In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks if we can escape our epistemic vices. He takes a deep look at epistemic vices, how they impact our thinking and behavior, and asks if we are stuck with them forever, or if we can improve and overcome them. Unfortunately for those of us who wish to become more epistemically virtuous, Cassam has some bad news that comes in the form of a vice doom loop. He writes,
“One is unlikely to take paraphrasing exercises seriously unless one already has a degree of intellectual humility. If one has the requisite degree of humility then one isn’t intellectually arrogant. If one is intellectually arrogant then one probably won’t be humble enough to do the exercises. In the same way, the epistemically lazy may well be too lazy to do anything about their laziness, and the complacent too complacent to worry about being complacent. In all of these cases, the problem is that the project of undoing one’s character vices is virtue-dependent, and those who have the necessary epistemic virtues don’t have the epistemic vices.”
The epistemic vice doom loop stems from the fact that epistemic vices are self-reinforcing. They create the mental modes that reinforce vicious thinking. Escaping from epistemic vices, as Cassam explains, requires that we possess epistemic virtues, which by default we do not possess. Virtues take deliberate effort and practice to build and maintain. We need virtues to escape our vices, but our vices prevent us from developing such virtues, and causes a further entrenchment of our vices.
So it seems as though epistemic vices are inescapable and that those with epistemic vices are stuck with them forever. Luckily, Cassam continues and explains that this is not the case. The world that Cassam’s quote lays out presents us with a false dichotomy. We are not either wholly epistemically vicious or epistemically virtuous. We exist somewhere in the middle, with some degree of epistemic viciousness present in our thinking and behavior and some degree of epistemic virtuosity. This means that we can ultimately overcome our vices. We can become less epistemically insouciant, we can become less arrogant, and we can reduce our wishful thinking. The vice doom loop is escapable because few of us are entirely epistemically vicious, and at least in some situations we are more epistemically virtuous, and we can learn from those situations and improve in others.