Thursday, 7 June 2012

On keeping one's distance from those who lack epistemic virtues

Suppose that X works with Y in some business in which knowledge is important, and in which people need to draw sensible conclusions from evidence, and to recognize and suppress wishful thinking when the conclusions are not what they might expect or like. X reckons that Y exhibits the appropriate epistemic virtues, and is therefore a good colleague to have.

Now suppose that X finds that in some unrelated area of life, Y holds a belief that X thinks no reasonable person could hold, if that person were confronted with evidence that is plainly available to Y, and that Y could plainly grasp and understand how to use.

Should X be less happy about working with Y? I think not. Y's performance at work would be evidence that what X saw as Y's lack of epistemic virtue in the unrelated field had not infected Y's work. And while it would be a bit much to ask X to acknowledge that he or she might be wrong about the unrelated matter, it would not be unreasonable to ask X to acknowledge that his or her perception of Y's lack of epistemic virtue might be mistaken. Y's reasoning processes would not be likely to be fully transparent to X.

X could respond to this point by saying that the reasoning processes did not matter. Y's belief was so manifestly absurd that Y should have said, "I must be wrong here, now I should try to find the error in my reasoning". On that basis, Y would be guilty of one specific epistemic vice, a failure to recognize manifest absurdity. But even then, could X be sure that Y suffered from that vice? Perhaps the process of reasoning had itself led Y to change his or her view of what was absurd.

Now let us change the example. X is considering whether to work with a think tank, T, on some project. X is impressed with T's work in the relevant field. But X also knows that T's official views, in unrelated fields, are quite as bad as Y's conclusions in an unrelated field. They are not just mistaken. X cannot see how any rational person, confronted with the widely available and easily understood evidence, could reach those conclusions.

Should this deter X from working with T? There might be a risk to X's reputation, if he or she were seen to be working with an organization that X's peers might well regard as crazy, but we shall set that to one side, and concentrate on the question that arose as between X and Y. Would it be appropriate for X to think there was a serious risk that what X perceived as T's lack of epistemic virtue would infect work in the area of the proposed joint project? (There is a side issue as to whether institutions, as opposed to individuals, can have or lack epistemic virtues.)

It would not be hard to say yes, the risk should be taken more seriously in the case of X and T than in the case of X and Y. If an institution adopted crazy views, that would be likely to reflect the views of more than one person. There might be only one person formulating views on the topics in question, but he or she would be answerable to the institution's management. The management would therefore have a general outlook that allowed the views to be published, whether an outlook that staff should not be controlled, or an outlook that included sharing the crazy views. And that management outlook might very well infect the recruitment and the management of those who would work on the proposed joint project. People who lack epistemic virtues may well associate with, recruit, and encourage other people who also lack those virtues.

Such a conclusion would have an interesting implication. The conclusion would suggest that epistemic vice could spread more easily from one area of thought to another in a group of people than within a single person, despite the fact that a single person seems to be much more closely integrated than a group of people. That is not, however, absurd. In a group of people, propositions are expressed by some and are consciously considered by others. That stage of conscious consideration may given the propositions more power to influence behaviour than if they were merely present in a single cortex, encoded in a form that did not even look particularly propositional, and were occasionally and dreamily considered by the subject.

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