For the last couple of months I have been writing about ideas and thoughts that stood out to me in Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind. Cassam specifically analyzes epistemic vices, asking why they exist, whether we should be blamed for having them, and what real world consequences arise because of them. To this point, most of my posts have focused on relatively harmless aspects of epistemic vices. I have written about how they limit knowledge and how they can cause us to make suboptimal decisions about investing money, making career choices, or relating to political figures. However, epistemic vices do have life and death consequences, and can be much more vicious than I have written about to this point.
In his book, Cassam uses an example of weapon bias to demonstrate the tragic consequences that can arise from epistemic vices. He describes work from Keith Payne to outline the concept. He writes, “Under the pressure of a split-second decision, the readiness to see a weapon became an actual false claim of seeing a weapon. It was race that shaped people’s mistakes, and Payne found that African American participants were as prone to weapon bias as white participants.” This quote shows that a bias influences the way we perceive the world and directly influences the beliefs we come to hold. It becomes an epistemic vice by inhibiting knowledge and causing us to have inaccurate views of the world. And these biases, these epistemic vices, are endemic to our nation. It is not one group of biased people, but an entire system that promotes and fosters weapon bias based on racism, hindering knowledge for everyone, creating life and death misunderstandings across our country.
Cassam continues. “By causing errors in perception weapon bias gets in the way of perceptual knowledge, and the practical consequences hardly need spelling out. In the US innocent African American men are shot with alarming frequency by policy officers who think they see a gun when no gun is present. If weapon bias is an epistemic vice then here is proof that some epistemic vices are quite literally a matter of life and death.”(It is worth noting that Cassam is at the University of Warwick in the UK).
Failing to see the world clearly can have life and death consequences. In terms of our police, we encourage them to think of themselves as needing to react in a split second when they perceive the threat of a weapon, potentially another vice that should be addressed. Systemic and structural racism biases police toward seeing a harmless item, like a tool or phone, as a gun, forming the base of weapon biases. The end result is a lack of knowledge via false perceptions, and in the United States disproportionate numbers of black men killed in police interactions.
Cassam’s book is a dense and deep dive into epistemic vices, but the life and death consequences of epistemic vices such as weapon bias demonstrate the importance of understanding how our thoughts, actions, and behaviors can obstruct knowledge. It is important that we recognize our own epistemic vices and work to build systems and structures that limit the acquisition of and negative consequences of epistemic vices. Seeing the world more clearly can literally prevent unnecessary death.