Motivations, Virtues, & Vices

Motivations, Virtues, & Vices

Virtues are teleological. At least the argument that Quassim Cassam puts forward in his book Vices of the Mind relies on the suggestion that our virtues are defined by their actual outcomes and results in the real world. Cassam specifically looks at epistemic vices in the mind and demonstrates that epistemic vices systematically obstruct knowledge, where epistemic virtues systematically lead to an increase in knowledge. If the outcome of a particular way of thinking is more likely to increase the generation, transmission, and retention of knowledge, then it is a virtue, but if it is more likely to hinder one or more of those aspects of knowledge, it is a vice.
From this base, Cassam argues that our motivations are also teleological. Virtues and motivations are connected, and both are understood by the ways they actually shape and influence the world. Cassam writes, “every virtue can be defined in terms of particular motivation, and the goodness of the virtue is at least partly a function of the goodness of its particular motivation.”
I think this puts us in an interesting place when it comes to our motivations and whether we think we are virtuous or not. Initially, to me, motivations felt like they would be more deontological than teleological. As though motivations would be an intrinsic quality where they were defined as good on their own and rather than in reference to their ends and the outcomes they produce. But on closer consideration I think that Cassam is correct. Certain motivations underpin certain behaviors, and behaviors can have systematic results in the real world, giving us a teleological view of our initial motivations.
As an example, Cassam quotes Oklahoma University Professor Linda Zagzebski by writing, “an open-minded person is motivated out of a delight in discovering new truths, a delight that is strong enough to outweigh the attachment to old beliefs.”  In this example, motivations associated with discovering new truths, learning, and developing more accurate views of the world lead to the virtue of open-mindedness. These motivations, like the virtue they build into, systematically lead to more knowledge, new discoveries, and ultimately better outcomes for the world. Conversely, a motivation to hold on to old beliefs, to not have to adjust ones thinking and admit one may have been wrong, serves as a base for closed-mindedness. These motivations, along with the vice of being closed-minded, systematically inhibit knowledge, discovery, and progress. From this example, with the quote from Cassam in mind, we can see that virtues, vices, and motivations are teleological, capable of being understood as having consistent, if not univariable, positive or negative outcomes in our lives. Just as we can think of something being a virtue if it generally leads to positive outcomes, we can think of our motivations as being virtuous if they too lead to positive outcomes.
When we consider the motivations we have in our lives, and if we have motivations to become virtuous people, we can think about whether our motivations will systematically lead to good outcomes for ourselves and our societies. It is possible to hold motivations that may be beneficial for us while producing negative externalities for society. We can examine our motivations just as we evaluate our virtues and vices, and try to shift toward more virtuous motivations to try to systematically increase the good we do and the knowledge we generate. Few of us are probably motivated to be closed-minded, arrogant, or to hold any other epistemic vice, but our motivations may lead to such vices, so it is important that we pick our motivations well based on the real world outcomes they can inspire.

On Consequentialism

In his book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam argues that patterns of thoughts and mental habits that obstruct knowledge are essentially moral vices. Ways of thinking and mental habits that enhance the acquisition, retention, and transmission of knowledge, according to Cassam, are moral virtues. Cassam defends his argument largely through a consequentialist view.
Cassam is open about his consequentialist frame of reference. He writes:
“Obstructivism is a form of consequentialism. … Moral vices systematically produce bad states of affairs. … The point of systematically is to allow us to ascribe moral virtue in the actual world to people who, as a result of bad luck, aren’t able to produce good: if they possessed a character trait that systematically produces good in that context (though not in their particular case) they still have the relevant moral virtues.”
I think that this view of epistemic vices is helpful. I know for me that there are times when I fall into the epistemic vices that Cassam highlights, and they can often be comforting, make me feel good about myself, or just be distractions from an otherwise busy and confusing world. However, recognizing that these vices systematically lead to poorer outcomes can help me understand why I should stay away from them.
Epistemic vices like scrolling through Twitter to look at posts that bash on someone you dislike are structurally likely to produce bad outcomes by wasting your time, making you more prone to distractions, and prejudicing yourself against people you don’t agree with. What you spend your mental energy on matters, and in the case of Twitter scrolling, you are allowing your mind to indulge in shallow quick thinking, closed-mindedness, and biases. It plays off confirmation bias, giving you the ability to only see posts that confirm what you believe or want to believe about a person or topic. It feels nice to bash on someone else, but you are reinforcing a limited perspective that might be wrong and rewarding your brain for being shallow and inconsiderate. In the moment it is rewarding, but in the long run it will lead to worse thinking, shorter attention spans, and biased decision-making that is hard to get away from once you have closed the Twitter tab. Consequentialism helps us see that the epistemic vices involved in Twitter scrolling, which feel harmless in the moment, are more likely to result in negative outcomes over time. The systematic nature of these epistemic vices, the consequences and outcomes of indulging them, is what defines them as vices.
Consequentialism, Cassam’s argument shows, can be a useful way to think about how we should behave. People who try to do good but experience bad luck and don’t produce the same good outcomes as others can still be viewed as morally virtuous. Even though in their particular situation a good result did not occur, those who practice moral virtues can be praised for behaving in a way that is systematically more likely to produce good. Conversely, people who behave in ways that systematically produce negative outcomes can be deterred from their negative behavior through social taboos and norms, even if a poor behavior might provide them with an opportunity to succeed in the short term. It is hard to take absolute stances about any position, but consequentialism gives us a frame though which we can approach difficult decisions and uncertainty by recognizing where systematic patterns are likely to lead to desired or undesired outcomes for ourselves and our societies.