The Solitary Flame of Vanity

Quassim Cassam, Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political

Oxford University Press, 224pp, £25.00, ISBN 9780198826903

reviewed by Alexandre Leskanich

The ‘art of dissimulation’, remarks Nietzsche, ‘reaches its peak in man’. Subsequently:

‘Deception, flattering, lying, deluding, talking behind the back, putting up a false front, living in borrowed splendour, wearing a mask, hiding behind convention, playing a role for others and for oneself – in short, a continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity – is so much the rule and law among men.’

As discovered with Boris Johnson, a few probing questions quickly dispels the aura of knowledgeability to reveal an insatiable propensity to bluster and bullshit. Bombast and bollocks have always proved useful to the professional demagogue or garden variety swindler. In an alternative world of perfect knowers and conscientious thinkers, there probably exists another Boris Johnson, stripped of Etonian swagger, his boarding school bounce swapped for an idle shuffle down to the used car lot. Or perhaps he would manifest as a sozzled cheese vendor, manning an unkempt stall reeking of stale rinds. In a such a world, his meagre talents would be more appropriately rewarded.

Sadly, we don’t live there. Here, as a rule, people think and know imperfectly. Therefore they are susceptible to persuasion that triggers or manipulates their crudest instincts. Politicians get away with tyrannous or slippery behaviour because their audiences possess habits of thinking which impede their ability to distinguish between what is and isn’t knowledge. For Quassim Cassam, insensitivity to detail, intellectual pride, conformity, dogmatism, and idleness are just some of the ‘vices of the mind’ which constitute ‘personal intellectual failings that have a negative impact on our intellectual conduct.’ A professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick, he contends that ‘epistemic vices obstruct the acquisition of knowledge by impeding effective inquiry.’ Adopting a broadly consequentialist approach, he holds the view that closed-mindedness, for example, is bad because it produces bad consequences. Epistemic vices are vices in virtue of their effects. Crucially, a vice, here, is something for which a person can be held responsible.

Complementing the field of virtue epistemology, vice epistemology is the philosophical study of how epistemic vices hinder the acquisition and retention of knowledge. Rather than merely examining what people think, this field examines how people think to the disadvantage of both themselves and others: e.g. how they gather and employ evidence or select sources on which to base their beliefs. Not solely concerned with the individual knower, but also with the social environment of which the knower is part, vice epistemology starts from the conviction that a large part of what’s wrong with the world is how people think about it. The inadequacy of the world – i.e. the gap between the real and the ideal – stems from the poor quality of the thinking that maintains it. Hence the particular strength of this book is its reference to real political examples such as the Iraq invasion, where epistemic vices like hubris, overconfidence, and conformity resulted in catastrophic consequences for human life. Instead of dealing in dry and lifeless hypotheticals, this book reveals how epistemic vices inflict real and lasting damage to society. Particularly apposite to our present times, Cassam coins the term ‘epistemic insouciance’ to describe an attitude of indifference as to whether what you assert is grounded in reality. The epistemically insouciant are too contemptuous towards truth-telling to care about it; nor do they care sufficiently about truth to be classified as old-school liars, since the liar has at least a certain regard for the truth. Perversely, a confluence of factors, both technological and political, today makes this insouciance all the more likely to result in real political power.

Indeed, as Susan Stebbings succinctly points out, the due deliberation required by citizens in a democratic society involves, in principle,

‘instruction with regard to the facts, ability to assess the evidence provided by such instruction and, further, the ability to discount, as far as may be, the effects of prejudice and to evade the distortion produced by unwarrantable fears and unrealizable hopes.’

Yet people do not seem well enough equipped epistemically to overcome the vices that hamper their thinking. That’s why politicians substitute rhetorical persuasion for rational argument. If the electorate lacks knowledge and are credulous, closed-minded, and careless in how they think, then conditions are ripe for the most unpleasant charlatanry to take root. The most accomplished dissemblers of our time depend not just on the willingness of people to be told what to think, or their inability to discern the true from the false, but on their reluctance to subject their own thinking to scrutiny. In this sense, vanity proves our major block to self-improvement. We do not generally like to consider the possibility that our thinking is flawed, for that would imply that what we think we know is likewise mistaken. Witness the chorus of people who will still tell you they knew exactly what they voted for during the EU referendum. In reality, such people were victims of their own vanity, as well as of their own ignorance. Indeed, the Brexit campaigners who actively went out of their way to undermine people’s capacity to acquire the knowledge they needed to make an informed decision exhibited what Cassam calls ‘epistemic malevolence’: because it was in their interests that people knew as little as possible, they deliberately distributed falsehoods. But people were also lazy: most didn’t bother to investigate whether what they had been told about the EU had any basis in reality. So, lacking ‘instruction with regard to the facts’, people were all the more vulnerable to the propaganda which was fed to them.

Epistemic vices are hard to pin down – some turn out on closer inspection to lack the necessary element of blameworthiness. Forgetfulness, for instance, gets in the way of keeping knowledge, and can therefore result in bad epistemic consequences. But although forgetful people are unable to retain knowledge of important value, and may hence be led to think mistakenly, they cannot be held responsible for their forgetfulness in the way in which an arrogant person can be held responsible for their arrogance. Forgetfulness is not, therefore, an epistemic vice, even though its consequences can be severe. The arrogant person is blameworthy because their arrogance can be amended. Yet matters are complicated by the fact that although a person may on occasion display arrogance, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are an arrogant person. Similarly, a person who believed the lies and prognostications of the campaign to leave the EU in 2016 undoubtedly displayed both gullibility and wishful thinking, but this would not be sufficient to establish them as possessing gullible and wishful characters. A further evaluation of their behaviour would be necessary before classifying their gullibility or wishful thinking as deficits of character.

In attempting to clarify these matters, Cassam makes a basic but important distinction between ‘thinking vices’ and ‘character vices’. As he says:

‘It is one thing to be closed-minded and another to think closed-mindedly… A closed-minded thinker thinks closed-mindedly but closed-minded thinking isn’t the exclusive preserve of closed-minded thinkers. When closed-minded thinkers think closed-mindedly about a particular topic their thinking is in character. When otherwise open-minded thinkers think closed-mindedly in a given case their thinking is out of character.’

This results in a vocabulary better suited to judge the conduct of a person in a given instance relative to their past behaviour. For some people, thinking closed-mindedly is not so routine an occurrence as to sufficiently establish them as closed-minded thinkers. Even the most careful and scrupulous thinker can be prejudiced or suffer bouts of wishful thinking.

Interestingly, as Cassam also notes, arrogance, and the sense of superiority with which it is associated, seems more like an attitude than a character trait. In a classic case, before the Iraq invasion Donald Rumsfeld’s arrogance led him to dismiss the 300,000 troops recommended by army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki. Rumsfeld’s ‘unwillingness to listen’ and ‘unfounded conviction that he knew better’ led him to deride that recommendation and stick to his initial option of 40,000 troops. Having been unwilling to consider the question of how many troops might be necessary to maintain order post-invasion, Rumsfeld lacked the knowledge that could have averted the ensuing chaos. His arrogance subverted his capacity to acquire the knowledge he needed. Regrettably, he also happened to be closed-minded and dogmatic, which made him further impervious to the views of people who knew better. The failings of Rumsfeld the person are manifest. But Rumsfeld the politician operated in a political milieu that exerted a myriad of other pressures, largely ideological in nature. This isn’t to exonerate him, but to remind ourselves that there frequently exist structural factors that constrain competent decision-making. Still, the deciding factor in many cases is the character of the person in question. In this sense, responsibility for the vices that led Rumsfeld into error rest with Rumsfeld alone. All the same, that Rumsfeld happened to be arrogant in this instance doesn’t preclude the possibility that under different circumstances he might have been more open-minded.

Ultimately, it was Rumsfeld’s vanity that led to his negligence, and negligence remains one of the abiding vices in political and social life. How many people before going out to vote this December will truly examine the (atrocious) Conservative record? Indeed, intellectual negligence is why most of our ignorance goes unrecognised, since we don’t know enough to know how little we know. Negligence and vanity feed off each other. Since the vain confuse what they know with the knowledge available in total, they forever fail to realise they need to know more than they do. But acknowledging that they need to know more than they already do, or that what they think they know might not be knowledge, is precisely the sort of thing a vain person is unlikely to do.

Untangling the vices that hinder our thinking requires much intellectual effort. In a world where people constantly overestimate the adequacy of their opinions, it’s ultimately up to each of us to examine the vices to which we are susceptible, and to amend them wherever possible. This important book alerts us to the perennial necessity of this task.

Alexandre Leskanich received his PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2020. His first book, The Anthropocene and the Sense of History: Reflections from Precarious Life, is under contract with Routledge. He lives in London.