Reprehensible Epistemic Vices

What makes a vice reprehensible? Dictionary.com describes a vice as an immoral or evil habit or practice; a fault, defect, or shortcoming. Dictionary.com also defines reprehensible as deserving of reproof, rebuke, or censure; blameworthy. So a reprehensible vice is a habit, fault, defect, or shortcoming that deserves disapproval and for which someone is blameworthy.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam looks at epistemic vices through this frame. He writes, “in what sense are epistemic vices reprehensible? The simplest view is that epistemic vices are blameworthy. When a vice V is described as blameworthy it isn’t V that is blameworthy but the person whose vice V is.” To go even deeper, Cassam argues that epistemic vices carry with them epistemic blame. “Epistemic blame,” he writes, “is blame directed at a person on account of specifically epistemic failings that cause specifically epistemic harms.”
A reprehensible epistemic vice is a habit of thought, a faulty way of thinking, or a shortcoming in mental patterns that can be blamed on an individual. The vice itself, the particular way of thinking that is flawed, is not what is deserving of blame. It is the person who thinks in a way that obstructs knowledge and information that is to blame.
When a person makes a mistake out of arrogance, it is not their arrogance that is at fault, but it is the fault of the individual for being arrogant. Similarly, we don’t blame wishful-thinking or closed-mindedness for the failures of a country to prepare for or adequately address a global pandemic. We blame the leaders who were too closed-minded to see the risks and who engaged in too much wishful-thinking to take serious action.
Epistemic failings, failures to adequately foster knowledge, lead to epistemic harms, that is an inhibition of of knowledge that can have downstream consequences. Cassam shows that epistemic vices which systematically bring about epistemic failings are reprehensible. They can be pinned to specific people, their behaviors, and their attitudes.  Further, they can be blamed on the individuals, not on the vices or epistemic harms themselves. This is what makes epistemic vices reprehensible, and why they can be taken personally and deserve the attention of a full book.
Systematically Obstructing Knowledge

Systematically Obstructing Knowledge

The defining feature of epistemic vices, according to Quassim Cassam, is that they get in the way of knowledge. They inhibit the transmission of knowledge from one person to another, they prevent someone from acquiring knowledge, or they make it harder to retain and recall knowledge when needed. Importantly, epistemic vices don’t always obstruct knowledge, but they tend to do so systematically.
“There would be no justification for classifying closed-mindedness or arrogance as epistemic vices if they didn’t systematically get in the way of knowledge,” writes Cassam in Vices of the Mind. Cassam lays out his argument for striving against mental vices through a lens of consequentialism. Focusing on the outcomes of ways of thinking, Cassam argues that we should avoid mental vices because they lead to bad outcomes and limit knowledge in most cases.
Cassam notes that epistemic vices can turn out well for an individual in some cases. While not specifically mentioned by Cassam, we can use former President Donald Trump as an example. Cassam writes, “The point of distinguishing between systematically and invariably is to make room for the possibility that epistemic vices can have unexpected effects in particular cases.” Trump used a massive personal fortune, an unabashed bravado, and a suite of mental vices to bully his way into the presidency. His mental vices such as arrogance, closed-mindedness, and prejudice became features of his presidency, not defects. However, while his epistemic vices helped propel him to the presidency, they clearly and systematically created chaos and problems once he was in office. In his arrogance he attempted to bribe the prime minister of Ukraine, leading to an impeachment. His closed-mindedness and wishful thinking contributed to his second impeachment as he spread baseless lies about the election. 
For most of us in most situations, these same mental vices will also likely lead to failure and errors rather than success. For most of us, arrogance is likely to prevent us from learning about areas where we could improve ourselves to perform better in upcoming job interviews. Closed-mindedness is likely to prevent us from gaining knowledge about saving money with solar panels or about a new ethnic restaurant that we would really enjoy. Prejudice is also likely to prevent us from learning about new hobbies, pastimes, or opportunities for investment. These vices don’t always necessarily lead to failure and limit important knowledge for us, as Trump demonstrated, but they are more likely to obstruct important knowledge than if we had pushed against them.

An Unhealthy Belief in Our Own Importance

At the end of the day, we all, somewhere along the way, adopt a belief that we are more important than we really are. A friends mother saves journals as if people are going to one day read them and gain great insight into her life. Average American’s across the country worry that what they post on social media could be viewed negatively by a government security apparatus. And while I tell myself I am writing this for myself, in the back of my mind is a thought about writing something insightful that all my readers will find valuable (my website had exactly 5 hits yesterday).

 

We tell ourselves stories as we go through the day, and eventually we start to believe our own stories and start to build an ego.

 

Ryan Holiday thinks this is a problem. In his book, Ego is the Enemy, Holiday encourages us to take a deep look at ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how we allow our ego to drive the show. He looks at stoic philosophy on self-awareness, introspection, and honesty with the self to see how our stories and ambitions can get in our own way and ruin our path. Holiday also shares his own stories about ego and the ways in which he has made mistakes out of pride, envy, and unrealistic visions of his own abilities.

 

Early in the book Holiday spends some time drilling in on what he means of ego. After providing some clinical and academic definitions, he writes, “The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. … The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility–that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.”

 

Our ego is our idea that we have somehow risen above other people and become more important in the world than we actually are. It is a belief that what we tell ourselves about what people think of us, about our ability to shape the world around us, and about what we are capable of is actually the reality of the world. Our ego pushes us to find ever greater status and have ever greater things in our life so that we can demonstrate some superiority over others (or at least appear to have such superiority). Ego puts us at the center of not just our own universe, but of the universe for everyone else, even when we have no reason to believe that we are who we tell ourselves we are. None of us want to believe that we allow our ego to run our lives in this way (as I write this I have convinced myself that my ego really isn’t that bad), but our ego always has a potential to grab the reins if we are not careful, and it always impacts our decisions in ways we don’t want to admit.

 

Even small things in our life can become driven by our ego. We often think that what we do in a given day is more important than it truly is. When we step back, pull our ego away, we see that what happens to us on a daily basis really isn’t very important or consequential. We are likely not being watched by the people we imagine to be watching us and we probably don’t get noticed as often as it feels that we do. After all, everyone else is probably living inside their head and worried about themselves and what everyone else thinks of them. I find this reassuring because it means that I don’t have to live my life as a performance. I can allow my life to play out and try my best without worrying about a pressure to do or to be anything specific and I don’t have to ascribe great meaning to random moments of my life. This opens the possibility for me to enjoy a small moment, to tolerate dull moments, and to do my best without an inordinate pressure to impress anyone.