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IDOL TALK: ARE WE GETTING MORE VICIOUS?

Quassim Cassam's Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 2 ('Us and Them'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.

Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political 

Quassim Cassam

Oxford University Press

reviewed by Pete Burgess

That we just can’t think straight has, for obvious reasons, been an enduring preoccupation of philosophers. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), for example, noted “idols and false notions” to which the human understanding is vulnerable, identifying four: “Idols of the Tribe” rooted in human nature and its associated perceptual distortions of the material world; “Idols of the Cave”, which afflict individuals due to their own “peculiar nature”, their education or chance; “Idols of the Market Place”, attributable, amongst other things, to the damage that customary language can wreak on the understanding; and “Idols of the Theatre”, the particular harm inflicted by “the various dogmas of philosophies” (Novum Organum). Bacon not only named these “idols” but by suggesting origins also offered a tentative explanation, a strand of research found in contemporary authors such as Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and Harry C. Triandis (Fooling Ourselves).

Contemporary philosophical interest in this area has centred on the notion of distinctively “intellectual virtues”, crystallised in the 1996 study by Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind, and their obverse, intellectual vices. Zagzebski’s discussion outlined a number of these, and also postulated that intellectual virtue is learned by individuals in a process that entails the overcoming of intellectual vices through developing the appropriate corrective motives, defined essentially as a set of emotions or feelings. She provides a list of intellectual vices that, for many readers, might be an uncomfortable reminder of time with visiting relatives over the long Christmas break: closed-mindedness, obtuseness, negligence, insensitivity to detail. Since then, there has been a modest growth in intellectual vice studies. Is this a function of the autonomous workings of the cultural superstructure or a philosophical response to rising “viciousness”, and not only in other people? Intellectual vice in others seems to beget vice in ourselves, as positions become polarised and anger clouds judgement. And for individuals, being prey to one vice seems to multiply one’s personal stock in efforts to shore up or obscure an initially flawed position to which one is committed, or in which one is trapped.

The (re-)emergence of virtue ethics also generated wider philosophical interest in its evil twin, what one might dub “vice studies”. One notable contribution was made by Gabriele Taylor (Deadly Vices), whose approach characterised moral vices as qualities that are harmful to their possessor and that reflect a lack of right reasoning and awareness, a type of submission to one of the “Idols”. In this respect, moral vices have both a consequentialist aspect and manifest a type of intellectual failure, both of which link to the object of this review, Quassim Cassam’s dense, absorbing – but manageable – book, Vices of the Mind.

Instauratio magna - Francis Bacon (1620)

Cassam’s study, sub-titled “from the intellectual to the political”, takes its inspiration from those vices revealed either in recent – largely unwelcome – political phenomena (Brexit, the casual thinking behind preparations for the First Iraq War, Trump, Holocaust denial, conspiracy theories) or that represent instances of egregious intellectual incompetence, such as the failure of Israeli intelligence leaders in 1973 to recognize an imminent invasion despite incontrovertible evidence. These provide a framework on which Cassam, applying an analytical approach, constructs a dense conceptual structure, in part through elaborating case examples and in part through engagement with other authors (with useful references and arguments for those new to this area). In particular, he offers a taxonomy of the mental states that might count as (or should be exempted from) epistemic vice, based on “character traits”, “attitudes”, and “ways of thinking” but also extending to a differentiation within attitudes between “postures” and “stances”. Cassam sees postures as “affective and involuntary”, and includes “epistemic insouciance”, manifested in carelessness about knowledge and contempt for experts, in this category. For some readers, familiar faces might spring spontaneously to mind. By contrast, stances are deliberately adopted. One example chosen by Cassam is “epistemic malevolence”, or “opposition to knowledge as such”, such as the deliberate creation of doubt by the tobacco industry about scientific findings connecting smoking and cancer. Or do those faces appear now? On all these, a diagram outlining the interconnections would have been useful, if only as an aide-memoire.


The core characteristic of the mental states or dispositions that constitute intellectual – in his terminology “epistemic” – vices is that they represent a type of “defect” (vitium) to which individuals are prey and that obstructs the acquisition and retention of knowledge. Consistent with his consequentialist approach, Cassam’s “obstructivism” is an account that focuses on the consequences of epistemic vice rather than whether individuals are driven by bad motives. He argues on this that no one (or possibly few – such as those practising epistemic malevolence) have a positive desire for ignorance, and in the case of those engaged in epistemic malevolence, the ignorance and doubt are to be located in others, such as smokers, and not themselves. Rather, for Cassam, ignorance is the product of epistemic vice. On occasions, a mental state typically seen as a vice might, therefore, have a knowledge-preserving effect. Closed-mindedness, for example, could be “motivated by a desire for firm answers”, in contrast to confusion or ambiguity, and as such not intrinsically a vice. And in some circumstances, wanting a firm answer might be necessary and appropriate. By the same token, being closed-minded might lead us not to waste time exploring theories of a type that have already been ruled out after rational consideration, such as conspiracy accounts, presumably provided knowledge of the occasional “real” conspiracy gets through and we have some capacity, grounded in practical reason, to alert us to the difference.

SINCE KNOWLEDGE IS DEEMED TO BE GOOD, EPISTEMIC VICES WILL HAVE NEGATIVE REAL WORLD CONSEQUENCES

Determining whether a mental state is an “epistemic vice” therefore relies on an empirical assessment of its consequences that can differentiate between exceptions and the most usual (in his terminology “systematic”) outcome. In this sense, for Cassam, an epistemic vice is a “blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible character trait, attitude or way of thinking that systematically obstructs the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge”. Since knowledge is deemed to be good, epistemic vices will have negative real world consequences that mean that bystanders, and not just possessors, are especially prone to get hurt, sometimes on a large scale depending on the power wielded by those in thrall to the defect, and when combined with other distinct – moral – vices. Here “blameworthy” means that individuals might reasonably be expected to have responsibility to “revise” these traits or attitudes. It does not refer to all mental attributes that might be prejudicial to knowledge, such as forgetfulness, unless this is due to some deliberate act of will or negligence. I stumbled a little here, as if motives are excluded from consideration, what might lead an individual to exercise responsibility to revise their traits?


As long as epistemic vices are taken separately, consequentalism seems to work. Where they are deeply integrated with other emotional states, such as a sense of identity or differing basic values, things seem to get more complicated. Either we might never be able to work out the ultimate outcome or, if we hold radically different values embedded in a different way of life, we might come to different judgements about these. There is some evidence, for example, that deep religious belief, reinforced by closed-mindedness and untroubled by the contradictions of various theodicies, can help prolong life and sustain health and might serve to integrate a community through a strong sense of identity, with the collateral gain of limiting certain moral vices, such as dishonesty. At the same time, we know that “strong” identities can be sources of epistemic vice: people respond to facts that challenge their previous beliefs and sense of self by doubling down on these, with negative consequences for efforts at vice remediation (discussed further below). Showing climate change sceptics evidence of global warming can make them full-blooded denialists. How do we tot up and compare the immediate, and possibly even life-saving, gains from demonstrable low crime levels in a small community as a result of an unyielding commitment to tradition against possible long-term problems attributable to closed-mindedness, such as poorly equipping young people to thrive in a scientifically-enlightened society? And who should judge?

On this issue, Cassam, citing J.S. Mill, discusses the case of the paradigmatically closed-minded Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood (and executed by the Egyptian government in 1966 for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government), and concedes that such cases need to be judged on their merits, that is empirically, not by a priori assertion. On this, Qutb’s stance that open-mindedness and tolerance would “crowd out the divine” was, in part, rooted in his own experience of life as a graduate student in the United States, where he experienced racism, and was appalled by the commercialism and sexual freedom. Qutb’s “closed-mindedness”, according to Paul Berman’s account in Terror and Liberalism, was directed less at the traditional enemy of the wilfully ignorant, science, but lay rather in a totalising vision of faith, incommensurable with liberalism. Indeed, Qutb’s definition of ignorance was a lack of knowledge of God.

Sayyid Qutb

Cassam, implicitly addressing what is probably the core issue for much of social science, needs to walk the tightrope between what he terms “structuralism” (referring to social determinist theories) and individual agency. He acknowledges that this might be an empirical matter: sometimes structural explanations are illuminating, and sometimes individual aspects “make the difference”. It depends on the phenomenon. While social trends are less amenable to vice explanation, particular historical events that reflect specific decisions might be. This distinction can become blurred when cross-cultural comparisons are invoked, however. As in the ancient Holy Land, there are concentrations of vice. Belief in conspiracy theories seems to vary internationally, for example. Some 60% of people recently surveyed in the UK believed at least one conspiracy theory. “Of the countries surveyed, Sweden was the least credulous of conspiracy theories, with 52% believing one or more of the theories polled by the researchers, as opposed to 85% for Hungary. In the US that figure was 64% and in France 76%” (Guardian, 23 November, 2018). Differences within countries were even greater and there have also been evident spikes over time. Might believing in conspiracies, or just a general conspiratorial feeling, have positive effects, such as aiding powerless people to get through their lives? Are there just more conspiracies in France? And if this were to be the case, based on Cassam’s consequentialist view, would conspiracism then be “conditionally virtuous” in France but not in Sweden? This seems intuitively odd. Some researchers have argued that “conspiracism” is an evolutionary adaptation but one with potential negative consequences. Alternatively, perhaps it should be seen more as type of vulnerability calling for collective alleviation. “Gullibility”, which Cassam sees as a vice, albeit a “mundane” one, could also be seen as an unfortunate susceptibility, even a disability in some people, calling for kindness rather than censure (in my own experience, gullibility is often connected to a type of vulnerability triggered by the moral vice of covetousness, for money or status, or even pride).

THE DIFFICULTY WITH EPISTEMIC VICES IS THAT THEY APPEAR TO BE SELF-REINFORCING AND THAT THEIR BEARERS MIGHT BE UNAWARE OF THEM

Given the damage wreaked by the epistemic vices, what can be done? In a concluding chapter, Cassam focuses on the scope for individuals to address those epistemic vices for which they are “revision responsible” through “self-improvement”. Whether this is possible depends on whether one subscribes to an optimistic or pessimistic view of the scope for self-improvement. Optimists believe that “vice reduction” is possible and that the vices are “malleable” (an odd expression perhaps, as it seems that it should be the character traits that generate the vices that should be malleable); pessimists consider that the scope for self-improvement is more limited and, given that vices are accepted as such, that institutions need to find ways to avoid exposing individuals to them. Implicit racial bias, for example, might be averted by anonymising job applications rather than expecting individuals to be less biased.


Cassam says he is committed to neither perspective, and his consequentialist and empirical view is compatible with both: in short, it depends. In this sense, he is a “qualified optimist”. In some cases, epistemic vices can be eliminated or mitigated; in others, avoidance strategies might be necessary. The difficulty with epistemic vices is that they appear to be self-reinforcing and that their bearers might be unaware of them. They are “stealthy”. To quote Cassam on the topic of Donald Trump: “Being too incompetent to understand one’s own incompetence is, or results from, a form of self-ignorance”. This poses a particular challenge for self-improvement, and, as Cassam elaborates, is perhaps remediable only through the type of transformational experience or epiphany that has sufficient impact not to be rationalised away.

The Eye of Providence

THE CAPACITY FOR
SELF-IMPROVEMENT IS AN EMPIRICAL QUESTION, AND ONE OVER WHICH PSYCHOLOGISTS INCONVENIENTLY DISAGREE

The capacity for self-improvement is an empirical question, and one over which psychologists inconveniently disagree. Cognitive dissonance theory, for example, points to a stunning capacity for intellectual gymnastics to avoid the discomfort triggered by collisions between events and a previously held view. This also turns not only on the degree of malleability of a vice such as implicit bias, but also on some fundamental aspects of the relationship between cognition and emotion, exemplified in sheer resistance to new evidence where this might undermine a stable sense of self. Epistemic “stances” that are adopted voluntarily might be more easily amenable to change by individual effort. Yet since such stances reflect beliefs, over which Cassam argues we have no voluntary control, only an external “trigger” might lead to a shift in priorities. By contrast, “postures”, such as contempt, reflect deeply held judgements and the “feelings they embed”, and are not readily amenable to voluntary alteration. The insouciant politician never learns from his mistakes and repeats them, at the public’s expense, should he acquire power. Cassam’s advice is that the insouciant should become aware of complexity by reading more widely – and contrasts Clinton and Obama (“voracious readers”) with George W. Bush and Trump. But what should one read? One might also think of a number of instances here where reading (and indeed prolific writing) does not appear to militate against insouciance. Is this because the epistemic vice is entwined with moral viciousness? Sometimes this might be due to careerism, and sometimes is just inexplicable, as when individuals refuse to abandon contradictions.

What else? Cassam considers that we have reasonable prospects for addressing our thinking, and he looks at the examples of negative “catastrophic thinking” and wishful thinking (in this case his own, over Brexit). While CBT (not without its critics, of course) might help with catastrophic thinking, tackling wishful thinking requires greater self-criticism. He also refers to how individuals can remedy information shortcomings by using their smartphones – a fair point, but perhaps overlooking that these are not quite as widely distributed as he seems to suppose.


These are all individual challenges and solutions, and perhaps rightly so. But if societies display differing propensities to engage in epistemic vice, such as conspiracy theory, and within these societies these propensities are also a function of stratification (income, education), then might it be that collective efforts to build “good citizens” through effective political, and philosophical, education in schools could also reduce the incidence of epistemic vice? And if Donald Rumsfeld had not had unchecked access to the military capacity of global superpower intent on asserting its interests, might his dogmatism, rooted in his arrogance, merely have irritated fellow members of his country club?


Pete Burgess is a freelance writer, researcher, and translator based in London. peteburgess.org

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 2 ('Us and Them'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.