Changing How the World Thinks

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Vices of the Mind

Intellectual arrogance not only deserves criticism, but is an epistemic vice that obstructs knowledge


At a press conference after the U. S invasion of Iraq in 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was questioned about the scenes of chaos and looting in Baghdad. “Stuff happens” was his response to indications that things weren’t exactly going according to plan. As events unfolded it was becoming increasingly clear that the architects of the invasion – Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz- had seriously underestimated the potential for an Iraqi insurgency and the troop numbers needed to contain it.  

How could they have been so wrong? One study suggests there was little planning for maintaining order and stability after the invasion because it was thought that the task would be easy. The Bush administration assumed that Iraq 2003 would be a cakewalk but the reality was different. Senior administration figures believed that American soldiers would be welcomed with open arms by the Iraqis and that local security forces would willingly assist the occupation of their own country by a foreign power. Even at the time these assumptions seemed a barely credible exercise in wishful thinking, and their naïvety was demonstrated by the disaster that unfolded after the invasion. How could Rumsfeld and other members of the administration have believed that things would be so easy? What were they thinking?

In his book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks points out that senior figures in the military, including Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, had argued that at least 300,000 troops would be needed to pacify Iraq. Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld thought they knew better and insisted on a much lower number, below 40,000. They didn’t just ignore Shinseki’s advice, they derided it. According to Wolfowitz claims that several hundred thousand U.S. troops would be needed were ‘wildly off the mark’, and it wasn’t credible that more soldiers would be needed to keep order after the invasion than to invade Iraq in the first place. He got his way, and when the looting in Baghdad started the U.S. military lacked the resources to do anything about it. It seems obvious in retrospect that Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld should have listened. Why didn’t they?


"Vices of the mind are personal intellectual faults that have a negative impact on our intellectual conduct. They are intellectual vices. Imperviousness to evidence and an inability to deal with mistakes were among the intellectual vices that prevented Rumsfeld from coming to know the answers to certain rather pertinent questions"


This is where, in Ricks’ account, things start to get personal. The story, as he tells it, is that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, the four horsemen of the Iraqi apocalypse, acted as they did because they were ‘arrogant’, ‘impervious to evidence’, and ‘unable to deal with mistakes’. The President was incompetent, Wolfowitz was a know-it-all who didn’t know it all, and Rumsfeld’s “Stuff happens” remark was one among many indications of his hubris and arrogance. Ricks does also mention what he calls ‘systemic’ factors but the overall impression is that the Iraq fiasco was due in large part to the personal failings of President Bush and some of his senior colleagues.

My concern here isn’t with whether Ricks’ analysis is correct but the nature of the personal failings he draws on to explain the Iraq fiasco. So-called ‘virtues of the mind’, such as open-mindedness, thoroughness, and intellectual humility, have been extensively discussed by philosophers. Arrogance, imperviousness to evidence and an inability to deal with mistakes are vices of the mind. They have until very recently attracted much less philosophical attention. The dictionary definition of ‘vice’ is ‘evil or grossly immoral conduct’. This isn’t the sense in which vices of the mind are vices. ‘Vice’ is from the Latin vitium, which is a fault or a defect. Vices of the mind are personal intellectual faults that have a negative impact on our intellectual conduct. They are intellectual vices. Imperviousness to evidence and an inability to deal with mistakes were among the intellectual vices that prevented Rumsfeld from coming to know the answers to certain rather pertinent questions, such as: how many American troops will be needed after the invasion? If Ricks is right then Rumsfeld’s intellectual vices prevented him from listening to military advisors who knew the answer to this question better than he did. As a result he got it wrong.
I’m using this example not in order to make a political point but because it perfectly illustrates how vices of the mind are obstacles to knowledge. There was knowledge to be had but Rumsfeld missed out on it because of his attitude towards those who had it. Suppose that Shinseki knew what he was talking about and tried to share his knowledge with Rumsfeld. He was prevented from doing so by Rumsfeld’s unwillingness to listen and his unfounded conviction that he knew better. For Rumsfeld, military dissent about Iraq could only be the result of ignorance and he showed his disdain for Shinseki by naming his successor 14 months prior to his retirement. This is the kind of behaviour that led John Batiste, who turned down the position of commander of U.S forces in Iraq, to comment: ‘The trouble with Don Rumsfeld is that he’s contemptuous, he’s dismissive, he’s arrogant and he doesn’t listen’. A full list of the intellectual vices that contributed to the Iraq fiasco would also include dogmatism, closed-mindedness, prejudice, wishful thinking, overconfidence, and gullibility. It’s easy to detect overconfidence and wishful thinking in the assumption that Iraq could be subjugated with just 40,000 soldiers. Rumsfeld’s unwillingness to tolerate dissent is evidence of closed-mindedness and dogmatism. Senior members of the administration were gullible if they believed reports of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). And so on.

Intellectual vices are obstacles to knowledge but not all obstacles to knowledge are intellectual vices. For example, suppose that acute insomnia makes people who suffer from it forgetful and inattentive during waking hours. That would be a reason to classify insomnia as an obstacle to knowledge but not as an intellectual vice unless one is prepared to view it as an intellectual defect. The distinction between intellectual and other defects is hard to define but, at an intuitive level, conditions like insomnia aren’t conditions of the intellect even though they undoubtedly have intellectual consequences. Forgetfulness and inattentiveness sound more like intellectual defects but they aren’t intellectual vices for a different reason: they aren’t defects for which a person can reasonably be criticised, at least where they are caused by insomnia. Defects that don’t merit criticism aren’t intellectual vices regardless of whether they get in the way of knowledge. Some intellectual vices are severely criticised. Others are only mildly reprehensible, but there is no such thing as an intellectual vice that merits no criticism at all.  


"Whether or not a deeply arrogant person deserves blame for being that way they can certainly be criticised for their arrogance. One issue in such cases is whether what is being criticised is the vice itself or – if there is a difference- the person whose vice it is."


Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether a trait is a vice or not because it is difficult to know whether it gets in the way of knowledge. For example, the classification of closed-mindedness as an epistemic vice can be challenged on the grounds that this trait can protect a person’s knowledge by making them less susceptible to being misled by people who know less than they do. This sort of worry can be dealt with by stipulating that the classification of closed-mindedness as a vice of the mind depends on whether it normally or systematically gets in the way of knowledge, not on whether it invariably does so. In the case of stupidity, another defect that was on prominent display in Ricks’ story, the question is not whether it gets in the way of knowledge – it obviously does - but whether it is genuinely reprehensible. Is a person’s stupidity something for which they can reasonably be criticised? Not if stupidity is understood as lack of intelligence but it can also be understood as foolishness or lack of common sense. Stupidity in this sense is a genuine intellectual vice.  

Another label for intellectual vice is ‘epistemic vice’. I prefer this label because it highlights the fact that these vices get in the way of knowledge. In effect, Ricks attributes a bunch of epistemic vices to Rumsfeld and his colleagues and explains their intellectual and other conduct partly by reference to these vices. An objection to vice explanations is that they are too personal and ignore more important factors, including the systemic factors that Ricks mentions. Plainly, a convincing account of the events described by Ricks needs to be multi-dimensional. From a vice perspective the important point is not that Rumsfeld’s decisions can be explained by reference to any single factor but that epistemic vices are among the factors that help us to make sense of his thinking and his decisions.

It’s hard to talk about epistemic or other vices without mentioning Aristotle. There are many disagreements between obstructivism and accounts of epistemic vice inspired by Aristotle but there are a couple of points on which agreement is possible. One is that vices are harmful. Aristotelian accounts emphasise the harmfulness of vices for their possessor. For obstructivism epistemic vices are epistemically harmful to their possessor. That is, they are harmful to us as knowers and this is the sense in which, like vices generally, they are destructive of the self and prevent its flourishing. Reading Ricks it might seem odd to put the emphasis on the ways in which Rumsfeld’s epistemic vices were harmful to him, but the point is not to deny that a person’s vices can be harmful to others. The ways in which Rumsfeld and his colleagues were harmed by their epistemic vices resulted in policies that were immensely harmful to others but the question one keeps coming back to is: how could their judgement have been so poor? This is the question to which obstructivism offers an answer.

Aristotelian views and obstructivism also agree that epistemic vices are reprehensible to some degree. Some have questioned whether we have the kind of responsibility for our epistemic vices that is required for them to be blameworthy. However, blame is not the only form of criticism, and it is possible to be critical of a person’s epistemic vices without blaming them. Whether or not a deeply arrogant person deserves blame for being that way they can certainly be criticised for their arrogance. One issue in such cases is whether what is being criticised is the vice itself or – if there is a difference- the person whose vice it is. Regardless, it does seem that some form of appropriately targeted censure must be in order where vice is concerned.

Extract from Vices of the Mind:  From the Intellectual to the Political by Quassim Cassam, published by Oxford University Press, available in hardback and eBook formats, £25.00 

Image credit: Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay's Vice (Annapurna Pictures, 2018).

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