Exploring Level Confusion Through Vices

Exploring Level Confusion with Vices

Level confusion is an incredible challenge, and one that I grapple with all the time. I am never quite sure when to pin something on personal responsibility and when to pin something on structural factors. It is not just vices and negative aspects of an individual I often struggle to attribute to either personal or structural factors. I often cannot tell whether I should praise someone for the good that they do, or praise the structures and systems which allow the individual to do such good. My challenges with thinking about personal level versus societal level responsibility are an example of level confusion and why it can be an important factor to be aware of when we think about the world. According to Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind, I am not alone in this dilemma.
“Vices themselves,” writes Cassam, “have a deeper explanation in the social circumstances of their possessors. … It could still be true … that some doctors are overconfident but to explain what is actually a systemic or structural phenomenon – medical error – in such personal terms is to be guilty of what might be called a level confusion.”
Vices are in many ways personal. We are often to blame for vices and often have control over whether we acquire a vice or whether we improve our behavior and eliminate vices. But how often we can pin a particular harm or bad outcome on our individual vice is hard to say. Certainly any of us who are called out for our vices could come up with numerous structural factors which enabled our vice or compelled us toward such a vice. Cassam’s quote shows that this can be done within medicine. How much can an individual medical error be pinned on a doctor? Arrogant doctors can probably be expected to make more errors than humble doctors, but how often can an individual error be pinned on a doctor’s arrogance rather than another factor that allowed the error to take place?
Cassam continues, “this discussion brings out just how difficult it can be to decide whether a particular outcome is best explained in personal or structural terms. Having said that, it is also true that the personal and the structural are often intertwined, and that one and the same phenomenon can sometimes be explained at both levels.”
Level confusion is going to always be unavoidable given how complex and intertwined our world is. Ultimately, what I think is important is that we step back from our preferred view, either the personal or the structural, and think more deeply about the alternative role in the outcomes we see. If we typically blame people for their outcomes, then we must step back and recognize the structural and systemic forces that make some decisions and outcomes easier for some and harder for others. If we typically adopt a structural view, then we must step back and recognize the importance of personal responsibility and the necessity of personal responsibility in decision-making. With such level confusion we may never be able to agree on how much personal or structural factors matter, but we can accept the complexity and at least begin to address those factors which allow people to take more personal responsibility, initiating the changes we want to see within the larger structures.
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.

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.
Defensive Decision-Making - Joe Abittan

Defensive Decision-Making

One of the downfalls of a negative error cultures is that people become defensive over any mistake they make. Errors and mistakes are shamed and people who commit errors do their best to hide them or deflect responsibility. Within negative error cultures you are more likely to see people taking steps to distance themselves from responsibility before a decision is made, practicing what is called defensive decision-making.

 

Gerd Gigerenzer expands on this idea is his book Risk Savvy by writing, “defensive decision making [is] practiced by individuals who waste time and money to protect themselves at the cost of others, including their companies. Fear of personal responsibility creates a market for worthless products delivered by high-paid experts.”

 

Specifically, Gigerenzer writes about companies that hire expensive outside experts and consultants to make market predictions and help improve company decision-making. The idea is that individual banks, corporations, and sales managers can’t accurately know the state of a market as well as an outside expert whose job it is to study trends, talk to market actors, and understand how the market relates to internal and external pressures. The problem, as Gigerenzer explains, is that even experts are not very good at predicting the future of a market. There is simply too much uncertainty for anyone to be able to say that market trends will continue, that a shock is coming, or that a certain product or service is about to take off. Experts make these types of predictions all the time, but evidence suggests that their predictions are not much better than just throwing dice.

 

So why do companies pay huge fees, sit through lengthy meetings, and spend time trying to understand and adapt to the predictions of experts? Gigerenzer suggests that it is because individuals within the company are practicing defensive decision-making. If you are a sales manager and you make a decision to sell to a particular market with a new approach after analyzing performance and trends of your own team, then you are responsible for the outcome of the new approach and strategy. If it works, you will look great, but if it fails, then you will be blamed for not understanding the market, for failing to see the signs that indicated your plan wasn’t going to succeed, and for misinterpreting past trends. However, if a consultant suggested a course of action, presented your team with a great visual presentation, and was certain that they understood the market, then you escape blame when the plan doesn’t work out. If even the expert couldn’t see what was going to happen, then how could you be blamed for a plan not working out?

 

Defensive decision-making is good for the individual, but bad for the larger organization that the individual is a part of. Companies would be better off if they made decisions quicker, accepted risk, and could openly evaluate success and failure without having to place too much blame on individuals. Companies could learn more about their errors and could do a better job identifying and promoting talent. Defensive decision-making is expensive, time consuming, and outsources blame, preventing companies and organizations from actually learning and improving their decision-making over the long run.

Placing Blame

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had a very interesting way of looking at other people and thinking about those around us. He held others in high regard, and looked at their actions in a very open way. Compared to the way we often think of others today, Aurelius was very generous and forgiving, and he worked hard to see the good in others rather than the negative. When it came to finding fault in others he wrote, “With respect to that which happens conformably to nature, we ought to blame neither gods, for they do nothing wrong either voluntarily or involuntarily, nor men, for they do nothing wrong except involuntarily. Consequently we should blame nobody.”

 

I really enjoy this quote because it softens the way we look at others and their actions or decisions. In our society today we are overrun with cynicism and oftentimes the first thing we look for in another person is their faults. When we enter into business agreements, receive some sort of advice, or are given an opportunity, it is hard to keep from thinking about possible ulterior motives of the other individual. When we see negative situations arise from the mistakes of another person we are very quick to blame their moral character and to assume they acted with intent to do bad.  Aurelius would encourage us to slow down in our judgments about others, and to step back to consider the situation, how we would act if we were the other person, and what could have been influencing the individual who is in the wrong.

 

In my post from July 21st, 2016, I wrote about Aurelius’ thoughts on where our mental focus should be in regards to others. He encourages us to see the positive and negative in the actions and lives of those around us, but so that we may then turn inward to reflect on whether or not we have the same shortcomings in our own life. By pausing to reflect in this way we do not blame others, but we learn from them to improve our own lives. The section above shows that the faults of others is not a result of their direct failure, but on everything that has occurred to shape them into the person they are now. In one way or another, their current actions seem defensible to them. Understanding where their thought process went wrong and how they came to discount the negative will help us improve our lives and better understand those around us who seem to be headed down the wrong path. With this new perspective, we may be able to better assist others and work toward positive change as opposed to simply living cynically and criticizing the people and institutions around us.