Epistemic Self-Improvement

Epistemic Self-Improvement

Is epistemic self-improvement possible? That is, can we individually improve the ways we think to become more conducive to knowledge? If we can’t, does that mean we are stuck with epistemic vices, unable to improve our thinking to become epistemically virtuous?
These are important questions because they determine whether we can progress as a collective and overcome ways of thinking that hinder knowledge. Gullibility, arrogance, and closed-mindedness are a few epistemic vices that I have written about recently that demonstrate how hard epistemic self-improvement can be. If you are gullible it is hard to make a change on your own to be less easily fooled. If you are arrogant it is hard to be introspective in a way that allows you to see how your arrogance has limited your knowledge. And if you are closed-minded then it is unlikely you will see a need to expand your knowledge at all. So can we really improve ourselves to think better?
Quassim Cassam seems to believe that we can. He identifies ways in which people have improved their thinking over time and how humans within institutions have become more epistemically virtuous throughout our history. After running through some examples and support for epistemic self-improvement in Vices of the Mind, Cassam writes, “none of this proves that self-improvement in respect of thinking vices is possible, but if our thinking can’t be improved that would make it one of the few things that humans do that they can’t do better with practice and training.”
I am currently reading Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World and he argues that human psychology both shapes and is shaped by institutions. I think he would agree with Cassam, arguing that individual self-improvement is possible, and that it can contribute to a positive feedback loop where people improve their thinking, improving the institutions they are a part of, which feeds back into improved thinking. I agree with Cassam and would find it surprising if we couldn’t improve our thinking and become more epistemically virtuous if we set about trying to do so with practice. Viewing this idea through a Henrich lens also suggests that as we try to become more epistemically virtuous and focus on epistemic virtuosity, we would shape institutions to better support us, giving us an extra hand from the outside to help us improve our thinking. Individually we can become better thinkers and that allows us to create better institutions that further support better thinking, creating a virtuous cycle of epistemic self-improvement. There are certainly many jumping off points and gears that we can throw sand into during this process, but overall, it should leave us feeling more epistemically optimistic about humans and our societies.
Epistemic Vices & Self-Reflection

Epistemic Vices & Self-Reflection

“Not realizing that one’s epistemic vices are vices is a form of self-ignorance,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind.  A lack of self-awareness can cause someone to fail to recognize their vices.  In the book Cassam demonstrates how epistemic vices are harder to be aware of than other vices, and how recognition and awareness of our epistemic vices is sometimes not possible, directly as a result of our epistemic vices.
For most of us, our vices are probably things we are aware of. You know if you drink too much, eat too much ice-cream, and get in road rage flare-ups on a regular basis. It takes a rather large amount of self-ignorance to fail to recognize these major vices. But it is possible to miss some other vices, especially epistemic vices.
You might not realize that you are closed-minded, that you are guilty of wishful thinking on a regular basis, or even that you are arrogant. These types of behaviors and traits are harder to see and harder to pin down and recognize in ourselves. We live within the stories we tell ourselves, and from our point of view, our behavior is not vicious, but completely reasonable given our situations.
“Reflection on one’s epistemic vices,” writes Cassam, “is what fricker calls active critical reflection, but – and this is the key point – critical reflection requires the exercise of a range of epistemic virtues.”
To see and understand our personal epistemic vices requires that we have epistemic virtues. It takes a practiced skill to recognize when our thinking has crossed over into becoming an epistemic vice. We won’t recognize when our behavior and thinking has become obstructive if we don’t have a way of thinking about our thinking. If we are arrogant we certainly won’t think we need to improve our thinking, and if we are closed-minded we won’t be able to imagine a way to improve our thinking. These epistemic vices prevent us from having the epistemic virtues necessary to even see our epistemic vices.
This puts us in a difficult place where it seems that we are powerless to change our epistemic vices. If our vices prohibit active critical reflection, then we won’t see our errors in order to change them. The way we find out about our epistemic vices probably involves some sort of catastrophic failure where external factors force us to see our vices. A promotion we didn’t get, a divorce, or a costly gamble can force us to recognize our vices. They are not guarantees that we will finally be able to see our epistemic vices for what they are, but without having epistemic virtues, it is hard for us to otherwise come to see our epistemic vices on our own.
A Vaccine for Lies and Falsehoods

A Vaccine for Lies and Falsehoods

Vaccines are on everyone’s mind this year as we hope to move forward from the Coronavirus Pandemic, and I cannot help but think about today’s quote from Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind through a vaccine lens. While writing about ways to build and maintain epistemic virtues Cassam writes, “only the inculcation and cultivation of the ability to distinguish truth from lies can prevent our knowledge from being undermined by malevolent individuals and organizations that peddle falsehoods for their own political or economic ends.” In other words, there is no vaccine for lies and falsehoods, only the hard work of building the skills to recognize truth, narrative, and outright lies.
I am also reminded of a saying that Steven Pinker included in his book Enlightenment Now, “any jackass can knock down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” This quote comes to mind when I think about Cassam’s quote because building knowledge is hard, but spreading falsehoods is easy. Epistemic vices are easy, but epistemic virtues are hard.
Anyone can be closed-minded, anyone can use lies to try to better their own position, and anyone can be tricked by wishful thinking. It takes effort and concentration to be open-minded yet not gullible, to identify and counter lies, and to create and transmit knowledge for use by other people. The vast knowledge bases that humanity has built has taken years to develop, to weed out the inaccuracies, and to painstakingly hone in on ever more precise and accurate understandings of the universe. All this knowledge and information has taken incredible amounts of hard work by people dedicated to building such knowledge.
But any jackass can knock it all down. Anyone can come along and attack science, attack knowledge, spread misinformation and deliberately use disinformation to confuse and mislead people. Being an epistemic carpenter and building knowledge is hard, but being a conman and acting epistemically malevolent is easy.
The task for all of us is to think critically about our knowledge, about the systems and structures that have facilitated our knowledge growth and development as a species over time, and to do what we can to be more epistemically virtuous. Only by working hard to identify truth, to improve systems for creating accurate information, and to enhance knowledge highways to help people learn and transmit knowledge effectively can we continue to move forward. At any point we can chose to throw sand in the gears of knowledge, bringing the whole system down, or we can find ways to make it harder to gum up the knowledge machinery we have built. We must do the latter if we want to continue to grow, develop, and live peacefully rather than at the mercy of the epistemically malevolent. After all, there is no vaccine to cure us from lies and falsehoods.
Behavioral Consistency

Behavioral Consistency

An interesting observation that Quassim Cassam highlights in his book Vices of the Mind is summed up with a simple sentence from the author, “some vices require a great deal of behavioral consistency while others do not.”
The technical term for describing a vice or a virtue that requires consistency is fidelity. When we think about virtues, we probably think of characteristics, traits, and behaviors that necessarily must be consistent within an individual across time, space, and circumstances. To be a generous person, you must be generous in all aspects of life. To be kind, loving, trustworthy, and brave require the same. Vices, however, seem to be more on the low fidelity side, at least for some.
Cruelty is an example that Cassam uses to highlight a low-fidelity, or low-consistency vice. You don’t have to be cruel to everyone and every living thing you meet, but if someone sees you be cruel to another person in a stressful situation, or be cruel to an animal, a single instance of cruelty is all that may be needed to brand you as a cruel person.
Other vices, like laziness or gullibility, seem to exist more along a spectrum. I’m sure that many of us know people who are incredibly hard working in one aspect of life, but very lazy in others. Perhaps you know a great athlete who is too lazy to apply themselves fully in their professional career, or a motivated professional who seems to lazy to get to bed early so they can get to the gym in the morning. These people are harder to categorize broadly as lazy, and instead are categorized as lazy in certain regards. Cassam shows that the same can be true of someone who is gullible. People can be gullible across the board, gullible in narrow and unusual situations, or only occasionally gullible.
When we think about whether we or other people are virtuous or full of vices, we should consider whether our virtues or vices are high or low fidelity. Should we consider wealthy business owners as greedy or cruel because they laid off their employees, or should we take a larger view of the economic and structural decision-making? Should we consider the wealthy donor to our hometown university as generous with just a single large donation? Thinking about behavioral consistency within virtues and vices can help us better understand or own behavior and better contextualize the behaviors of others, hopefully helping us better think about good or bad behaviors in society.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Consequentialism

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.