My last post was about epistemic insouciance, being indifferent to whether or not your beliefs, statements, and ideas are accurate or inaccurate. Epistemic insouciance, Quassim Cassam argues in Vices of the Mind is an attitude. It is a disposition toward accurate or false information that is generally case specific.
In the book, Cassam distinguishes between lies and epistemic insouciance. He writes, “lying is something that a person does rather than an attitude, and the intention to conceal the truth implies that the liar is not indifferent to the truth or falsity of his utterances. Epistemic insouciance is an attitude rather than something that a person does, and it does imply an indifference to the truth or falsity of one’s utterances.”
The distinction is helpful when we think about people who deliberately lie and manipulate information for their own gain and people who are bullshitters. Liars, as the quote suggests, know and care about what information is true and what is false. They are motivated by factors beyond the accuracy of the information, and do their best within their lies to present false information as factual.
Bullshitters, however, don’t care whether their information is accurate. The tools that work to uncover inaccurate information and counter a liar don’t work against a bullshitter because of their epistemic insouciance. Liars contort evidence and create excuses for misstatements and lies. Bullshitters simply flood the space with claims and statements of varying accuracy. If confronted, they argue that it doesn’t matter whether they lied or not, and instead argue that their information was wrong, that they didn’t care about it being wrong, and as a result they were not actually lying. This creates circular arguments and distracts from the epistemic value of information and the real costs of epistemic insouciance. Seeing the difference between liars and epistemically insouciant bullshitters is helpful if we want to know how to address those who intentionally obstruct knowledge.
“Focusing only on this smaller aspect and ignoring the much larger causes is one of the reasons why our responses to this crisis are failing so badly,” writes Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. The smaller aspect he refers to is the chemical hook of drugs. The story we tell ourselves is that drugs are addictive because they have powerful chemicals hooks that grab onto receptors in our brain and leave us continually craving more and more of the drug, and nothing else. He presents information, mostly from tobacco cessation studies, which suggest that chemical hooks are really only a small explanation of drug addiction, and that much larger and more powerful social factors are at play. If we truly want to address addiction, Hari argues, we have to think big and address the larger causes.
It is very tempting to take a small aspect of a problem and make that the entire focus of our solutions. For drug addiction, the chemical hook of a drug is an excellent scapegoat. It removes the moral failure argument, making the addict a victim of a dangerous chemical that can’t defend itself. It may allow us to vilify the pharmaceutical company that made the drug, and it allows us to rail against the rich whose pursuit of wealth causes harms to the rest of us. Finding a narrow scapegoat allows us to pick our wrong doers, and to make sure that we are not part of the group responsible for the problem.
I think this is why we so often fail to truly address problems at the level that is necessary. We want to signal our concern and stand up against a wrong, but only if we are not implicated in the action against the problem. In the example of drug addiction that Hari highlights, a big problem is the structure of American society. Jobs have been changing for decades, but we never did enough to truly invest in our communities to make them resilient in the face of changing work in a new technological society. We have punished drug abusers and addicts for years, because providing them the support they need, truly caring for them and allowing safe places for them to overcome the challenges that lead to their drug use in the first place, would be costly. To solve addiction requires that all of us, including those of us who have never used drugs and think of ourselves as good people, acknowledge that we have fallen short in many ways and that we might be part of the problem.
It is comfortable to focus on a small aspect of the problem, especially when it places blame on others. But it is inadequate, and will never give us the outcomes we want to see. We will always be making insufficient investments, and we will fail to help those who we claim to actually care about and claim to want to help.