generally, a few standout qualities that we either like or dislike are used as justification for our opinions of entire classes and groups, regardless of whether those perceived qualities are indeed real or generalizable to the larger class. Greater consideration might show us that our beliefs are incorrect, that our assumptions are mistaken, and that our perspectives are not generalizable, but prejudices are maintained by an active unwillingness (or an insouciance) to obtain better information.
It is important to note that Cassam’s quote shows that prejudices are not always negative views of people, places, or things. We can be prejudiced to think that something is good or exemplary – think about fancy cars, expensive brands, or your favorite celebrities. What matters with prejudice is not whether we favor of scorn something, but the fact that we adopt inaccurate beliefs via an attitude that hinders knowledge. We could learn more about people, places, and things to better understand their merits and demerits, increasing our knowledge and the knowledge of anyone we share our lessons with. However, prejudiced individuals have an attitude that actively avoids such information, limiting knowledge and preventing transmission of useful information with others. This limitation of knowledge and sustenance of incorrect knowledge is where prejudices become specifically epistemic vices. Understanding this helps us recognize our prejudices (both positive and negative) and helps us also see how we can eliminate them.