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Professor Quassim Cassam: Intellectual Vices

In 2015 I was awarded a Leadership Fellowship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for my latest project, on intellectual vices. The project, called Vice Epistemology, will run from 1 April 2016 to 30 September 2017.

An interesting feature of many disagreements is how quickly they get personal. When other people believe things that we find misguided or ridiculous or weird we may accuse them of all manner of vices. We say that they can only believe these things because they are closed-minded or arrogant. Alternatively we may accuse them of wishful thinking. When we say such things we aren’t just criticising what other people think. We are criticising them: we are accusing them of being bad thinkers.

Closed-mindedness, intellectual arrogance and wishful thinking are examples of intellectual vices. These are the intellectual equivalent of moral vices such as cowardice or vanity. They are vices that pertain specifically to our intellectual conduct. So, for example, a person who has a poor appreciation of perspectives that are different from their own or who is intolerant of opinions they don’t agree with can be accused of closed-mindedness or dogmatism.

Aristotle thought of moral vices as character traits and this is one way of thinking of intellectual vices. Closed-mindedness, on this view, is an intellectual character trait that different people have to varying degrees. Intellectual character traits are habits of thought and some habits are better than others. But there are also intellectual vices that are more like bad attitudes (e.g. prejudice) or faulty ways of thinking (e.g. wishful thinking) than character traits.

What’s so bad about intellectual vices? A natural thought is that they are bad in the sense that they have bad consequences. If you are trying to figure out the answer to a complex question you are much more likely to succeed if you are open-minded than if you are closed-minded. Intellectual vices make it harder for us to gain and retain knowledge of the world around us. In brief, get in the way of knowledge.

A common view of moral vices is that they are blameworthy. We can be blamed for our vices because we are responsible for them. According to Aristotle, for example, vice is voluntary. A question about intellectual vices is whether they, too, are blameworthy because voluntarily acquired. Or are they more like hard-wired mental biases from which none of us can escape and for which none of us can be properly blamed?

These are among the questions I’m addressing in my research. There is a lot to be said about the supposed bad consequences of intellectual vices and about whether traits such as closed-mindedness necessarily get in the way of knowledge. My research is about developing a theory of intellectual vice and understanding specific intellectual vices. Most of us are bad at recognizing our own vices so another challenge is to explain how this type of self-knowledge is possible.

Intellectual vices aren’t just of academic interest. One might wonder, for example, whether they are relevant for an understanding of recent political events. This is an area where abstract philosophical theorising makes contact with reality and helps us to understand what is happening in the world today. The results of my research will be published in a book called Vices of the Mind.