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"Character, Vices, and Authority" by Ian James Kidd (Keywords: Epistemology; Ethics; Virtue; Truth)


Artwork by  Melody Overstreet

From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 2 ("Authority and Knowledge"). If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


In one of philosophy’s great overquoted lines, “all human beings by nature desire to know”. It is the opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and nowadays is dutifully quoted on the opening pages of popular philosophy books. It captures something true about human beings – we are, by need and desire, inquiring creatures. From the cradle onwards, our life is spent engaged in “epistemic activities”, as professional philosophers call them: activities aimed at acquiring, assessing, and sharing “epistemic goods” – knowledge, understanding, true beliefs. We ask questions. We explore possibilities. We interpret evidence. We speculate and create theories. We debate and discuss. We criticise and evaluate beliefs and ideas.


All this talk about humans being enquiring creatures who desire to know is all very well and it’s certainly been an important part of our sense of the dignity or esteem we locate in our civilizations. Evolved primates on a speck of rock able to contemplate the mysteries of the cosmos – that’s a stirring vision. Most of us admire those epistemically sophisticated folks with the training, insight, and expertise needed to make sense of such grandiose topics as the origins and structure of the universe, the complicated marvels of the human body, the causes of wars and other dramatic historical events, and all the rest of it. We also assign authority to those people – to experts, scholars, scientists, and those we recognise as “geniuses”, who get films made about them starring Hollywood A-listers. In the UK, science, history, and medicine are favourite subjects of popular television shows and bestselling books. There are even celebrity scientists, who appear not only on educational programs, but also comedy panel shows – the real mark of popular success (even if in some cases the admiration is more for their telegenic charisma than their scientific credentials).


But of course our real epistemic situation is rather more complicated. This is an age of “fake news”, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and widespread angst about the trustworthiness of experts. At a more quotidian level, there’s an insouciant rhetoric according to which “you can’t tell me what to believe”, that “everyone is entitled to their own opinions”, all taken to be baleful signs that, concerning matters of truth, “anything goes”. For highbrow commentators, all this reflects an erosion of philosophical certainties and ideals, perhaps rooted in the collapse of “the Enlightenment project” or the bogeyman of a postmodernist culture drunk on irony and play and bored by old-style hankerings for Truth with a capital T. Perhaps, muse some cultural commentators, a liberalised sexual ethic that urges us to sleep with whoever we like, no questions asked, feeds a similarly liberalised epistemic ethic that urges us to believe whatever we want, no questions asked.


There’s an insouciant rhetoric according to which “you can’t tell me what to believe”, that “everyone is entitled to their own opinions”, all taken to be baleful signs that, concerning matters of truth, “anything goes”.

These deep and turbulent historical, cultural, and ideological waters matter, for sure, but most of our everyday epistemic lives don’t invoke anything as grand. A lot of the back-and-forth of my epistemic life is tied up with other people and the interpersonal practices that bind us together. I debate with my colleagues. I argue with my bosses. I question things that seem unreasonable or perplexing. I try to persuade people to do and believe things. I challenge people who seem wrong about important things. I debate and throw out ideas and puzzle through things. Partly this is because I’m a professional academic philosopher, so my working life involves interpersonal epistemic activities, especially when teaching or researching. But it’s also because the general work of life involves all these same activities – arguing, criticising, evaluating evidence, persuading people to think and act in different ways, and so on.


All epistemic actions arise from the business of living. Getting by in life means knowing and understanding things and being able to deal, epistemically, with other people (defending ourselves against criticism, for instance). Thinking is part of living and thinking well is essential to living well. By “thinking well”, though, I don’t mean the sorts of trained, specialised thinking that makes one a good scientist or historian or any sort of academic. It would be a terrible conceit to confine thinking to the academic classes. Everyone thinks, even if not everyone thinks well. Moreover, education is no vaccination against conceit, stupidity, and other epistemic ills. (For what it’s worth, in my experience, the smarter you are, the stupider you can be).


What we need, then, is a way of thinking about our epistemic activities that can acknowledge its ordinary, everyday character. It should also make clear why some people, at least, do take seriously questions about good and bad thinking, and why everyone should. I want to suggest that we can do this using the concept of an epistemic vice.

***


When we meet and interact with people, we start to form judgements about their character. We start to form conclusions about whether someone is authentic, generous, honest, trustworthy, and so on – all of those being virtues: excellences of character that generally invite admiration and praise, and that make someone a good person. Some of the virtues are epistemic virtues: the excellences of character that are concerned with thinking, reasoning, evidence, truth, and so on (for example, curiosity, honesty, imaginativeness, and thoughtfulness).


We need a range of moral and epistemic virtues to live a good life, whether we are engaged in fancy epistemic projects like particle physics research, or simply living out our days as butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers. Whatever the exact form your life takes, you’ll be engaged in epistemic activities. More importantly, the better you can perform those activities, the better your life might go – this being the central conviction of the philosophical discipline known as “virtue epistemology”. But virtues are of a piece with vices, those failings of character that typically invite criticism and censure, like cruelty, dogmatism, jealousy, and selfishness.


We need a range of moral and epistemic virtues to live a good life, whether we are engaged in fancy epistemic projects like particle physics research, or simply living out our days as butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers.

A notable feature of philosophy is that attention seems to focus primarily on the sunnier sides of human character – to virtues, flourishing, and the good life – rather than to the darker sides represented by vices, failings, and corrupted characters and wicked lives. Granted, these dark sides haven’t been ignored – think of reflections on the problem of evil in theistic religion and contemporary “non-ideal” approaches in moral and political philosophy. Still, the general preference has been for the brighter sides of moral life. This is especially puzzling given most people’s natural fascination with the “dark sides” of human beings, not to mention an appetite for criticism of other people’s character and conduct. This is not just the pleasures of gossip and in/out group tribalism, or the enjoyable sensation of authority that comes with censuring other people; rather, such behaviours often sit alongside a more admirable concern with the risks and dangers of vicious conduct and character, and so with people whose characters seem corrupted by the vices.


Since I want to focus on epistemically vicious people, consider this short list of kinds of bad epistemic behaviour which, when systematic and recurrent, smacks of epistemic vice: failing to acknowledge counter-evidence to some cherished view one holds; failing to consider alternative explanations of a situation; failing to ask relevant questions or initiate inquiries; a willingness to rush to conclusions that are convenient; a willingness to skip or rush through the stages of inquiry because one is confident of what the outcome will be; a default attitude of assuming oneself to be right even when one lacks obvious warrant for thinking that. Unless my friends and colleagues are anomalous, this sort of bad epistemic behaviour is an extremely common feature of everyday life.


Bad epistemic behaviour invites all sorts of responses. Depending on the behaviour in question, we may feel angry, confused, disappointed, frustrated, or sad. If it’s serious, we might even feel enraged – think of people who doggedly ignore evidence about morally and politically serious topics, like structural racism or climate change. If the bad behaviour comes from those who should know better, we might feel astonishment or incredulity – think of experts in reasoning and critical thinking who fill their social media feeds with snarling ad hominem arguments. Our reactions to bad epistemic behaviour are therefore understandably complicated, depending on factors that include the bad behaviour, its motivations and effects, the identity of the perpetrator, and much else.


Crucially, some of this bad epistemic behaviour can be “one-off”, a result of distraction, fatigue, or some other non-culpable reason. A long day often makes for a short temper. Good epistemic conduct is also hard work. Thinking well can take a lot of time, energy, training, and many other things in general short supply amid the hurly-burly of life. For that reason, there is good reason to cut people some slack – some of the time, at least. Sometimes, though, bad epistemic behaviour can’t be ignored. Sometimes, it really matters that people take care with their beliefs. Sometimes, it really matters that people take care to be conscientious with their reasoning and are properly warranted in their conclusions. False beliefs don’t always cause severe problems, but when they do the consequences can be grave. Ignorance isn’t always a bad thing – sometimes it is indeed bliss. At other times, though, our ignorance of what is the case is a recipe for disaster, whether for ourselves or for others.


When bad epistemic behaviour is consistent and systematic, it becomes a very different matter than one-off cases of forgivable lapses. When bad epistemic behaviours recur time and again, we can legitimately say that they are characteristic of that person. In those cases, the person is manifesting a stable pattern of bad epistemic behaviour and motivation – or, put simply, they have an epistemic vice. That term isn’t really part of our everyday thought and talk, although we easily recognise many specific examples: arrogance, dogmatism, dishonesty, closed-mindedness, thoughtlessness, or unimaginativeness. All of these are epistemic vices – failings of our epistemic characters that contrast unfavourably with the epistemic virtues: humility, honesty, curiosity, open-mindedness, reflectiveness, or imaginativeness. Nobody outside professional philosophy says, “He’s such an awful person – so many epistemic vices!”, but most of us could say, “He’s so dreadful – so arrogant and dogmatic!” and be readily understood. We can spot bad epistemic behaviour well enough, partly because it makes us angry or frustrated. But if we are to get beyond mere critical reactions to vicious conduct, then we need to think more carefully about the nature and sources of epistemic vices.


***


It is one thing to recognise epistemic vices in people’s character and conduct, but it’s quite another to be able to describe them and explain their badness. It is usually easier to see that something is wrong than to be able to explain what is wrong with it, at least when we’re appraising people. If we wish to move beyond simply affirming that certain behaviours are “bad – period!”, it may be useful to draw on the resources of vice epistemology.


In an influential characterisation, vice epistemology is the philosophical study of the nature, identity, and significance of the epistemic vices. What is an epistemic vice? What are some specific epistemic vices? Why do they matter? Obviously, those broad questions unpack into what is now a vigorous research programme that engages with increasingly complex questions, such as: How do we acquire or develop epistemic vices? Is blaming people for their epistemic vices reasonable and useful? What are the psychological roots of those vices? How do epistemic vices relate to ethical vices, like cruelty and selfishness? Is the badness of these vices a matter of the bad effects they tend to create or the bad motivations and desires they reveal, or some combination of the two?


When asking these questions, vice epistemologists are very pluralistic, drawing on ethics, philosophy of mind, empirical psychology, feminist and critical race theory, and much else. It is also striking that vice epistemologists are never short of examples. Whatever human beings are like, they clearly are and have always been especially prone to the vices of the mind. Buddhism, for instance, offers long catalogues of the “taints” and “defilements” that entrap us within dense webs of false beliefs and obscure the “noble truths” about reality. Within the Western tradition, too, the epistemic failings of human beings are a consistent target. If we can’t think well, we can’t live well – an attitude nicely captured in Blaise Pascal’s proposal that “to think well is the basic principle of morality”.


To understand Pascal’s remark, it’s useful to distinguish between different ways of thinking about the badness of epistemic vices. Contemporary vice epistemologists offer two main accounts of the badness of the vices of the mind. One focuses on the “outer” aspects of vices, i.e. their consequences or effects, while the other focuses on the “inner” aspects of vices, i.e. the motivations, values, or desires that drive the vicious person to systematically bad epistemic behaviour. (Obviously we can combine the two accounts, but we’ll get to that shortly).


The consequentialist accounts focus on the bad effects that vices tend to create if consistently exercised. (Sometimes, of course, a little dogmatism can be useful, but not when it’s a systematic pattern of behaviour). The bad effects in question are mainly epistemic, even if they have further practical and social ramifications. Closed-mindedness means we are closed off to epistemic options – different ideas, valuable criticisms, alternative perspectives. Being epistemically closed in this way is bad for our thinking and that of the people we deal with. If we believe false things, we’ll likely go wrong in our behaviour. If we can’t see things from other perspectives, we’re stuck with a narrow vision of things. Thoughtlessness is another epistemic vice with bad effects. A lot of the harm in the world, in my experience, comes from people failing to stop and think about a certain action. Much of the regret in life involves awareness of this. A little thought goes a long way and thoughtfulness is a virtue because it’s a brake on the impulsiveness and mindlessness that causes so much harm.


Epistemic vices are fundamentally failures of our inner life, failures to relate or respond to epistemic values and ideals.

The motivationalist accounts of the badness of epistemic vices don’t ignore the effects or outcomes of the vices. They just think we need to look elsewhere – “inwards”, as it were – for a satisfying account of their badness. Epistemic vices, on this account, reflect or reveal bad epistemic motivations, values, and desires. Some people are motivated by a desire to impede the epistemic functioning of other people – to confuse them or disrupt their ability to make sense of the world until they’re so trapped in an incapacitating state of disorientation that they don’t know what to think or what to do. Some people value convenience over truth when it comes to belief. Some people don’t care about truth and evidence, shrugging their shoulders when asked to justify their confident assertions. Some people always need to be right, always demanding the last word in any debate. All these are epistemically vicious motivations, desires, and values – ones that are bad prior to, and independently of, any bad effects they might also cause.


The idea of an epistemically vicious inner life finds support in everyday ways of talking about people whose conduct alarms us. A colleague of mine, when asked by her son why the former US President Trump lies so obviously and so much, explained, “Truth isn’t really a thing for him”, just as marital fidelity wasn’t a thing for former President Clinton. A good person will be someone for whom truth, justice, fairness and other values and ideals matter – they are a thing for them, being substantive commitments that shape and guide their attitudes and conduct. On this view, epistemic vices are fundamentally failures of our inner life, failures to relate or respond to epistemic values and ideals – truth, evidence, understanding, careful and critical thinking, and so on. An arrogant person who refuses to accept when they are wrong is motivated by egotism, rather than by a respect for evidence or acceptance of fallibility. Sure, their arrogance will hurt other people, but that’s not what’s fundamentally wrong with it. If we stop the analysis at the effects, we don’t get down into the heart of the vice. (Compare with the moral vice of cruelty: a cruel person causes terrible harm in the world, but what’s really awful about cruelty is that it is rooted in a desire to cause needless and unjustifiable suffering to others).


***

Hopefully these ideas about epistemically vicious conduct and characters are useful for those who frequently encounter ways of thinking that strike them as problematic. Some people are bad thinkers and the causes of bad thinking are often epistemic vices. Thinking in terms of the vices of the mind can therefore help us assess and respond to bad thinkers, including patterns of bad thinking in ourselves. It can also help us think more carefully about what we want from someone with epistemic authority – that is, someone we are prepared to trust with authority over what we think and believe. An arrogant and closed-minded person is not a person to be trusted with that sort of authority. And if this is the case, we need to get better at detecting and assessing the epistemic vices. That will be a difficult task. Hardly any of us live in a world optimally set up to encourage the cultivation and exercise of epistemic virtues. Quite the opposite – the social world is too often deeply corrupting of epistemic character. It is tough to consistently exercise virtues like open-mindedness and humility in a world like this. It’s also hard to keep up those virtues in a world filled with abrasive people, Twitter trolls, doubt-mongers, and others intent on ruining epistemic life.


Hardly any of us live in a world optimally set up to encourage the cultivation and exercise of epistemic virtues.

Given the state of the world, some people float a more radical idea. Perhaps we may cope better with an imperfect world if we do exercise epistemic vices. For example, arrogance could help those chronically starved of self-confidence by a hostile world, and closedmindedness might be a protective shield against a culture choked with false beliefs. Machiavelli and other theorists of Realpolitik would applaud! The critic would respond that such a defence of vice offers a get-out-of-jail-free card for viciousness and confuses virtue with vice. Just because a character trait may have good effects does not entail that it is thereby a virtue. These sorts of questions are philosophically interesting and practically relevant to this sort of world – no doubt that’s a main reason for vice epistemology’s growing popularity over the last few years.


Ian James Kidd is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. He is interested in intellectual virtue and vice, the nature of a religious life, illness and mortality, misanthropy, and South and East Asian philosophies.

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 2 ("Authority and Knowledge"). If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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