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.