Epistemic Vice: An Interview with Quassim Cassam

The Bush administration assumed that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would be easy. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz were convinced that no more than 40,000 troops would be needed to pacify Iraq. They believed this despite advice from senior military figures that at least 300,000 troops would be needed – nearly ten times more. Their estimates were badly shown up in the disaster that followed the invasion. How could Rumsfeld (and his colleagues) have been so badly mistaken? Superficially, we could point to Rumsfeld’s reasons, whatever they were at the time. But given that his beliefs were so unreasonable, knowing what reasons he did have hardly seems satisfactory. One feels that a rationalising explanation is an answer at entirely the wrong level. The question only recurs: why did Rumsfeld have the reasons he did?

Professor Quassim Cassam thinks he has a potential explanation – it has to do with Rumsfeld’s character as a thinker. Cassam is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. He has also taught at, inter alia, UCL; Cambridge, where he held the prestigious Knightbridge Professorship (former occupants include Henry Sidgwick, CD Broad and Bernard Williams); and Oxford, where Cassam spent two decades, first as student, then fellow. Cassam has recently completed the manuscript for Vices of the Mind, a book on what he calls ‘epistemic vices’ and which will be published by OUP in 2018. An epistemic vice, Cassam writes, is ‘a blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible character trait, attitude or way of thinking that systematically obstructs the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge.’ These vices, he argues, may partly explain why Rumsfeld believed what he did. On Thomas Ricks’ account of the Iraq War in his book Fiasco, which Cassam draws from, Rumsfeld proved to be arrogant, closed-minded, and unable to deal with mistakes. In each chapter of Vices, Cassam discusses a real case as a way of illuminating some different aspect of the nature of epistemic vices, as well as showing the explanatory power of his account. His crucial insight is that the way people think can often be epistemically vicious: our intellectual characters can make it difficult for us, in some cases, to acquire knowledge.

‘What led me to the topic,’ Cassam tells me, ‘was the work I did on self-knowledge.’ I have travelled up to Warwick on Hallowe’en morning to talk with Cassam about the details of his theory. ‘One of the questions I was interested in,’ Cassam says, ‘in my last book, on self-knowledge was why we believe the things that we believe. And I had a discussion of particular cases where it seems as though some of our beliefs are not so much a reflection of the evidence available to us, but underlying dispositions or traits like gullibility, close-mindedness, dogmatism, and so on.’ Quickly, Cassam became interested in these traits in their own right, and was surprised to find that, especially relative to epistemic or intellectual virtues, epistemic vices have been neglected in philosophy. Why the disparity? ‘In epistemology, there’s always been, of course, an interest in understanding what knowledge is. And one thought that’s been around is that knowledge is something that you get by, among other things, exercising epistemic virtues of various kinds: open-mindedness, perseverance, and so on.’ Epistemic virtues are not only interesting in themselves to the philosophers who study them, but are often thought as well to hold the key to an analysis of knowledge. ‘So, from that perspective, vices are not going to be of huge interest. But if you’re simply interested in how actual human beings think, and reason, and inquire, it seems to me fairly obvious that epistemic vices are at least as significant and influential as epistemic virtues. We often think and reason poorly, and understanding why that is, is, I think, a serious and important task for our philosophy.’

Perhaps there are not many philosophers, today, who would deny this. But recent philosophical practice betrays a different understanding of what is important in epistemology. Most contemporary philosophers practice in what is often called the ‘analytic’ tradition, a name reflecting in part the central role played by conceptual analysis in much twentieth century Anglophone philosophy. And it is difficult to think of any concept that has been subject to more analyses – the giving of necessary and sufficient conditions – than that of knowledge. Much of this work has revolved around discussion of Gettier cases: various thought experiments named after the philosopher Edmund Gettier, who in 1963 exploded the analysis of knowledge as justified true belief. Over time, these cases became increasingly elaborate, forcing the analyses that hoped to accommodate them to become correspondingly complex.  As David Wiggins, who would shortly be appointed to the post of Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, quipped in paper delivered in 1990: ‘Indeed, [the search for non-circular necessary and sufficient conditions] still continues, to judge by the aims and ambitions that are prescribed by most of the participants in the group effort to solve for x – if necessary by brute force – in the equation: (knowledge) = (belief + x). In easel painting, pointillisme was a short-lived experiment. In philosophy, it bids fair to continue for ever.’

For his part, Cassam has mostly avoided the pitfalls of conceptual analysis; but might there be a worry, from another direction, that epistemology as Cassam conceives it is somehow too tied up with empirical results? ‘It seems to me,’ he says, ‘that there are lots of things that one can say about us as inquirers that don’t really presuppose particular results in empirical psychology. For example, if one is thinking about closed-mindedness, or dogmatism, there is a way of talking about these notions that doesn’t presuppose detailed psychological knowledge, it just presupposes knowledge of actual human beings and a willingness to reflect on what it takes for someone to be closed-minded, dogmatic. And these are, broadly speaking, conceptual questions, so my view, is that of course philosophy needs to be informed at the appropriate points by psychology, but it isn’t a branch of psychology and shouldn’t be slavishly following fashions in psychology. Not least because psychologists change their minds all the time.’

The most famous discussions of virtues and vices, of course, lie not in epistemology at all, but in moral philosophy. Virtue theory is often considered – as philosopher Adrian Moore has put it – the third vertex of a dialectical triangle, with utilitarianism and Kantianism at the two others. If epistemic vices were to resemble moral vices in important respects, then it might be possible for vice epistemology to import some of moral philosophy’s theoretical apparatus. But how far, I ask, can the analogy between epistemic and moral vices be carried? ‘Clearly,’ Cassam says, ‘the generic notion of a vice is the notion of something that is harmful in some way. That’s something that epistemic and moral vices have in common. Of course, the epistemic vices are harmful in a particular way … It’s an interesting question, whether there are parallels between epistemic attitude vices and moral vices,’ and not only between epistemic and ethical character traits. Again, there can be. For example, prejudice ‘is an attitude, but it’s certainly an epistemic vice. It’s also, at the same time, a moral vice.’ Does a person need to display a vice in every instance, if she is to count as having that vice? It seems that we can explain the beliefs of conspiracy theorists – like Holocaust deniers and 9/11 ‘truthers’ – as a function, in part, of their gullibility. But some conspiracy theorists are also very cynical in other connections, or even in the same connection, but with respect to, for example, government evidence. ‘There’s a very nice distinction,’ Cassam offers, ‘that Mark Alfano draws between high-fidelity and low-fidelity virtues. His thought is something like this, that to have a high-fidelity virtue, you need to display it consistently.’ Fidelity, fittingly enough, is a good example of a high-fidelity virtue. ‘Supposing somebody says, “Well, of course I’m completely faithful to my partner. I mean, of course I cheat on them, but only very occasionally” … On the other hand, there are low-fidelity virtues like, for example, generosity. A generous person isn’t required to be generous, I suppose, every time.’ Alfano’s distinction would have to be extended twice over to have application to Rumsfeld’s case and others – first, from virtues to vices, and second, from the ethical to the epistemological. But neither move, fortunately for Cassam’s account, seems particularly implausible.

Philosophers might no longer be convinced by Socrates’ definition of knowledge as justified true belief; but they are just as concerned as the ancient Greeks about various kinds of scepticism. But what if a person comes to be aware that she herself instantiates various epistemically vicious ways of thinking? Shouldn’t this, at some level, undermine her faith in the rest of her knowledge? ‘If one is thinking about, not just simple perceptual knowledge, but one’s worldview, I think there is a serious sceptical challenge,’ Cassam says. ‘If I convince you that you’re actually a very gullible person … then I think it certainly should raise fundamental questions about your fundamental beliefs … One thing that one ought to get out of recognition of one’s own epistemic vices is a degree of humility. None of us is vice-free. That should certainly have an impact on one’s sense of one’s belief system.’ Cassam cites the pressing case of Brexit: ‘Each side accuses the other of all manner of moral and epistemic vices.’ Indeed it is hard not to think that epistemic vices have quite a lot to do with recent political developments – we have been subject, it seems, to a barrage of misinformation; and misinformation is the breeding ground for intellectual vice. ‘There are two issues here,’ Cassam suggests. ‘There are the epistemic [or other] vices, of those politicians propounding a particular view on Brexit. And then there are the epistemic vices of the consumers of this information. In the former case, I think that there is an arguable case, which I try to make in the book, that those who were arguing for Brexit displayed a certain casual attitude towards evidence and the facts. I call this “epistemic insouciance.”’ The other question is, ‘what about, not the leaders of the debate, but those who are actually going into the polling station?’ There, Cassam says, one needs to be very careful ‘about accusing people of being epistemically vicious for voting one way rather than another. However, I think that there was plenty of evidence out there that certain claims that were being made about Brexit and what it meant were unfounded … And I think that insofar as people who fail to look into that, or are dismissive of it, endorse views that they ought to have known have no basis, I think they’re liable for criticism for that. Whether there were underlying epistemic vices that explain that, well that varies from case to case, but I suppose that, in some cases, there were.’

There’s another, very difficult problem about in what circumstances it would be reasonable for someone to be confident that views on topics about which she is not an expert are wrong. In our interview (and the book), Cassam discusses the work of historian David Irving, who has made claims like that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz and that Hitler had been not only unaware of the Final Solution, but had been trying to protect the Jews. Irving has clearly spent far more time investigating the Holocaust than I have. He has written other, reputable books on WWII, and has presumably pored over thousands of pages of documents. So how much work do I need to do in order to meet the challenge Irving presents to my views? ‘See, I think you do need to do quite a bit of work,’ Cassam tells me, somewhat apprehensively. ‘Think about [Saul] Kripke’s dogmatism paradox. Kripke has this thing where he says, “Look, if I know that p, then I know, thereby, that any evidence against p is misleading. Therefore I’m perfectly entitled to dismiss it without further consideration.”’ Cassam has, he says, ‘always had a problem with that. The problem is that insofar as conspiracy theories, like Irving’s, call into question the justifications you have for your beliefs, and you have no actual answer to these views other than to say they must be wrong, that doesn’t seem to me to be a very satisfactory position to be in, epistemically-speaking. For those of us who don’t accept the claims of conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, or whatever it is, I think there’s some obligation to actually find out what’s wrong with them, at least in some detail.’ But while it might be possible for an academic to spend the time required carefully analysing the arguments of a Holocaust denier, it isn’t clear that everyone will be able to make this investment. ‘Well, that’s the great paradox of democracy in a way,’ Cassam acknowledges. ‘One needs to be well-informed to make proper judgements about these things, and not everyone has the time or resources … But that’s not to say that I’m proposing a kind of elitism on which the philosopher-kings are the only people that know anything.’ Smartphones, says Cassam, mean that everybody has ‘access to enormous resources. The key is to try to base one’s views on the evidence, basically. If one is unwilling or unable to do that, then one is indeed vulnerable and is likely to end up with views that are baseless, I’m afraid. I think that’s just the reality of the situation.’

Epistemic vices being vices, it is part of their nature – at least on Cassam’s view – that they are ‘blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible.’ In Vices of the Mind, Cassam writes that there are two ways a person can be responsible for her vices: she can have acquisition responsibility or revision responsibility (or both). There is, it seems to me, a fine line between negative acquisition responsibility – where a person is acquisition-responsible for failing to prevent the acquisition of a vice – and revision responsibility. But leaving this aside, I wonder, might a person who is in a position of power have a certain responsibility to safeguard her epistemic processes? ‘I think it’s certainly true that if you’re in a position of power or responsibility, then, among your responsibilities, is the responsibility to guard against gender and racial prejudice in your judgements,’ Cassam says. ‘But I think the whole emphasis on how you came to be that way isn’t really the central point.’ The more important question is whether a person is in a position to revise or correct one’s vices. ‘To some extent, it’s an empirical question. Certainly, if you look at implicit bias, I think there’s a live debate about the extent to which we can correct our own implicit biases, even if we know about them. And I think you could raise the same question about any epistemic vice.’ The difficult case, Cassam claims, is that of character traits. ‘Can you really do anything about deep character traits? My view on that is that sometimes you can. Insofar as character traits involve attitudes and ways of thinking, if you can change those, you can do something about your character traits. I think there is a kind of revision responsibility in many cases.’ Although, Cassam admits, ‘it can be quite difficult always to make the case [that we have revision responsibility] … I think it would be quite disturbing if it turned out that, actually, we’re responsible neither for the acquisition of these vices nor for their maintenance.’

So, what is next after Vices of the Mind goes to print? One project is a philosophical one, on the loss of knowledge – whether you can ‘move from knowing that something is the case to not knowing that it’s the case, just in virtue of having your justifications questioned.’ But apart from that, Cassam tells me, ‘I actually want to try to write a book that’s aimed at non-philosophers. In fact, it’s possible that I’ll write a short book on the epistemology of conspiracy theories.’ Cassam says that, in general, he’s noticed a shift in his work over the course of his career. ‘There is a certain kind of philosopher or epistemologist who is very attracted by technicality, who operates at incredibly high levels of abstraction … That’s just not my style. That’s just not how I want to be in the profession. If you look at my own work over the last 20 years, certainly 20 years ago, my first book, Self and World, is completely inaccessible to anybody not steeped in Kantian epistemology. I was, in my own way, kind-of quite a technical philosopher. I suppose what’s happened over the years is that I’ve become more interested in engaging with the non-philosophical world.’ And is that important for philosophers to do? ‘I think it’s absolutely essential for philosophy. It’s not just that it makes it easier to get funding, for example … which I suppose it probably does. But that’s what philosophy should be doing. As I say in the preface to the vices book, if you look at what happened in 2016 – a hugely important year, all these massive developments. And I think that as philosophers, at least some of us need to have something to say about it.’