Epistemic Insouciance

Epistemic Insouciance

Dictionary.com defines insouciant as free from concern, worry or anxiety; carefree; nonchalant. To be epistemic insouciant then is to be carefree or nonchalant regarding knowledge. Epistemic insouciance can be characterized as a lack of concern regarding accurate information, true beliefs, and verifiable knowledge. Whether you know something or not, whether what you think you know is correct or not is of little concern.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam writes the following about epistemic insouciance:
“Epistemic insouciance means not really caring about any of this [whether claims are grounded in reality or the evidence] and being excessively casual and nonchalant about the challenge of finding answers to complex questions, partly as a result of a tendency to view such questions as much less complex than they really are.”
Cassam continues to define epistemic insouciance as an attitude vice, different from other epistemic vices in the book that he characterizes as thinking style vices or character trait vices. To demonstrate how it becomes an attitude vice, Cassam uses reporting from the Brexit campaign to demonstrate how a lack of concern over evidence and the impact of complex questions reflected an epistemically insouciant attitude. According to Cassam, reports indicated that Boris Johnson, current British Prime Minister, did not care much about the actual outcomes of the vote on remaining in or leaving the European Union. Johnson eventually wrote an article supporting the decision to leave, but he reportedly had an article written supporting the decision to remain had that option won in general election. His interests were in supporting the winning position, not in the hard work of trying to determine which side he should support and what the actual social, financial, and future impacts of the choices would be. He didn’t care about the evidence and information surrounding the decision, but rather that he looked like he was on the right side.
Epistemic insouciance is not limited to politicians. We can all be guilty of epistemic insouciance, and in some ways we cannot move through the world without it. At the moment, I need to make a decision regarding a transmission repair for a vehicle of mine. I have a lot of important concerns at the moment outside of this vehicle’s transmission. I have a lot of responsibilities and items that require my focus that I think are more important than the transmission issue. I am not interested in really evaluating any evidence to support the decision I eventually make for repairing the transmission or just getting rid of the vehicle. If I were not epistemically insouciant on this issue, I would research the costs more thoroughly, try to understand how much usage I can get out of the vehicle if I repair it, and consider alternatives such as what it could be sold for and what I would spend for a better vehicle. However, this is a lot of work for an item that is not a major concern for me at the moment. I can save the mental energy and attention for more important issues.
Our minds are limited. We cannot be experts in all areas and all decisions that we have to make. Some degree of epistemic insouciance is sometimes necessary, even if it can be financially costly. However, it is important that we recognize when we are being epistemically insouciant and that we try to understand the risks associated with this attitude in our decisions. We should ensure that we are not epistemically insouciant on the most important decisions in our lives, and we should try to clear out the mental clutter and habits that may make us epistemically insouciant on those important issues.


“The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness,” Seneca wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius almost 2,000 years ago. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is a collection of short passages written from Seneca to Lucilius full of interesting reflections on life. His quick quote about carelessness seems to be as fitting as can be for our times today.


We live in a time where great possibilities are open to most of us. On a given weekend we can volunteer our time for a meaningful cause, go snowboarding, go to the beach, visit family, or work on an art project, or try to finally get the garage cleaned. Often, however, we might find ourselves in a position where our time slips past us, and our weekends are lost to Netflix and squandered on meaningless activities. I often look forward to the promises of the weekend on Friday with excitement, but end up looking around my place on Sunday night reflecting on everything I planned to do but never managed to get to. We don’t need to pack every minute of our free time with interesting, fun, and engaging activities, but what I feel on some Sunday nights, is the pain of a loss due to carelessness.


Much more seriously, our world faces very extreme consequences from global warming as we continue to put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We face dangerous consequences from the  bioaccumulation of plastics in fish and wildlife species that eat our garbage. Millions of people in the deserts of the United States rely on water sources that are becoming depleted, yet water waste from leaks and unwise water usage persist. Our world faces various ecological crises that result more or less from our own carelessness. Just as I feel terrible some Sunday nights about the way I wasted my time during the weekend, we will look back at where we are today and feel extreme regret for the carelessness with which we wasted resources and allowed our planet to degrade.


Solving my problem on Sunday nights is not impossible. It just requires that I be more considerate about my time. It requires that I think about what I am doing and why I am doing it to ask myself if there are other things I should be doing and if I am going to look back and be glad that I spent my time engaging with any given activity. With some planning going into the weekend, I can be successful in engaging with the world in a meaningful way on my days away from the office. The same is true for our climate crisis. If we ask ourselves what we are doing and how our actions contribute to the overall sustainability of our planet, we can start to make small changes to live better on our planet. We won’t individually make much of a difference, but collectively we will start to make changes and we can all contribute to a consciousness about the importance of using our resources wisely. That mindset will eventually translate into smart decisions globally to help us mitigate our impact on the way things are going and prevent us from a disgraceful loss of a habitable planet due to our own carelessness.