Situational Vices

Situational Vices

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam acknowledges that our personal epistemic vices cannot be used to explain and account for all of our mental failures. They can explain a lot of our behavior and decision-making, but they don’t explain all of our decisions and don’t universally lead to negative outcomes in all of our interactions and choices.
Cassam acknowledges, “sometimes our conduct has much more to do with the situations in which we find ourselves than with our supposed virtues or vices.” Expanding out and viewing a situation holistically can help us better understand our behaviors and choices and can help us see the degree to which our virtues or vices shaped our responses. Epistemic vices may set a baseline for our behavior or give us a general default for how we see and understand the world, but certain situations can overrule our vices. The same can also be true for our virtues.
A person who is typically closed-minded might become far more considerate when they have to make a difficult personal health decision. Their fear and the gravity of the decision may create a context where they recognize that they don’t have all the answers and that they need to seek out more information. Alternatively, someone who is usually more open-minded may not display open-mindedness when they are insulted by someone who is more powerful than they are. The individual may become defensive and in any interaction with the more powerful individual they may automatically dismiss anything the person says out of closed-minded dislike and distrust, even if the other person may be correct.
“Explanations of our intellectual conduct are almost certainly going to have to be multidimensional,” Cassam writes.  “The role of epistemic vices shouldn’t be exaggerated but nor should it be underestimated.” We can expect characteristics about us, our general habits, and general ways of thinking to explain a lot about our behaviors in any given context. However, many specific factors can lead us to abandon our virtues or overcome our vices in unique and complex situations. Major, unusual, and unexpected events can shift us dramatically, but small and seemingly trivial details that we might not consciously recognize can also alter our behaviors in ways that vices and virtues cannot predict.
More On Epistemic Vices

More On Epistemic Vices

“Here, then, is how obstructivism conceives of epistemic vices,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind, “epistemic vices are blameworthy, or otherwise reprehensible intellectual failings that systematically get in the way of knowledge.”
Leading into this quote Cassam shows that epistemic vices are behaviors, character traits, personalities, and patterns of thinking which obstruct knowledge. Epistemic vices prevent us from seeing and perceiving the world fully, inhibit us from considering all the factors necessary, and limit our openness to new information. They prevent us from using knowledge that we have acquired or inhibit connections between information in one case and its application in another. Further, epistemic vices can keep us from sharing the knowledge we have gained. In each of these ways and more our behaviors, attitudes, and thought patterns inhibit knowledge on a consistent (if not universal) manner.
In his writing Cassam also shows that epistemic vices are both reprehensible and blameworthy. Inhibiting knowledge is something we should rebuff and criticize since a lack of knowledge is likely to lead to worse outcomes for us as individuals and as societies. Improving our knowledge and the systems, structures, and institutions which foster knowledge, I think Cassam and Steven Pinker from his book Enlightenment Now, would agree is critical for the continued success and life improvements of our species.
Epistemic vices are blameworthy because we can generally assign either acquisition or revision responsibly to the individuals who have such vices. Epistemic vices exist in the characteristics, behaviors, and ways of thinking of individuals. We can’t always blame an individual for developing an epistemic vice in the first place, but if change is possible, if the vice is to some degree within their control with an avenue for identifying and eliminating the vice, then the individual is revision responsible for that vice. By training, practice, and imitation, people can become more epistemically virtuous, and the reprehensive nature of epistemic vices means that we are obligated to do so.
Altogether, epistemic vices as Cassam details, are ways of being and thinking for which we are at least partially responsible that limit the knowledge of ourselves and our societies. They can be eliminated through the cultivation of epistemic virtues, and knowledge can be fostered throughout our species in the process.
Blameworthy Attitudes

Blameworthy Attitudes

I like to believe that people are more than the sum of their parts. A single character trait, a single behavior or interaction, and a single virtue or vice is rarely enough to form a comprehensive view of who a person is. Additionally, people become who they are as a result of many complex forces, some of which they have control over and others which they don’t have control over. For this reason, I generally try to reserve judgement, and apply the same thinking that Marcus Aurelius wrote down in his book Meditations, “When thou art offended at any man’s fault, turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou dost err thyself.”
With this mindset I generally try not to focus on the errors and flaws of others, but to see that I would likely behave the same way if I were under the same pressures and in the same circumstance. I try to remove blame from others, and recognize how our faults arise within us and why. But leaning into this mindset too much can hide the fact that people truly are blameworthy for some vices.
In his book Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam examines epistemic vices and considers how our attitudes, behaviors, and habits can form epistemic vices which reflect back onto us. Cassam differentiates between vices that we are responsible for acquiring and vices we are responsible for changing, and considers the ways we should think about blame and criticism. He writes, “if S’s attitude is in character, an expression of the kid of person that S is, then his bad attitude can hardly fail to reflect badly on him. Criticizing his attitude is a way of criticizing him since attitude is not something separate from him.”
I tend to pull things apart and consider the component pieces separately. I do this with people, and as I wrote about at the outset of this post, I generally think that the complete picture of the individual is greater than the sum of component pieces. My habit of seeing the world as Aurelius encourages leads me to discount the blame and responsibility that I attach to an individual based on a bad trait. But Cassam argues that this isn’t really possible. A bad attitude or an epistemic vice doesn’t exist on its own in the real world. Our behaviors, characters, and habits are not real, they are manifestations of each of us. Unlike a computer program, a car, or a shoe, they cannot be criticized separately from a person.
Therefore, criticizing a person’s beliefs, habits, or vices is necessarily a criticism of the person. Even if we make the criticism obliquely, as I try to do, we still are critical of the individual. Turning this around, we can also see that we cannot separate our own vices from who we are as people. Just as we cannot excuse another person’s inconsistent and poor behaviors or attitudes, we cannot explain ours without accepting criticism. The criticism of a vice is a criticism of the person, whether it is ourselves or others. The blame lies with us for the vices we hold.
Revision Responsibility

Revision Responsibility

My last post was about acquisition responsibility, the idea of whether we are responsible for having acquired vices that we may have. The idea is tackled in Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind where Cassam looks closely at epistemic vices – vices which obstruct knowledge. Cassam writes that we can’t always be acquisition responsible for our vices. We cannot necessarily be blamed for acquiring prejudices if we were indoctrinated into a culture that emphasizes those prejudices. Nor can we be responsible for acquiring epistemic vices like closed-mindedness or gullibility. These are traits and ways of thinking that just happen and that take effort and practice to escape.
While we may not be acquisition responsible for epistemic vices then, we may still be revision responsible for our vices. Cassam writes the following:
“If a person has the ability to modify their character traits, attitudes, or ways of thinking then they still have control over them, and because of that, can be responsible for them. This form of responsibility is revision responsibility since the focus is on what the subject can and can’t change or revise. In principle, one can be revision responsible for a vice which one is not acquisition responsible.”
We can still think of someone as being blameworthy for epistemic vices even if we can’t blame them for originally acquiring the vice according to Cassam’s argument. The question comes down to whether a vice is within the control of an individual. So someone who is gullible, prone to wishful thinking, or arrogant can be revision responsible for their vices. They can always make a change to be less gullible, to think more accurately about good and bad outcomes, and to be more humble. Making these changes would improve rather than hinder knowledge, eliminating their epistemic vices.
The idea of revision responsibility can still be a challenging question. An individual indoctrinated by the Taliban is the example Cassam uses to identify someone with epistemic vices for which they are not acquisition responsible, but it is hard to say that individual is revision responsible for their vices as well. Escaping those vices may put their life at risk. It is hard to know what exactly is within ones control to change, especially if we think that we are not a single coherent individual and that we are the product of the multitude of experiences our brain absorbs over time. Nevertheless, as a society and culture we can identify vices and virtues and find ways to encourage and discourage them appropriately. This can be the pressure to push people to make changes, and viewing people as having control over their vices can encourage people to actually make changes. We don’t have to assign blame based on acquisition responsibility, but we can still do so based on revision responsibility, and we can still use ideas of control to encourage more virtuous behavior.

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.
Acquiring Virtues

Acquiring Virtues

In The Better Angles of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes about the civilizing process that humans have gone through to be less impulsive, less vulgar, and less violent over time. We are less likely to lash out at people who offend us or minorly inconvenience us today than people of 500 years ago. We have created spaces of privacy for personal grooming or using the bathroom and in 2020 we made such an effort to limit the spread of bodily fluids that wearing masks in public has become second nature to many of us. Beyond these niceties, we are also less likely to murder someone who has seriously wronged us or our family and political leaders (despite the feeling we often get in the news) are less likely to send their countries to war. But what was the process that humanity went through in acquiring virtues that Pinker praises us for in his book?
Pinker spends hundreds of pages demonstrating the declines of violence alongside the civilizing process I mentioned before. What Pinker uses a full book to explain, Quassim Cassam sums up in a single line, “How are virtues acquired? By training, habituation, and imitation.”
In the book Vices of the Mind, Cassam generally takes a consequentialist view when thinking about virtues and vices. He specifically examines epistemic vices, which are thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically obstruct knowledge. They don’t necessarily need to be evil or clearly dangerous on their own, but what is important, and what characterizes them as an epistemic vice, is that they systematically result in the obstruction of knowledge and information. He characterizes vices based on their real world outcomes. To contrast this view, we can look at virtues as thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically lead to more positive outcomes for individuals and society. Beyond the realm of epistemology, we can see that Pinker’s praise of impulse control, civilizing forces in history, and reductions of violence are praises of specific virtues.
These virtues did not spring up over night, as Pinker demonstrates with graphs stretching back hundreds of years showing declines in all forms of violence. These virtues were built over time through training, habituation, and imitation, the civilizing process that Pinker refers to throughout his book.
This means that the positive trends identified by Pinker on a global scale can be understood at individual levels, and it means that we can become more virtuous people through our own efforts. By increasing our self-awareness and thinking critically about our thoughts, behaviors, and actions, we can direct ourselves toward ways of being that will systematically produce better outcomes for ourselves and humanity as a whole. By training ourselves to avoid things like epistemic vices, we can put ourselves on a path to be better. We can become habituated toward virtues, and other people can imitate our behaviors to expand the civilizing process and the spread of virtues. Our virtues, and presumably our vices, don’t exist in isolation. They have real world consequences that can be studied and examined in context, and our virtues can be strengthened, harnessing the better angles of our nature, if that is what we set our minds to.
Moral Vices Versus Epistemic Vices

Moral Vices Versus Epistemic Vices

Before reading Vices of the Mind by Quassim Cassam I had never given vices much thought. I had not considered what made a vice a vice, why vices are so bad, and I certainly had not thought about differences between different kinds of vices. Cassam specifically looks at epistemic vices, which are vices that obstruct knowledge. He spends a lot of time at the outset of his book diving deep into all the questions about vices that I had never considered, and for the purposes of his book he differentiates moral vices versus epistemic vices.
Cassam writes, “some epistemic vices might be moral as well as epistemic failings, and be morally as well as epistemically blameworthy, but being morally blameworthy isn’t what makes them epistemic vices.”
Vices, Cassam explains, systematically lead to bad outcomes. Epistemic vices can be understood as systematically obstructing knowledge in one way or another. Moral vices, on the other hand, systematically lead to negative outcomes for an individual or society. The examples that Cassam uses to differentiate between moral vices versus epistemic vices are moral vices like cruelty and mundane epistemic vices like gullibility.
Being cruel is a moral vice. It doesn’t necessarily obstruct knowledge, but being cruel will systematically harm other people, damage relationships, and hinder human progress. Being gullible will systematically prevent someone from accurately understanding the world, but it won’t systematically harm anyone. A cruel person is likely to hurt others either physically or emotionally, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to obtain knowledge and information to accurately understand the world. A gullible person may not hurt anyone, but is likely to misunderstand the world and make poor decisions based on inaccurate understandings.
Diving into the intricacies of vices and distinguishing between moral vices versus epistemic vices may feel like a tedious and unnecessary endeavor, but I think that diving into these differences is important and helpful for us. It helps us better understand how our behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits may contribute to negative outcomes in the world. Taking such a careful look at vices helps us get better at thinking about what we like and dislike in the world, and helps us better disentangle what is good, what is bad, and how we understand what leads to the positive things we like and what contributes to the negativities we wish to avoid. It is helpful to pull things apart, to study their component parts, and to see how they come back together to form a whole so that we can better understand ourselves and the contexts of the lives that we find ourselves within.

Reprehensible Epistemic Vices

What makes a vice reprehensible? Dictionary.com describes a vice as an immoral or evil habit or practice; a fault, defect, or shortcoming. Dictionary.com also defines reprehensible as deserving of reproof, rebuke, or censure; blameworthy. So a reprehensible vice is a habit, fault, defect, or shortcoming that deserves disapproval and for which someone is blameworthy.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam looks at epistemic vices through this frame. He writes, “in what sense are epistemic vices reprehensible? The simplest view is that epistemic vices are blameworthy. When a vice V is described as blameworthy it isn’t V that is blameworthy but the person whose vice V is.” To go even deeper, Cassam argues that epistemic vices carry with them epistemic blame. “Epistemic blame,” he writes, “is blame directed at a person on account of specifically epistemic failings that cause specifically epistemic harms.”
A reprehensible epistemic vice is a habit of thought, a faulty way of thinking, or a shortcoming in mental patterns that can be blamed on an individual. The vice itself, the particular way of thinking that is flawed, is not what is deserving of blame. It is the person who thinks in a way that obstructs knowledge and information that is to blame.
When a person makes a mistake out of arrogance, it is not their arrogance that is at fault, but it is the fault of the individual for being arrogant. Similarly, we don’t blame wishful-thinking or closed-mindedness for the failures of a country to prepare for or adequately address a global pandemic. We blame the leaders who were too closed-minded to see the risks and who engaged in too much wishful-thinking to take serious action.
Epistemic failings, failures to adequately foster knowledge, lead to epistemic harms, that is an inhibition of of knowledge that can have downstream consequences. Cassam shows that epistemic vices which systematically bring about epistemic failings are reprehensible. They can be pinned to specific people, their behaviors, and their attitudes.  Further, they can be blamed on the individuals, not on the vices or epistemic harms themselves. This is what makes epistemic vices reprehensible, and why they can be taken personally and deserve the attention of a full book.

Closed-Mindedness

One of the epistemic vices that Quassim Cassam describes in his book Vices of the Mind is closed-mindedness. An epistemic vice, Cassam explains, is a pattern of thought or a behavior that obstructs knowledge. They systematically get in the way of learning, communicating, or holding on to important and accurate information.
Regarding closed-mindedness, Cassam writes, “in the case of closed-mindedness, one of the motivations is the need for closure, that is, the individual’s desire for a firm answer to a question, any firm answer as compared to confusion and/or ambiguity [Italics indicate quote from A.W. Kruglanski]. This doesn’t seem an inherently bad motive and even has potential benefits. The point at which it becomes problematic is the point at which it gets in the way of knowledge.”
This quote about closed-mindedness reveals a couple of interesting aspects about the way we think and the patterns of thought that we adopt. The quote shows that we can become closed-minded without intending to be closed-minded people. I’m sure that very few people think that it is a good thing for us to close ourselves off from new information or diverse perspectives about how our lives should be. Instead, we seek knowledge and we prefer feeling as though we are correct and as though we understand the world we live in. Closed-mindedness is in some ways a by-product of living in a complex world where we have to make decisions with uncertainty. It is uncomfortable to constantly question every decision we make and can become paralyzing if we stress each decision too tightly. Simply making a decision and deciding we are correct without revisiting the question is easier, but also characteristically closed-minded.
The second interesting point is that epistemic vices such as closed-mindedness are not always inherently evil. As I wrote in the previous paragraph, closed-mindedness (or at least a shade of it), can help us navigate an uncertain world. It can help us make an initial decision and move on from that decision in situations where we otherwise may feel paralyzed. In many instances, like purchasing socks, there is no real harm that comes from being closed-minded. You might pay more than necessary purchasing fancy socks, but the harm is pretty minimal.
However, closed-mindedness systematically hinders knowledge by making people unreceptive to new information that challenges existing or desired beliefs. It makes people worse at communicating information because their data may be incomplete and irrelevant. Knowledge is limited by closed-mindedness, and overtime this creates a potential for substantial consequences in people’s lives. Selecting a poor health insurance plan as a result of being closed-minded, starting a war, or spreading harmful chemical pesticides are real world consequences that have occurred as a result of closed-mindedness. Substantial sums of money, people’s lives, and people’s health and well-being can hang in the balance when closed-mindedness prevents people from making good decisions, regardless of the motives that made someone closed-minded and regardless of whether being closed-minded helped solve analysis paralysis. Many of the epistemic vices, and the characteristics of epistemic vices, that Cassam describes manifest in our lives similar to closed-mindedness. Reducing such vices, like avoiding closed-mindedness, can help us prevent serious harms that can accompany the systematic obstruction of knowledge.

Distinguishing Epistemic Vices

Quassim Cassam makes an effort to explain what makes an epistemic vice an epistemic vice and to differentiate between various epistemic vices in his book Vices of the Mind. An epistemic vice obstructs knowledge. It is a pattern of thought or a particular behavior related to our thinking that one way or another prevents us from acquiring knowledge, retaining knowledge, recalling knowledge when needed, or transmitting and sharing knowledge. Vices explored by Cassam include closed-mindedness, where we are not open to information that doesn’t fit our existing beliefs, and arrogance, where we assume we already know everything important, and where people are turned off by our personality and don’t listen to what we have to say. Vices such as these can be understood consequentially, by the results they have on our knowledge and the ways in which they obstruct knowledge. They can also be understood by motivations that contribute to them or by general dispositions that end up leading to the vices themselves. Cassam differentiates between the various forms of motivation that may create an epistemic vice and the general habits and tendencies that may also create such a vice.
Distinguishing between the various motivations which may create a vice and the general tendencies that contribute to them he writes, “In the case of epistemic vices that are not definable by their motives, vices are distinguished from another not by their motivational components but by the dispositions with which they are associated and the particular way they get in the way of knowledge.”
For example, someone can be closed-minded because they dislike change or dislike the feeling of being wrong. Someone could be foolish or gullible out of ignorance, wishful thinking, or because they are overly trustworthy. With both closed-mindedness and gullibility, people fail to investigate and obtain sufficient knowledge before making decisions. However, it is unlikely that anyone is motivated by a desire to make decisions based on a lack of information. People likely are not motivated to be either gullible or closed-minded, however other tangential motivations or personality traits lead to two vices that have similar epistemic outcomes. Nevertheless, the two vices have the same outcome despite being fueled by different motivations. 
Cassam’s quote also shows that we can differentiate between epistemic vices based on the way they inhibit knowledge. As I wrote earlier, an arrogant person may be off-putting. While they themselves have plenty of knowledge, their ability to transmit that knowledge to others is inhibited by their arrogance. Other people who dislike the arrogant individual will not listen to them, or will not hear what they have to say because they are too busy thinking about how much they dislike the individual. I had a few college professors whose arrogance inhibited their student’s ability to learn from them in this way. The arrogant individual may still be open-minded and be able to obtain necessary information, but their ability to transmit knowledge is limited. Conversely a closed-minded person may be able to transmit the knowledge they have, but they may be limited in the knowledge they gain, being unwilling to listen to new and important facts and details that contradict what they already know or want to know.
Distinguishing between and disentangling epistemic vices is difficult because motivations are not clear for any given vice, and their outcomes can be similar. However, examining different traits and general dispositions which give rise to epistemic vices can help us understand how various patterns of thought or behavior create vices. That insight can help us see how to adjust our thinking and habits to avoid obstructing knowledge and to hopefully begin making better decisions.