The Life and Death Consequences of Epistemic Vices

The Life and Death Consequences of Epistemic Vices

For the last couple of months I have been writing about ideas and thoughts that stood out to me in Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind. Cassam specifically analyzes epistemic vices, asking why they exist, whether we should be blamed for having them, and what real world consequences arise because of them. To this point, most of my posts have focused on relatively harmless aspects of epistemic vices. I have written about how they limit knowledge and how they can cause us to make suboptimal decisions about investing money, making career choices, or relating to political figures. However, epistemic vices do have life and death consequences, and can be much more vicious than I have written about to this point.
In his book, Cassam uses an example of weapon bias to demonstrate the tragic consequences that can arise from epistemic vices. He describes work from Keith Payne to outline the concept. He writes, “Under the pressure of a split-second decision, the readiness to see a weapon became an actual false claim of seeing a weapon. It was race that shaped people’s mistakes, and Payne found that African American participants were as prone to weapon bias as white participants.” This quote shows that a bias influences the way we perceive the world and directly influences the beliefs we come to hold. It becomes an epistemic vice by inhibiting knowledge and causing us to have inaccurate views of the world. And these biases, these epistemic vices, are endemic to our nation. It is not one group of biased people, but an entire system that promotes and fosters weapon bias based on racism, hindering knowledge for everyone, creating life and death misunderstandings across our country.
Cassam continues. “By causing errors in perception weapon bias gets in the way of perceptual knowledge, and the practical consequences hardly need spelling out. In the US innocent African American men are shot with alarming frequency by policy officers who think they see a gun when no gun is present. If weapon bias is an epistemic vice then here is proof that some epistemic vices are quite literally a matter of life and death.”(It is worth noting that Cassam is at the University of Warwick in the UK).
Failing to see the world clearly can have life and death consequences. In terms of our police, we encourage them to think of themselves as needing to react in a split second when they perceive the threat of a weapon, potentially another vice that should be addressed. Systemic and structural racism biases police toward seeing a harmless item, like a tool or phone, as a gun, forming the base of weapon biases. The end result is a lack of knowledge via false perceptions, and in the United States disproportionate numbers of black men killed in police interactions.
Cassam’s book is a dense and deep dive into epistemic vices, but the life and death consequences of epistemic vices such as weapon bias demonstrate the importance of understanding how our thoughts, actions, and behaviors can obstruct knowledge. It is important that we recognize our own epistemic vices and work to build systems and structures that limit the acquisition of and negative consequences of epistemic vices. Seeing the world more clearly can literally prevent unnecessary death.
Ignorance is Culpable

Ignorance is Culpable

We are responsible for our vices and deserve blame for them. We are sometimes responsible for acquiring our vices and are almost always responsible for eliminating our vices. However, sometimes our vices prevent us from being able to recognize that we possess vices and from taking the necessary steps to eliminate them. However, blind-spots induced by our vices do not absolve us from our culpability, they only make it worse.
Quassim Cassam references former President Donald Trump to demonstrate how we become more culpable for our vices when they create blind-spots in our lives. Cassam writes:
“Few would be tempted to regard the cruel person’s ignorance of his own cruelty as non-culpable on the grounds that it is the result of his cruelty. If the only thing preventing one from knowing one’s vices is those very vices then one’s ignorance is culpable. It is on this basis that Trump’s ignorance of his epistemic incompetence can still be deemed culpable. It is no excuse that he is so incompetent that he can’t get the measure of his incompetence. That only makes it worse.”
The blind-spots induced by our vices may inhibit us from actually recognizing how our vices shape the ways in which we act, think about the world, and behave. Cassam demonstrates this throughout his book as he investigates epistemic vices, those vices which hinder knowledge. If we fail to recognize how little we actually know about the world and can’t be bothered to learn anything, then we will never actually see how little we know. Arrogance, closed-mindedness, and intellectual laziness will prevent us from actually seeing that our thinking is vicious, and that our thinking is limiting our knowledge.
However, we cannot then say that our vices are not our fault. Arguing that we couldn’t have changed and couldn’t have improved our thinking because our vices were in the way simply demonstrates how vicious our thinking is. Instead of removing the culpability of the vice, Cassam argues, this line of thinking simply doubles down on the cost of the vice, making us even more revision responsible for our vice.  Ultimately, we are culpable for our vices and for our ignorance about our vices.
Transformational Insights - Joe Abittan - Vices of the Mind - Quassim Cassam

Transformational Insights

In my last post I wrote about self-deceptive rationalization. The idea was that even when trying to critically reflect back on our lives and learn lessons from our experiences, we can error and end up entrenching problematic and inaccurate beliefs about ourselves and the world. I suggested that one potential way to be bumped out of the problem of inaccurate self-reflection was to gain transformational insights from an external event. Wishful thinking might come to an end when you don’t get the promotion you were sure was coming your way. Gullibility can be ended after you have been swindled by a conman. The arrogant can learn their lesson after a painful divorce. However, Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind suggests that even transformational insights triggered by external events might not be enough to help us change our internal reflection.
In the book Cassam writes, “this leaves it open, however, whether self-knowledge by transformational insight is as vulnerable to the impact of epistemic vices as self-knowledge by active critical reflection. … Transformational insights are always a matter of interpretation.” Even external factors that have the potential to force us to recognize our epistemic vices may fail to do so. The wishful thinkers may continue on being wishful thinkers, believing they simply hit one blip in the road. The gullible may learn their lesson once, but need to learn it again and again in different contexts. And the arrogant may not be able to recognize how their arrogance played into a divorce, instead choosing to view themselves as unfortunate victims. The matter of interpretation of transformational insights, shocks from the outside that make us consider our epistemic vices, means that they cannot be a reliable way to ensure we eliminate epistemic vices.
Again, this seems to leave us in a place where we can not overcome our epistemic vices without developing epistemic virtues. But this puts us back in a circular problem. If our epistemic vices prevent us from developing and cultivating epistemic virtues, and if we need epistemic virtues to overcome our epistemic vices, then how do we ever improve our thinking?
The answer for most of us is probably pretty boring and disappointing. Incrementally, as we gain new perspectives and more experience, we can hopefully come to distinguish between epistemic virtues and epistemic vices. Epistemic vices will systematically obstruct knowledge, leading to poorer decision-making and worse outcomes. As we seek more positive outcomes and better understanding of the world, we will slowly start to recognize epistemic vices and to see them in ourselves. Incrementally, we will become more virtuous.
This is not an exciting answer for anyone looking to make a dramatic change in their life, to achieve a New Year’s Resolution, or to introduce new policy to save the world. It is however, practical and should take some pressure off of us. We can work each day to be a little more self-aware, a little more epistemically virtuous, and to better how to cultivate knowledge. We can grow overtime, without putting the pressure on ourselves to be epistemically perfect all at once. After all, trying to do so might trigger self-deceptive rationalization and our transformational insights are subject to interpretation, which could be wrong.
Self-deceptive Rationalization

Self-Deceptive Rationalization

I don’t like doing online personality quizzes. Part of the reason why I dislike them is because I believe that three of the cognitive errors and biases identified by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow are at play when we take online quizzes.
 
 
First, we are influenced by the availability heuristic. Our perception of how common or how accurate something is can be greatly influenced by whether we have an easy or hard time remembering the thing. This can influence how we answer questions about things we normally prefer or normally like to do. We might be answering based on how quickly we remember something, not on how we actually feel about something.
 
 
Second, we might substitute the questions being asked with easier to answer questions. In reality, this is what is happening with the availability heuristic. A difficult self-reflection question might not be answered directly. We might switch the question out and instead answer a simpler question. In the case of the availability heuristic, we are answering how easily something came to mind rather than the original question, but this can happen outside of the availability heuristic as well. The result is that we are not really measuring what the question purports to measure.
 
 
Third, Kahneman argues that we can think of ourselves as having two operating systems for how we act and feel in the present moment versus how we reflect back and remember previous experiences. The remembering self has different perceptions than the experiencing self, as Kahneman terms the two systems. The remembering self doesn’t have an accurate memory for how much we liked or disliked certain experiences. Think about a vacation. You may be feeling burnt out with work and life, and all you want to do, what you would enjoy the most in the world, is to sit on a familiar beach doing absolutely nothing. But your remembering self won’t take any exciting and novel memories from a week sitting on a beach doing nothing. Your remembering self would much rather have you go on an exciting yet stressful vacation to a new foreign country. This tension between your experiencing and remembering selves makes the reliability of online personality quizzes questionable. Your remembering self answers the questions, not your experiencing self, and they don’t always have the same opinions.
 
 
What this means, is that the kind of reflection that goes into online personality quizzes, or really any reflective activity, can potentially be self-deceptive. Quassim Cassam writes about these dangers in his book Vices of  the Mind. He writes, “there is always the danger that what critical reflection produces is not self-knowledge, but self-deceptive rationalization.” Our biases and cognitive errors can lead us to incorrect answers about ourselves during self-reflection. This process can feel honest and insightful, but it can often be nothing more than a rationalization for behaviors and actions that we want to believe are true about ourselves. The only way through, Cassam continues to explain, is to cultivate real epistemic virtues, to see the world more clearly, and to recognize our epistemic vices to become better thinkers.

Epistemic Vices & Self-Reflection

Epistemic Vices & Self-Reflection

“Not realizing that one’s epistemic vices are vices is a form of self-ignorance,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind.  A lack of self-awareness can cause someone to fail to recognize their vices.  In the book Cassam demonstrates how epistemic vices are harder to be aware of than other vices, and how recognition and awareness of our epistemic vices is sometimes not possible, directly as a result of our epistemic vices.
For most of us, our vices are probably things we are aware of. You know if you drink too much, eat too much ice-cream, and get in road rage flare-ups on a regular basis. It takes a rather large amount of self-ignorance to fail to recognize these major vices. But it is possible to miss some other vices, especially epistemic vices.
You might not realize that you are closed-minded, that you are guilty of wishful thinking on a regular basis, or even that you are arrogant. These types of behaviors and traits are harder to see and harder to pin down and recognize in ourselves. We live within the stories we tell ourselves, and from our point of view, our behavior is not vicious, but completely reasonable given our situations.
“Reflection on one’s epistemic vices,” writes Cassam, “is what fricker calls active critical reflection, but – and this is the key point – critical reflection requires the exercise of a range of epistemic virtues.”
To see and understand our personal epistemic vices requires that we have epistemic virtues. It takes a practiced skill to recognize when our thinking has crossed over into becoming an epistemic vice. We won’t recognize when our behavior and thinking has become obstructive if we don’t have a way of thinking about our thinking. If we are arrogant we certainly won’t think we need to improve our thinking, and if we are closed-minded we won’t be able to imagine a way to improve our thinking. These epistemic vices prevent us from having the epistemic virtues necessary to even see our epistemic vices.
This puts us in a difficult place where it seems that we are powerless to change our epistemic vices. If our vices prohibit active critical reflection, then we won’t see our errors in order to change them. The way we find out about our epistemic vices probably involves some sort of catastrophic failure where external factors force us to see our vices. A promotion we didn’t get, a divorce, or a costly gamble can force us to recognize our vices. They are not guarantees that we will finally be able to see our epistemic vices for what they are, but without having epistemic virtues, it is hard for us to otherwise come to see our epistemic vices on our own.
Beliefs are Not Voluntary

Beliefs Are Not Voluntary

One of the ideas that Quassim Cassam examines in his book Vices of the Mind is the idea of responsibility. Cassam recognizes two forms of responsibility in his book and examines those forms of responsibility through the lens of epistemic vices. The first form of responsibility is acquisition responsibility, or our responsibility for acquiring beliefs or developing ways of thinking, and the second form of responsibility is revision responsibility, or our responsibility for changing beliefs and ways of thinking that are shown to be harmful.
 
 
Within this context Cassam provides interesting insight about our beliefs. He writes, “If I raise my arm voluntarily, without being forced to raise it, then I am in this sense responsible for raising it.
Notoriously, we lack voluntary control over our own beliefs. Belief is not voluntary.”
 
 
Cassam explains that if it is raining outside, we cannot help but believe that it is raining. We don’t have control over many of our beliefs, they are in some ways inescapable and determined by factors beyond our control. beliefs are almost forced on us by external factors. I think this is true for many of our beliefs, ranging from spiritual beliefs to objective beliefs about the world. As Cassam argues, we are not acquisition responsible for believing that we are individuals, that something is a certain color, or that our favorite sports team is going to have another dreadful season.
 
 
But we are revision responsible for our beliefs.
 
 
Cassam continues, “We do, however, have a different type of control over our own beliefs, namely, evaluative control, and this is sufficient for us to count as revision responsible for our beliefs.”
 
 
Cassam introduces ideas from Pamela Hieronymi to explain our evaluative control over our beliefs. Hieronymi argues that we can revise our beliefs when new information arises that challenges those beliefs. She uses the example of our beliefs for how long a commute will be and our shifting beliefs if we hear about heavy traffic. We might not be responsible for the initial beliefs that we develop, but we are responsible for changing those beliefs if they turn out to be incorrect. We can evaluate our beliefs, reflect on their accuracy, and make adjustments based on those evaluations.
 
 
It is important for us to make this distinction because it helps us to better think about how we assign blame for inaccurate beliefs. We cannot blame people for developing inaccurate beliefs, but we can blame them for failing to change those beliefs. We should not spend time criticizing people for developing racist beliefs, harmful spiritual beliefs, or wildly inaccurate beliefs about health, well-being, and social structures. What we should do is blame people for failing to recognize their beliefs are wrong, and we should help people build evaluative capacities to better reflect on their own beliefs. This changes our stance from labeling people as racists, bigots, or jerks and instead puts the responsibility on us to foster a society of accurate self-reflection that push back against inaccurate beliefs. Labeling people will blame them for acquiring vices, which is unreasonable, but fostering a culture that values accurate information will ease the transition to more accurate beliefs.

A Vaccine for Lies and Falsehoods

A Vaccine for Lies and Falsehoods

Vaccines are on everyone’s mind this year as we hope to move forward from the Coronavirus Pandemic, and I cannot help but think about today’s quote from Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind through a vaccine lens. While writing about ways to build and maintain epistemic virtues Cassam writes, “only the inculcation and cultivation of the ability to distinguish truth from lies can prevent our knowledge from being undermined by malevolent individuals and organizations that peddle falsehoods for their own political or economic ends.” In other words, there is no vaccine for lies and falsehoods, only the hard work of building the skills to recognize truth, narrative, and outright lies.
I am also reminded of a saying that Steven Pinker included in his book Enlightenment Now, “any jackass can knock down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” This quote comes to mind when I think about Cassam’s quote because building knowledge is hard, but spreading falsehoods is easy. Epistemic vices are easy, but epistemic virtues are hard.
Anyone can be closed-minded, anyone can use lies to try to better their own position, and anyone can be tricked by wishful thinking. It takes effort and concentration to be open-minded yet not gullible, to identify and counter lies, and to create and transmit knowledge for use by other people. The vast knowledge bases that humanity has built has taken years to develop, to weed out the inaccuracies, and to painstakingly hone in on ever more precise and accurate understandings of the universe. All this knowledge and information has taken incredible amounts of hard work by people dedicated to building such knowledge.
But any jackass can knock it all down. Anyone can come along and attack science, attack knowledge, spread misinformation and deliberately use disinformation to confuse and mislead people. Being an epistemic carpenter and building knowledge is hard, but being a conman and acting epistemically malevolent is easy.
The task for all of us is to think critically about our knowledge, about the systems and structures that have facilitated our knowledge growth and development as a species over time, and to do what we can to be more epistemically virtuous. Only by working hard to identify truth, to improve systems for creating accurate information, and to enhance knowledge highways to help people learn and transmit knowledge effectively can we continue to move forward. At any point we can chose to throw sand in the gears of knowledge, bringing the whole system down, or we can find ways to make it harder to gum up the knowledge machinery we have built. We must do the latter if we want to continue to grow, develop, and live peacefully rather than at the mercy of the epistemically malevolent. After all, there is no vaccine to cure us from lies and falsehoods.