Standard Stories

Standard Stories

No matter who you are, what you do for a living, or where you live, your life is made up of stories. We use narratives to understand ourselves and our places in the world. We imagine grand arcs for ourselves, for others, and for the planet. We create motivations for ourselves and others, impart goals to people and societies, and create meaning between events. But what does it mean for us all to live in stories?
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam looks at one aspect of stories, the fact that they are not perfect reflections of reality. They can only include so much, and they focus on certain aspects of life over others. He writes, “the problem with standard stories, it might be argued, isn’t that they ignore trivial situational influences on human conduct but that they ignore very far from trivial structural influence.”
This quote comes within the context of Cassam discussing situationists and structuralists. Situationists argue that who we are and how we behave is in many ways influenced by the particulars of the situations we find ourselves in. In our personal narrative we may be calm, rational, and kind, but in a stressful situation we may be impulsive, cruel, and rash. Contrasting situationists are structuralists, who look at larger social and systemic factors that influence our lives. We might be cheerful, energetic, and optimistic people, but being forced into a dead-end job to earn enough to get by could crush all of those character traits. Larger structural forces can influence the situations we find ourselves in, ultimately shaping who we are and how we behave.
What Cassam is specifically highlighting in the quote is the idea that our narratives often rely too much on the particulars of given situations and ignore the larger structural systems that shape those situations. Our stories highlight individual level motivations and desires, but those are in turn situated within a larger context that becomes the background of our narratives. We focus on the individual conflicts, struggles, and arcs without recognizing how larger forces create the environments and rules within which everything else takes place. Standard stories fall short of reality and fall short of helping us understand exactly what is possible and exactly what shapes our lives because they don’t recognize structural forces. Without acknowledging those larger structural forces standard stories can’t help us understand how to change the world for better.

Acquisition Responsibility

We are not always responsible for the acquisition of our virtues and vices. For some of us, being good natured and virtuous toward other people comes naturally, and for others of us, being arrogant or closed-minded comes naturally or was pushed onto us from forces we could not control. I think it is reasonable to say that virtues likely require more training, habituation, imitation, and intentionality for acquisition than vices, so in that sense we are more responsible for virtue acquisition than vice acquisition. It is useful to think about becoming versus being when we think about virtues and vices because it helps us better consider individual responsibility. Making this distinction helps us think about blameworthiness and deservingness, and it can shape the narratives that influence how we behave toward others.
In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam writes, “a person who is not responsible for becoming dogmatic might still be responsible for being that way. Acquisition responsibility is backward-looking: it is concerned with the actual or imagined origin of one’s vices.”
In the book, in which Cassam focuses on epistemic vices, or vices that obstruct knowledge. Cassam uses an example from Heather Battaly of a young man who is unfortunate enough to grow up in a part of the world controlled by the Taliban. The young man will undoubtedly be closed-minded (at the very least) as a result of being indoctrinated by the Taliban. There is little the man could do to be more open minded, to avoid adopting a specific viewpoint informed by the biases, prejudices, and agendas of the Taliban. It is not reasonable to say that the man has acquisition responsibility for his closed-mindedness. Many of our epistemic vices are like this, they are the results of forces beyond our control or invisible to us, they are in some ways natural cognitive errors that come from misperceptions of the world.
When we think about vices in this way, I would argue that it should change how we think about people who hold such vices. It seems to me that it would be unreasonable to scorn everyone who holds a vice for which they have no control over the acquisition. Being backward-looking doesn’t help us think about how to move forward. It is important to recognize that people hate being held responsible for things they had no control over, even if that thing lead to serious harms for other people. An example might be people who have benefitted from structural racism, and might like to see systems and institutions change to be less structurally racist, but don’t want to be blamed for a system they didn’t recognize or know they contributed to. Being stuck with a backward-looking view frustrates people, makes them feel ashamed and powerless, and prevents progress. People would rather argue that it wasn’t their fault and that they don’t deserve blame than think about ways to move forward. Keeping this in mind when thinking about how we address and eliminate vices for which people are not acquisition responsible is important for us if we want to continue to grow as individuals and societies and if we want to successfully overcome epistemic vices.
Systematically Obstructing Knowledge

Systematically Obstructing Knowledge

The defining feature of epistemic vices, according to Quassim Cassam, is that they get in the way of knowledge. They inhibit the transmission of knowledge from one person to another, they prevent someone from acquiring knowledge, or they make it harder to retain and recall knowledge when needed. Importantly, epistemic vices don’t always obstruct knowledge, but they tend to do so systematically.
“There would be no justification for classifying closed-mindedness or arrogance as epistemic vices if they didn’t systematically get in the way of knowledge,” writes Cassam in Vices of the Mind. Cassam lays out his argument for striving against mental vices through a lens of consequentialism. Focusing on the outcomes of ways of thinking, Cassam argues that we should avoid mental vices because they lead to bad outcomes and limit knowledge in most cases.
Cassam notes that epistemic vices can turn out well for an individual in some cases. While not specifically mentioned by Cassam, we can use former President Donald Trump as an example. Cassam writes, “The point of distinguishing between systematically and invariably is to make room for the possibility that epistemic vices can have unexpected effects in particular cases.” Trump used a massive personal fortune, an unabashed bravado, and a suite of mental vices to bully his way into the presidency. His mental vices such as arrogance, closed-mindedness, and prejudice became features of his presidency, not defects. However, while his epistemic vices helped propel him to the presidency, they clearly and systematically created chaos and problems once he was in office. In his arrogance he attempted to bribe the prime minister of Ukraine, leading to an impeachment. His closed-mindedness and wishful thinking contributed to his second impeachment as he spread baseless lies about the election. 
For most of us in most situations, these same mental vices will also likely lead to failure and errors rather than success. For most of us, arrogance is likely to prevent us from learning about areas where we could improve ourselves to perform better in upcoming job interviews. Closed-mindedness is likely to prevent us from gaining knowledge about saving money with solar panels or about a new ethnic restaurant that we would really enjoy. Prejudice is also likely to prevent us from learning about new hobbies, pastimes, or opportunities for investment. These vices don’t always necessarily lead to failure and limit important knowledge for us, as Trump demonstrated, but they are more likely to obstruct important knowledge than if we had pushed against them.
Take the Outside View

Take the Outside View

Taking the outside view is a shorthand and colloquial way to say, think of the base rate of the reference class to which something belongs, and make judgements and predictions from that starting point. Take the outside view is advice from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow for anyone working on a group project, launching a start-up, or considering an investment with a particular company. It is easy to take the inside view, where everything seems predictable and success feels certain. However, it is often better for long-term success to take the outside view.

 

In his book, Kahneman writes, “people who have information about an individual case rarely feel the need to know the statistics of the class to which the case belongs.” He writes this after discussing a group project he worked on where he and others made an attempt to estimate the time necessary to complete the project and the obstacles and hurdles they should expect along the way. For everyone involved, the barriers and likelihood of being derailed and slowed down seemed minimal, but Kahneman asked the group what to expect based on the typical experience of similar projects. The outlook was much more grim when viewed from the outside perspective, and helped the group better anticipate challenges they could face and set more reasonable timelines and work processes.

 

Kahneman continues, “when forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs.”

 

Taking the outside view helps us get beyond delusional optimism. It helps us make better expectations about how long a project will take, what rate of return we should expect, and what the risks really look like. It is like getting a medical second opinion, to ensure that your doctor isn’t missing anything and to ensure they are following the most up-to-date practices. Taking the outside view shifts our base rate, anchors us to a reality that is more reflective of the world we live in, and helps us prepare for challenges that we would otherwise overlook.