More About Closed-Mindedness

More About Closed-Mindedness

“As an intellectual character trait that obstructs effective inquiry,” writes Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, “closed-mindedness also looks like a trait that gets in the way of knowledge systematically.”
Cassam writes that closed-mindedness has been extensively studied, which is relatively unique among the epistemic vices that Cassam considers in his book. He uses a deep dive into closed-mindedness to help demonstrate how epistemic vices obstruct knowledge, how they do so systematically, and how epistemic vices can describe people’s actual conduct.
Closed-mindedness is a general obstacle to knowledge by hindering effective inquiry. Being closed-minded or engaging in closed-minded thinking means that we are not making honest and complete efforts to investigate the world around us and answer questions. Instead, we hold onto specific answers that are preformed, that match what we want to believe, or that support another motive of ours. We don’t look for information that may contradict what we want to know and believe, and we discredit such information if presented to us. We fail to truly take an objective and comprehensive view of the situation before making a decision when we are closed-minded.
Closed-mindedness is an interesting epistemic vice because it can be an individualized behavior and also a character trait. As an individual, you might generally be open-minded, making good efforts to think critically about the world around you, however, through biases or other errors, you may from time to time engage in closed-minded thinking. Specific situations and some context-dependent decisions may draw out closed-minded decision-making in otherwise thoughtful individuals.
On the other hand, you can generally be a closed-minded person. You might be someone who always wants to have the last word, to always feel like the smartest person in the room, or to believe that your view of the world is correct and that there is no room for change. In most of your decisions, thoughts, and behaviors, you can be closed-minded, failing across the board to make full inquiry into the world around you. You might be open-minded in some situations or thoughts, but on the whole, you can tend to be a closed-minded person.
Whether it is a single decision or your general epistemic approach to the world, closed-mindedness is likely to obstruct knowledge, and to systematically lead to worse outcomes. A closed-minded army general who won’t acknowledge new information is going to leave his army vulnerable to an attack that he did not expect. A closed-minded sports fanatic is going to place unwise bets that won’t pay off. A generally closed-minded mother is not going to help her child when she fails to accept their errors, creating a situation that could compound small flaws into larger tragedies. Closed-mindedness prevents us from seeing the world clearly and leaves us vulnerable to decision-making based on poor information on a systematic level. As Cassam closes his thoughts on closed-mindedness, he writes, “Closed-mindedness, then, is an intellectual character trait constituted by intellectual dispositions that aren’t subject-specific.”
Gossip Machines

Gossip Machines

Humans are gossip machines. We like to talk about  and think about other people, especially the negative traits and qualities of others. At the same time, we are self-deception machines. We downplay our own faults, spend little time thinking about our mistakes, and deny any negative quality about ourselves. Even when we are the only audience for our thoughts, we hide our own flaws and instead nitpick all the things we dislike about other people.

 

As Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.”

 

But gossip isn’t necessarily as bad as we usually make it out to be. It is definitely not a good thing to constantly talk bad about other people, to find faults in others, and to ignore our own shortcomings. It can make us vain, destroy our relationships with friends and family, and give us a bad reputation among the people in our lives. And yet, we all engage in gossip and it pops up on social media today, in movies from the 80’s and 90’s, and even in journals from our nation’s founding fathers. Gossip seems to have always been with us, and while we are quick to highlight its evils, it seems to also be an important part of human society.

 

Kahneman continues, “The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home.”

 

We do not live in a vacuum. We are not isolated from society and other humans, and as a result we understand ourselves and think about ourselves in relation to other people. We partake in gossip and we know that other people gossip about us. This creates an important constraint on our actions and behaviors, shaping the way we live our lives. Knowing that other people will judge us prevents many negative behaviors such as reckless driving, living in unsanitary conditions, or being deliberately mean to other people. While gossip certainly has a lot of problems, it does in some ways shape how we behave in societies with other people in positive directions.

 

We might not want to think about our own flaws, but knowing that humans are gossip machines forces us to at least consider how we will appear to other people some of the time. This can drive us to act in accordance to social norms, and can be the bedrock of a society that can cooperate and coordinate efforts and goals. Without gossip, we might have a harder time bringing ourselves together to live in harmony.

Other People Are Important

The golden rule is basically a recognition that other people think and feel the way that we feel. If we have complex emotions, fears, desires, and feel that we are important, then surely other people do as well. From this follows the idea that we should treat people the way we would like to be treated.

 

We know that other people are important, but our actions don’t always reflect that. We often put ourselves ahead of others for no real reason. We go out of our way to make sure we have every possible desire filled, without considering the way that our behavior impacts what is available for others. We think about ourselves constantly, often forgetting that other people have valid thoughts and opinions just as we do.  Getting outside our own heads and remembering people is not just a nice thing we should do, but it is something that is vital to living a successful life. Dale Carnegie explains in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People:

 

“There is one all-important law of human conduct. If we obey that law, we shall almost never get into trouble. In fact, that law, if obeyed, will bring us countless friends and constant happiness. But the very instant we break the law, we shall get into endless trouble. The law is this: Always make the other person feel important.”

 

When we recognize that other people are important, we can take steps to actually show them that we think they are important. Often these can be small gestures, such as letting someone in line at the grocery store with just one item jump ahead of us with our full shopping cart. It can look like grabbing flowers for our partner or their favorite candy at the store as a little something extra. Sometimes it can just be listening to another person and thinking of a way to incorporate an idea they had in the office or give them credit when it is due.  Small steps like this can help foster relationships and improve our lives by helping us work and live better with the people around us.

 

Carnegie asks us to remember, “The unvarnished truth is that almost all the people you meet feel themselves superior to you in some way, and a sure way to their hearts is to let them realize in some subtle way that you recognize their importance, and recognize it sincerely.” Carnegie does not suggest we should simply give everyone around us what they want, but to remember that we can learn from others and that in some way, everyone we meet does have something they can teach us. If we see this same superiority complex in ourselves, we can learn to think beyond it, and ultimately prevent ourselves from getting into useless status measuring competitions with people who think of themselves as superior to us. Instead we can learn to let the ego fall to the side, give people recognition, and ultimately diffuse tension caused by unruly egos and work to get stuff done.

Self-Seeking Versus Unselfishness

“The world is so full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking. So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage.”

 

Dale Carnegie wrote that line in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. The line comes right after he describes a day where he encountered two life insurance salesmen. The first mentioned a new life insurance option, but because he didn’t have much information, didn’t press the sale and make much of an effort. The second salesman also didn’t have much information, but showed a lot of enthusiasm, encouraged setting up an additional appointment with someone from the company who knew more, and offered to help handle some of the paperwork to get the sign up process started more quickly. The second salesman got the sale.

 

When I read the quote in isolation I thought about people hording supplies during our current social distancing efforts to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. I thought about how tempting it can be to try to make a quick buck, even if the couple hundred dollars the hoarders might make by selling marked-up toilet paper won’t really make much of a difference in the lives of most of them. I also thought about a conversation from the Ezra Klein Show, where Klein, the host, interviewed Jane McAlevey, a union organizer who discussed the way that employees could instinctive tell if you actually care about them when you show up on the job-site, or if you look down on them and think that they are not as smart and deserving as you think of yourself. To live in a world that doesn’t price gouge during a crisis, and to be effective in working with other people requires an unselfishness that recognizes that you are not better than other people, no matter what your degree, your bank account, or the social status of your job says. Being truly unselfish means that you view everyone as having at least the capacity for having the virtues that you prize in yourself, and being willing to help them express those virtues.

 

There is a difference between the way I thought about unselfishness when reading the quote in isolation versus the way that Carnegie thought while writing the quote in his book. For Carnegie, the idea is that you can use your selfish impulses and personal desires to improve the lives of others, at least if you can step into the other person’s shoes, see what they need, and fulfill that need in a way that is deserving of compensation on your end. It is a capitalistic view of selflessness, and while it is not a terrible thing on its own, it requires the possibility for Pareto efficiency, for the world to be in a state where an action can be taken that would improve the world for both you and everyone else. It requires that our actions have only positive externalities. This is the view the inspired the entire book How Stella Saved the Farm, in which a brave sheep steps us to lead a farm and creates prosperity for everyone working on and depending on the farm through an embrace of good management in a capitalistic system.

 

The other view of selflessness is a much more social form. It doesn’t ask if there is a Pareto efficiency that can be met, but instead asks if our goals and desires are really necessary. It asks if the resources we have can be better used by people who are in need. It is part of a bigger question of whether we can do things that will improve the lives of not just us and the person in front of us, but of the entire society.

 

I don’t think that either view is necessarily wrong, but I do think that both views can easily be overstretched. Thinking of selflessness in purely the context of capitalism, as Carnegie was and as is presented in How Stella Saved the Farm can be good, but it can also create a system where our core societal value is what you contribute and produce in an economic sense. As we are not Homo Economicus, this can put many of us who are not great market thinkers and are not inspired business efficiency and productivity in a tough place where we are viewed as undeserving.

 

The second view sees us as valuable and deserving simply by being human beings, but it does raise question about how we reach economic development. An argument can be made that big business and technological development are crucial for improving living standards and actually improving lives more than just social do-gooding. Indeed, Tyler Cowen has made these arguments, and while I’m not sure he fully considers how damaging many of the negative externalities can be, I think he is broadly correct.

 

In the end, I fall back on what both perspectives have in common, which is captured in another line from Carnegie’s book just a few sentences later than the line that opened this post, “If out of reading this book you get just on thing – an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle – if you get that one thing out of this book, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.” I would switch the final word career to life, but the idea is there. Thinking about the world and others from other people’s perspectives is crucial for avoiding selfishness and for making a positive impact on the world. Whether you chose to do so through business and capitalism, through direct work with those who need it the most, or a combination of both approaches, you must first be able to see beyond your own wants and desires and understand the way that others see the world.

Recognize Your Thinking When You Are Displeased

A great challenge for our society is finding ways to get people to think beyond themselves. We frequently look for ways to confirm what we already believe, we frequently think about what we want and, and we frequently only consider only ourselves and how things make us feel in the present moment. Shifting these mindsets in the United States is necessary if we are going to find a way to address major problems that impact the lives of every citizen, and in some cases impact the entire globe.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie provides advice for people who want to better connect with others and have a greater impact with their lives. We are social creatures, and understanding how to improve our social connections with others is important if we want to be successful, take part in meaningful activities, and enjoy living with other people. Early on in the book, he provides a warning about how we will often fall short of the advice he recommends in the following chapters.

 

“You will probably find it difficult to apply these suggestions all the time. … For example, when you are displeased, it is much easier to criticize and condemn than it is to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint; it is frequently easier to find fault than to find praise; it is more natural to talk about what you want than to talk about what the other person wants; and so on.”

 

Remembering these points where our minds go astray is important if we want to avoid them. Most people probably won’t systematically make an effort to be considerate and to change their behavior towards others, but for those who do want to improve their social interactions and create new companies, groups, and social events that bring people together, remembering the points that Carnegie highlights as potential failures for being more considerate are important.

 

First, when we are upset or displeased with something, we will simply condemn others. However, a more constructive approach to improve the situation and treat the other person with more respect is to think about and try to understand why they did what they did and how they understand the world. We might not agree with their decision in the end, but hopefully we can find a point of common humanity from which we can have a better discussion than simply telling the other person who has upset us that they are an awful monster.

 

Second, finding ways to provide others with praise, thinking about what other people want, and understanding their viewpoints helps us have better conversations and develop better relationships. If we are engaging with other people in social endeavors then we will need to cooperate with them and hopefully work with them in some capacity for the long term. This requires that we find ways to motivate, develop real connections, utilize the strengths of others. To do that, we have to think about what others want and what motivates them. Allowing ourselves to be self-centered prevents us from doing this, and will lead to us criticizing those who we think fail to measure up, and ultimately won’t help us build great things. Thinking about the ways that our minds default toward this negativity will help prepare us to be more considerate and help us drive toward better outcomes for ourselves and our society.

The Process of Writing

I listen to lots of podcasts and have a handful of authors whose output I follow fairly closely. Those authors frequently discuss the importance of writing, their process, and what they gain from trying to write each day. One thing is clear from these authors, the process of writing helps with the process of thinking.

 

At the end of his book When Dan Pink writes, “the product or writing – this book – contains more answers than questions. But the process of writing is the opposite. Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.”

 

I have heard this a lot. That writing is something that helps take nebulous thoughts and organize them together. That writing is not taking the thoughts one already has and putting them down on paper, but that writing pulls disparate pieces that we didn’t always realize we were thinking, and combines them in a logical and coherent manner. We discover through research and close assessment of our mind what we think, and present that to the world.

 

For me, writing is a way to connect with the books that I read. It is a chance for me to revisit them and remember the lessons I learned and think again about the pieces of books that I thought were most important when I originally read them. For me, writing is as much re-discovery as it is discovery. I don’t pretend  that my writing is genuine and unique inspirations from my own mind, but rather reflections on why I found what someone else said to be important.

 

Generally, I believe that Pink is correct. I also think that writing is more than just a discovery of our thoughts, but a creation of our thoughts. Give students an assignment to write from a particular point of view, and even if they previously did not hold such a point of view, afterward they are likely to adopt that point of view. This is not so much idea and belief discovery, but belief formation. Part of our brains are rationalizing the words we put on the page, so to defend ourselves for writing those words. We may create new thoughts through writing just as we may discover thoughts and ideas that had already been bouncing through our mind. What is clear, however, is that writing forces the brain to be more considerate of the ideas that fly through it, and to create narrative and coherence between those ideas, organizing thought in new and more profound ways.

Charitable Advertisements

Charitable behavior says something about us. It is a way for us to advertise ourselves to the world in a discrete manner, so that everyone can see us and take away a message without us having to tell each person something about ourselves in a direct manner. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The most obvious thing we advertise is wealth, or in the case of volunteer work, spare time.”

It seems strange that we would use charity in this way. I hear arguments from time to time that we should just have higher taxes and use government systems and structures to address social problems. As a change to the current system, we could build more government agencies and provide more support for the kinds of programs and functions that we currently ask non-profits and charities to assist with. A frequent argument against this idea is that it would be inefficient and we couldn’t rely on government to consistently address the kinds of problems that charities and non-profits pop up to address. An argument that I don’t hear very often, but that I think plays a role, is that we would not be able to signal our generosity and extra wealth if we just expanded taxes and the role of government.

“In effect, charitable behavior says to our audiences, I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worry,” continue Simler and Hanson. The fact that our donations are often public and are often directed to causes that make us feel warm and fuzzy are evidence that we are not really using our donations to try to solve real problems. Asking the government to step in and play a bigger role might really address the problems that are out there, but it wouldn’t give us the warm fuzzy feeling we are looking for, and wouldn’t allow us to advertise to others about how charitable we are. This is why it is so hard to say no to people soliciting donations at grocery stores. We don’t know anything about the charitable cause they are asking us to support, but if we don’t take the chance to advertise how generous we are, we inadvertently advertise how inconsiderate we might be, or how little resources we have to spare. These little charitable behaviors end up being more about ourselves than about the good we are trying to do.

Advice from Isocrates

In Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday includes a quote from a teacher in Athens named Isocrates around 374 B.C. who wrote a letter to a young man who had recently lost his father. Holiday includes several lines and pieces of advice from Isocrates, and one that stood out to me when reading Holiday’s book is the following, “Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves.”

 

Yesterday evening I attended a community group with my wife, and the ice breaker to start off was, “what is something you don’t often approach with an eternal perspective that you should.” I chose a light answer of traffic and other drivers who annoy us while driving, but others said things like career choices, money decisions, and other important decisions that can weigh us down and make our lives stressful. The quote from Isocrates reminds me of the ice breaker from last night in the sense that we should be more thoughtful yet deliberate in our actions. Thinking with an eternal perspective means to think about the meaning and value of a choice or decision today relative to the entire arc of humanity. It requires introspection, being honest about your choices, and trying to think not just about yourself but about those around you who will also be impacted by your decision. This is exactly what Isocrates was encouraging for the young man in his letter.

 

The advice from Isocrates contained another element beyond careful and honest consideration of our choices. To be prompt in carrying out our resolves requires that we be firm in the decisions we make and deliberate in our actions to realize our decisions. I have seen in myself a thousand instances where I have made a decision to follow a course of action, only to be slow in starting on the path I decided would travel. Inevitably, the longer I delay action and the slower I am to take the steps that I decided I would take, the more likely it is that my decision is forgotten and that I do nothing. Whether it is cleaning my garage, starting a new club to read academic journal articles, or double checking our finances to set up a surprise date night with my wife, I am often slow to do what I told myself I wanted to do, and frequently I don’t carry out the great plans in my head. The advice from Isocrates is very practical for our daily lives. Slow down our judgement and reactionary tendencies, but once a decision has been made, put full and deliberate efforts forward to bring those decisions to life.

About Being Mad

Marcus Aurelius in his philosophy of stoicism constantly made an effort to look beyond the surface and make deep considerations of people and events before he made any attempt to sort out what they meant. This practice allowed him to delay pressing judgement onto others and gave him the ability to think clearly about something before letting his opinion bias his thoughts.  Throughout his book Meditations, you see him apply this skill to many areas of life, giving us examples of how we can use deeper thought and the ability to control our impulsiveness in various relationships and situations. In the quote I wish to highlight today, Aurelius discusses our anger in situations where disputes may arise. He writes, “The dispute then, he said, is not about any common matter; but about being mad or not.”

 

This quote to me speaks about our often hidden decision in conversation and social situations to react to something by being offended and angry.

 

At a certain point in a discussion or debate we may recognize that our views conflict with those of another, and we have a choice of how to move forward. In our culture in the United States we do not do a good job of understanding how to meaningfully build conversation from differences of opinion, and we often default to the simple option, argumentative debate. When we begin to notice that our views do not match, something inside us triggers and we allow ourselves to become mad. We fail to be constructive in our discussion and allow our hot mind to push the conversation in a volatile direction. In terms of our discussion, we make the decision to become angry, and that decision derails the path of our conversation. At a certain point when this happens, we are no longer actually discussing the original point, but instead we have staked out our identify, fortified ourselves with rage, and shifted the discussion to something completely different: our moral superiority and right to be angry.

 

This reminds me of a quote from Aurelius that I previously wrote about on August 3rd, 2016:

 

“On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior. By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue. We’re saying, ‘How horrible this situation is, and how capable am I of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!’”

 

We do not become angry with others or with situations because of the effect or impact they have on us, but rather, we become angry by our own choice. We use anger as a defense mechanism that barricades us on the side of righteousness and pierces through the shortcomings of others. Making the decision not to become angry at others allows us to look at people as rational human beings (meaning that they are making decisions based on their own perceived utility), and also allows us to remain humble as we constructively build our relationships and as we cognitively piece together the reality around us. Without developing this ability, we simply entrench our tribal nature, but in a way that is hidden from our consciousness, preventing ourselves from growing and being able to view the world from perspectives beyond our own.

 

As Colin Write wrote to start his book Considerations,

“Few of us take the time to consider.
     It’s not that we’re ‘inconsiderate’ in the sense that we’re rude or brash or one of the other myriad associations we’ve tacked on to the word over the years, but we are often ‘inconsiderate’ in the sense that we act while seeing the world from only one standpoint: our own.”

Unbiased

One of the benefits of an increased awareness and sense of presence that Marcus Aurelius wrote about in his common place book Meditations, is the ability to begin to see things without as much bias.  He wrote his book to remind himself of lessons and values that he wished to build into his life, and this helped him create habits of self-awareness, self-reflection, and presence of mind to remain grounded and focused on the most important parts of his life.  What Aurelius found, and what I think we all can experience when working on goals related to self-awareness, self-reflection, or focusing on the present moment, is that those habits open new thoughts and new perspectives for us. For Aurelius a life built upon these foundations provided an ability to see the world with less bias.

 

“Say nothing more to thyself than what the first appearances report. Suppose that it has been reported to thee that a certain person speaks ill of thee. This has been reported; but that thou has been injured, that has not been reported. I see that my child is sick. I do see; but that he is in danger, I do not see. Thus then always abide by the first appearances, and add nothing thyself from within, and then nothing happens to thee.”

 

Through a practice of honestly evaluating oneself combined with a focus on the present moment, Aurelius believed that we could begin to see the world in a more honest way. We can’t ever see the world from every perspective possible, and we can’t fully understand the thoughts and motivations of others, but we can separate our emotional responses and pulls from the events and actions of the world around us.  Before acting and making decisions about things that happen around us or happen to us, we can take a step back and evaluate our world without the filters that tend to shape our decisions.

 

To me what this looks like in practice is slowing down our decisions and recognizing when we are bringing our own bias into a conversation. Honest self-reflection will allow us to see where our biases impact our thinking, and self-awareness will help us to understand when those biases are determining the perspective through which we are interpreting the world. When a family member or friend says something to me that is not the most flattering, Aurelius would encourage me to look at more perspectives to evaluate whether that individual is intentionally trying to harm me, or if they are being honest about the way that I present myself.  The Emperor’s thoughts also manifest in our political lives where our ideology and party affiliation has been built into our individual identity.  We can listen to political observations or statements from people who are from the same party or background as ourselves and approve of what they say, but it is much harder to honestly listen to people who we know are from a different party or background as ourselves. Remembering Aurelius’ quote may help us to see they message without a filter pre-determining whether or not we think the individual or their message is right or wrong. This will allow us to increase our thought and be more considerate of the world around us.