Epistemic Character Vices

Epistemic Character Vices

Quassim Cassam explores epistemic vices in his book Vices of the Mind to understand how certain vices can obstruct knowledge and why they matter. Such vices tend to be thinking vices, that is vices that relate to the way we think about and understand the world. They may impact how we view and perceive the world, how we communicate information, or whether we are able to retain and recall information when needed. For example, being closed-minded can inhibit us from taking in an accurate view of the world, being arrogant may prevent us from effectively communicating knowledge about the world, and being careless or easily distracted may limit our ability to remember and recall information.
However, some epistemic vices can also be understood as character vices. Cassam writes, “character vices actually have a dual use: they can be used to characterize a person or they can be used to describe their thinking, either in general or in a particular case.” Character vices are not just behaviors, but ways of being that are typical for a person, that embody some essential aspect of an individual. Instead of just describing an action or behavior to understand its consequence, we can use character vices to understand an entire string of behaviors and actions of an individual, to understand their larger life outcomes.
Wishful thinking is a good example of a character vice that can have dual use. If you watched more college basketball than normal over the course of the pandemic, then by the time the NCAA Tournament started, you may have engaged in wishful thinking, placing a larger bet than you should have on the outcome of some of the games. But being overconfident in a couple of bets and believing that the best possible outcome would truly come to pass is different than being characteristically a wishful thinker. Someone who we describe as a wishful thinker is likely to always see the upsides and believe that things will work out as desired. As a result, they may not be prepared when things go wrong, and may not be able to overcome or avoid obstacles.
Wishful thinking as an epistemic character vice can describe your individual action or it can describe you as a person. Either way, it is helpful to see that epistemic vices can operate on multiple levels. Studying epistemic vices so closely helps us understand our thinking, our behaviors, even our personalities. They help us connect specific behaviors or traits to real-world outcomes, hopefully allowing us to see the harms that can come from actions, behaviors, and traits that obstruct knowledge.
Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks whether we can understand the behaviors of an individual based on individual characteristics or if we have to rely on larger structural and systemic explanations for their behavior. The question is important for Cassam because his book focuses on epistemic vices, which are vices that get in the way of knowledge. If such vices change people’s thoughts and behaviors in predictable ways, then they are something we should think about and work to change in ourselves and others. If, however, they don’t make a difference in people’s behaviors because larger structural explanations exist, then they are not worthy of our attention.
Given that Cassam wrote an entire book about epistemic vices, it is not surprising that he believes that they are useful in explaining behavior. He writes, “Epistemic vices are obstacles to knowledge that can in appropriate cases explain how people think and what they do. Sometimes, though, structural or systemic explanations are better.” This sentence feels a little weak, as though Cassam is admitting that epistemic vices can take a back seat to structural factors. However, the sentence is a useful summation of how we should think about individual level factors and larger structural and systemic factors.
Our lives are shaped to a great degree by large structural and systemic forces that are beyond our control. Family structures drive specific types of behaviors. Markets produce predictable outcomes. The rules of a sport determine what actions can and cannot be taken. However, within these larger structures and systems there is room for individual variation. Cassam’s argument is that we can understand some of the individual variation within larger structures by understanding epistemic vices.
Case explanations can include individual choices, characteristics, and epistemic virtues and vices to help us understand behavior. These explanations can be built on top of structural and systemic explanations which shape the range of possibilities and narrow some of the individual variations. We cannot entirely define someone by their individual choices and differences, but we can view them within a system and ask how their choices within a system differed from others, whether their differences were positive or negative, and why.
Situationists

Situationists

“Situational factors are often better predictors of behavior than personal factors,” writes Quassim Cassam to quote John Doris from his 2002 book on character. Cassam argues in his book that the adoption of epistemic vices and the development of epistemic virtues are important factors for humanity and that they can shape how people behave. Cassam’s argument runs against the quote from Doris.
To present his argument, Cassam lays out arguments from situationists writing, “one would think that curiosity, creativity, and flexibility are intellectual virtues, yet studies suggest that people are more likely to reason creatively, flexibly, and curiously when their moods have been elevated by such seemingly trivial and epistemically irrelevant situational influences as candy, success at anagrams, and comedy films.The argument is that our minds are flexible and adaptable depending on the situation. We might be disciplined, open-minded, and patient when we are sitting in front of our computer at 9 a.m. for work, but when we are in a hurry and someone spills something in front of us at the grocery store, those traits no longer matter. If something as simple as a plant in our office, the smell of cleaning solutions, and the number of a building can change our mood, how well we tidy up, and whether judges assess large or small fines on a business, then we are not really in control as much as we think. Situations control us more than we recognize.
Cassam takes the argument to its conclusion by writing, “Situationists conclude that people don’t have robust character traits like compassion and courage, and that how they behave is often better explained by other factors.” But for Cassam, this conclusion is overreaching. People really do behave differently based on individual character traits. Epistemic vices and their study demonstrate that people who are more open-minded make consistently better decisions than people who are closed-minded. Similarly, people who are gullible, arrogant, and prejudiced will systematically behave in ways that are more detrimental to themselves and society than people who do not display those character traits. Situationists, Cassam argues, give to much weight to the environment and not enough weight to individuals, agency, and the power of the human mind to be considerate and self-reflective.
Personally, I find myself to lean more toward the situationists than toward Cassam. I agree that laboratory studies involving confederates and environmental studies demonstrating that trivial factors which influence behavior are limited. They don’t truly capture reality, just a brief and normally unusual snapshot of our lives. However, I think in our general daily thinking we error too far in assuming that individuals truly control their lives. It is a useful fiction, but I think we would do well to recognize the power of our environments and be more considerate in shaping the structures, institutions, and situations which guide our lives. We can learn lessons from the impacts of seemingly trivial factors that influence our behaviors. We can see that we have the capacity to change dramatic traits about ourselves from situation to situation and better structure how we interact with the world around us to produce more virtuous behaviors. Assuming that humans are consistent and that virtues or vices are more a matter of control than a matter of situational context ignores the reality that we live within institutions that shape how our minds work.
Behavioral Consistency

Behavioral Consistency

An interesting observation that Quassim Cassam highlights in his book Vices of the Mind is summed up with a simple sentence from the author, “some vices require a great deal of behavioral consistency while others do not.”
The technical term for describing a vice or a virtue that requires consistency is fidelity. When we think about virtues, we probably think of characteristics, traits, and behaviors that necessarily must be consistent within an individual across time, space, and circumstances. To be a generous person, you must be generous in all aspects of life. To be kind, loving, trustworthy, and brave require the same. Vices, however, seem to be more on the low fidelity side, at least for some.
Cruelty is an example that Cassam uses to highlight a low-fidelity, or low-consistency vice. You don’t have to be cruel to everyone and every living thing you meet, but if someone sees you be cruel to another person in a stressful situation, or be cruel to an animal, a single instance of cruelty is all that may be needed to brand you as a cruel person.
Other vices, like laziness or gullibility, seem to exist more along a spectrum. I’m sure that many of us know people who are incredibly hard working in one aspect of life, but very lazy in others. Perhaps you know a great athlete who is too lazy to apply themselves fully in their professional career, or a motivated professional who seems to lazy to get to bed early so they can get to the gym in the morning. These people are harder to categorize broadly as lazy, and instead are categorized as lazy in certain regards. Cassam shows that the same can be true of someone who is gullible. People can be gullible across the board, gullible in narrow and unusual situations, or only occasionally gullible.
When we think about whether we or other people are virtuous or full of vices, we should consider whether our virtues or vices are high or low fidelity. Should we consider wealthy business owners as greedy or cruel because they laid off their employees, or should we take a larger view of the economic and structural decision-making? Should we consider the wealthy donor to our hometown university as generous with just a single large donation? Thinking about behavioral consistency within virtues and vices can help us better understand or own behavior and better contextualize the behaviors of others, hopefully helping us better think about good or bad behaviors in society.
Situational Vices

Situational Vices

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam acknowledges that our personal epistemic vices cannot be used to explain and account for all of our mental failures. They can explain a lot of our behavior and decision-making, but they don’t explain all of our decisions and don’t universally lead to negative outcomes in all of our interactions and choices.
Cassam acknowledges, “sometimes our conduct has much more to do with the situations in which we find ourselves than with our supposed virtues or vices.” Expanding out and viewing a situation holistically can help us better understand our behaviors and choices and can help us see the degree to which our virtues or vices shaped our responses. Epistemic vices may set a baseline for our behavior or give us a general default for how we see and understand the world, but certain situations can overrule our vices. The same can also be true for our virtues.
A person who is typically closed-minded might become far more considerate when they have to make a difficult personal health decision. Their fear and the gravity of the decision may create a context where they recognize that they don’t have all the answers and that they need to seek out more information. Alternatively, someone who is usually more open-minded may not display open-mindedness when they are insulted by someone who is more powerful than they are. The individual may become defensive and in any interaction with the more powerful individual they may automatically dismiss anything the person says out of closed-minded dislike and distrust, even if the other person may be correct.
“Explanations of our intellectual conduct are almost certainly going to have to be multidimensional,” Cassam writes.  “The role of epistemic vices shouldn’t be exaggerated but nor should it be underestimated.” We can expect characteristics about us, our general habits, and general ways of thinking to explain a lot about our behaviors in any given context. However, many specific factors can lead us to abandon our virtues or overcome our vices in unique and complex situations. Major, unusual, and unexpected events can shift us dramatically, but small and seemingly trivial details that we might not consciously recognize can also alter our behaviors in ways that vices and virtues cannot predict.
More On Epistemic Vices

More On Epistemic Vices

“Here, then, is how obstructivism conceives of epistemic vices,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind, “epistemic vices are blameworthy, or otherwise reprehensible intellectual failings that systematically get in the way of knowledge.”
Leading into this quote Cassam shows that epistemic vices are behaviors, character traits, personalities, and patterns of thinking which obstruct knowledge. Epistemic vices prevent us from seeing and perceiving the world fully, inhibit us from considering all the factors necessary, and limit our openness to new information. They prevent us from using knowledge that we have acquired or inhibit connections between information in one case and its application in another. Further, epistemic vices can keep us from sharing the knowledge we have gained. In each of these ways and more our behaviors, attitudes, and thought patterns inhibit knowledge on a consistent (if not universal) manner.
In his writing Cassam also shows that epistemic vices are both reprehensible and blameworthy. Inhibiting knowledge is something we should rebuff and criticize since a lack of knowledge is likely to lead to worse outcomes for us as individuals and as societies. Improving our knowledge and the systems, structures, and institutions which foster knowledge, I think Cassam and Steven Pinker from his book Enlightenment Now, would agree is critical for the continued success and life improvements of our species.
Epistemic vices are blameworthy because we can generally assign either acquisition or revision responsibly to the individuals who have such vices. Epistemic vices exist in the characteristics, behaviors, and ways of thinking of individuals. We can’t always blame an individual for developing an epistemic vice in the first place, but if change is possible, if the vice is to some degree within their control with an avenue for identifying and eliminating the vice, then the individual is revision responsible for that vice. By training, practice, and imitation, people can become more epistemically virtuous, and the reprehensive nature of epistemic vices means that we are obligated to do so.
Altogether, epistemic vices as Cassam details, are ways of being and thinking for which we are at least partially responsible that limit the knowledge of ourselves and our societies. They can be eliminated through the cultivation of epistemic virtues, and knowledge can be fostered throughout our species in the process.
Blameworthy Attitudes

Blameworthy Attitudes

I like to believe that people are more than the sum of their parts. A single character trait, a single behavior or interaction, and a single virtue or vice is rarely enough to form a comprehensive view of who a person is. Additionally, people become who they are as a result of many complex forces, some of which they have control over and others which they don’t have control over. For this reason, I generally try to reserve judgement, and apply the same thinking that Marcus Aurelius wrote down in his book Meditations, “When thou art offended at any man’s fault, turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou dost err thyself.”
With this mindset I generally try not to focus on the errors and flaws of others, but to see that I would likely behave the same way if I were under the same pressures and in the same circumstance. I try to remove blame from others, and recognize how our faults arise within us and why. But leaning into this mindset too much can hide the fact that people truly are blameworthy for some vices.
In his book Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam examines epistemic vices and considers how our attitudes, behaviors, and habits can form epistemic vices which reflect back onto us. Cassam differentiates between vices that we are responsible for acquiring and vices we are responsible for changing, and considers the ways we should think about blame and criticism. He writes, “if S’s attitude is in character, an expression of the kid of person that S is, then his bad attitude can hardly fail to reflect badly on him. Criticizing his attitude is a way of criticizing him since attitude is not something separate from him.”
I tend to pull things apart and consider the component pieces separately. I do this with people, and as I wrote about at the outset of this post, I generally think that the complete picture of the individual is greater than the sum of component pieces. My habit of seeing the world as Aurelius encourages leads me to discount the blame and responsibility that I attach to an individual based on a bad trait. But Cassam argues that this isn’t really possible. A bad attitude or an epistemic vice doesn’t exist on its own in the real world. Our behaviors, characters, and habits are not real, they are manifestations of each of us. Unlike a computer program, a car, or a shoe, they cannot be criticized separately from a person.
Therefore, criticizing a person’s beliefs, habits, or vices is necessarily a criticism of the person. Even if we make the criticism obliquely, as I try to do, we still are critical of the individual. Turning this around, we can also see that we cannot separate our own vices from who we are as people. Just as we cannot excuse another person’s inconsistent and poor behaviors or attitudes, we cannot explain ours without accepting criticism. The criticism of a vice is a criticism of the person, whether it is ourselves or others. The blame lies with us for the vices we hold.
Revision Responsibility

Revision Responsibility

My last post was about acquisition responsibility, the idea of whether we are responsible for having acquired vices that we may have. The idea is tackled in Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind where Cassam looks closely at epistemic vices – vices which obstruct knowledge. Cassam writes that we can’t always be acquisition responsible for our vices. We cannot necessarily be blamed for acquiring prejudices if we were indoctrinated into a culture that emphasizes those prejudices. Nor can we be responsible for acquiring epistemic vices like closed-mindedness or gullibility. These are traits and ways of thinking that just happen and that take effort and practice to escape.
While we may not be acquisition responsible for epistemic vices then, we may still be revision responsible for our vices. Cassam writes the following:
“If a person has the ability to modify their character traits, attitudes, or ways of thinking then they still have control over them, and because of that, can be responsible for them. This form of responsibility is revision responsibility since the focus is on what the subject can and can’t change or revise. In principle, one can be revision responsible for a vice which one is not acquisition responsible.”
We can still think of someone as being blameworthy for epistemic vices even if we can’t blame them for originally acquiring the vice according to Cassam’s argument. The question comes down to whether a vice is within the control of an individual. So someone who is gullible, prone to wishful thinking, or arrogant can be revision responsible for their vices. They can always make a change to be less gullible, to think more accurately about good and bad outcomes, and to be more humble. Making these changes would improve rather than hinder knowledge, eliminating their epistemic vices.
The idea of revision responsibility can still be a challenging question. An individual indoctrinated by the Taliban is the example Cassam uses to identify someone with epistemic vices for which they are not acquisition responsible, but it is hard to say that individual is revision responsible for their vices as well. Escaping those vices may put their life at risk. It is hard to know what exactly is within ones control to change, especially if we think that we are not a single coherent individual and that we are the product of the multitude of experiences our brain absorbs over time. Nevertheless, as a society and culture we can identify vices and virtues and find ways to encourage and discourage them appropriately. This can be the pressure to push people to make changes, and viewing people as having control over their vices can encourage people to actually make changes. We don’t have to assign blame based on acquisition responsibility, but we can still do so based on revision responsibility, and we can still use ideas of control to encourage more virtuous behavior.

Distinguishing Epistemic Vices

Quassim Cassam makes an effort to explain what makes an epistemic vice an epistemic vice and to differentiate between various epistemic vices in his book Vices of the Mind. An epistemic vice obstructs knowledge. It is a pattern of thought or a particular behavior related to our thinking that one way or another prevents us from acquiring knowledge, retaining knowledge, recalling knowledge when needed, or transmitting and sharing knowledge. Vices explored by Cassam include closed-mindedness, where we are not open to information that doesn’t fit our existing beliefs, and arrogance, where we assume we already know everything important, and where people are turned off by our personality and don’t listen to what we have to say. Vices such as these can be understood consequentially, by the results they have on our knowledge and the ways in which they obstruct knowledge. They can also be understood by motivations that contribute to them or by general dispositions that end up leading to the vices themselves. Cassam differentiates between the various forms of motivation that may create an epistemic vice and the general habits and tendencies that may also create such a vice.
Distinguishing between the various motivations which may create a vice and the general tendencies that contribute to them he writes, “In the case of epistemic vices that are not definable by their motives, vices are distinguished from another not by their motivational components but by the dispositions with which they are associated and the particular way they get in the way of knowledge.”
For example, someone can be closed-minded because they dislike change or dislike the feeling of being wrong. Someone could be foolish or gullible out of ignorance, wishful thinking, or because they are overly trustworthy. With both closed-mindedness and gullibility, people fail to investigate and obtain sufficient knowledge before making decisions. However, it is unlikely that anyone is motivated by a desire to make decisions based on a lack of information. People likely are not motivated to be either gullible or closed-minded, however other tangential motivations or personality traits lead to two vices that have similar epistemic outcomes. Nevertheless, the two vices have the same outcome despite being fueled by different motivations. 
Cassam’s quote also shows that we can differentiate between epistemic vices based on the way they inhibit knowledge. As I wrote earlier, an arrogant person may be off-putting. While they themselves have plenty of knowledge, their ability to transmit that knowledge to others is inhibited by their arrogance. Other people who dislike the arrogant individual will not listen to them, or will not hear what they have to say because they are too busy thinking about how much they dislike the individual. I had a few college professors whose arrogance inhibited their student’s ability to learn from them in this way. The arrogant individual may still be open-minded and be able to obtain necessary information, but their ability to transmit knowledge is limited. Conversely a closed-minded person may be able to transmit the knowledge they have, but they may be limited in the knowledge they gain, being unwilling to listen to new and important facts and details that contradict what they already know or want to know.
Distinguishing between and disentangling epistemic vices is difficult because motivations are not clear for any given vice, and their outcomes can be similar. However, examining different traits and general dispositions which give rise to epistemic vices can help us understand how various patterns of thought or behavior create vices. That insight can help us see how to adjust our thinking and habits to avoid obstructing knowledge and to hopefully begin making better decisions.
The Results of Social Learning

The Results of Social Learning

The results of Social learning are not always positive. We learn a lot from our friends, our culture, and the people around us that we are not always aware of. We are greatly influenced by what we see others doing and believing, and this includes the things we learn and come to believe as true facts about the world. This is easily demonstrated by polling the opinions of people who get their news from traditional news outlets relative to people who get their news from fringe sources with political biases. But it is also true in spaces you would not expect.

 

To describe problems in social learning results, Gerd Gigerezner in Risk Savvy writes, “All in all, social learning leads to a paradoxical result. In France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, doctors’ beliefs about diet and health – such as taking vitamin supplements or exercising – more closely resemble those of the general public in their country than of doctors in other countries.”

 

When it comes to general knowledge and an ability to distinguish between accurate information and fads, trends, or beliefs without evidence, we like to imagine that we are smart and capable of identifying the truth. We like to believe that our beliefs are based on reality, that we have carefully considered the facts, and that we hold our beliefs for good reason. We won’t admit that we believe the things we do because others hold those same beliefs, but as the doctor example above indicates, that is often the case. The Dartmouth Atlas Project shows differences across the USA in treatments for certain conditions and rates of diagnosis for different conditions. Some of that may be genetic and reflect real health differences across the country, but some of the differences reflect different treatment approach beliefs by doctors trained in and practicing in different regions of the country.

 

Social learning results are good when they bring people together in support of democratic norms or help people understand that sitting on a couch all day and eating pizza for dinner every night are unhealthy behaviors. However, social learning results can be negative when doctor’s group around wasteful medical practices. The results of social learning can also just be random and strange, such as when people fall into fad diets or exercise programs that have no discernable health benefits or harms. What we should take away from Gigerenzer’s quote is that our knowledge is not always as rock solid and evidence based as we would believe. We should be honest with ourselves and make an effort to investigate whether our beliefs are based on real evidence or based on the people in our social groups who happen to hold the same beliefs. Perhaps our beliefs are still justifiable after strict scrutiny, but perhaps some beliefs can be let go when we see they are based on little more than the opinions and feelings of people around us.