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Virtues and vices in a non-ideal world

Humans are prone to bias, irrationality, and various forms of prejudice. From an evolutionary perspective, this is no accident. Biases can be viewed as adaptive responses to an environment that often rewards “thinking fast” over “thinking slow.” Irrationality can also be adaptive, especially in contexts that incentivize group cohesion over accuracy. Prejudices and stereotypes are, arguably, integral features of human cognition, though the prejudices and stereotypes that are prevalent in a society tell us a lot about that society—its history, its hangups, its structure.

Does this mean that humans are bad thinkers, perhaps even vicious thinkers? This would be too quick. Biases are adaptive because—provided certain conditions are met—they help us better understand the world. Biases can lead us astray—by leading us to adopt inaccurate pictures of the world—but, when they do so, this need not reveal anything resembling a vice. Our thinking sometimes goes wrong due to bad luck. Even systematic errors can have innocent explanations.

More importantly, the idea that biases are inimical to good thinking only makes sense on an idealized way of understanding what it is to think well, or to think badly. Humans are far from perfect thinkers. If we take an ideal thinker as the model that human thinkers must emulate, it is no surprise that we fall short. The question though is whether we should take ideal thinkers as the model in the first place.

In my new book, Non-Ideal Epistemology, I identify two key characteristics of the idealized picture of good (and bad) thinking. The first is that it judges the quality of actual human thinking in terms of how well it approximates ideal thinking. If humans tend to think in ways that systematically violate the laws of logic or probability theory, this is evidence that humans think badly because ideal thinkers would obey these laws. If we tend to exaggerate the import of evidence that supports our political or scientific views, this is evidence that we are deeply biased, perhaps viciously so, because ideal thinkers would assign just as much weight to evidence as that evidence merits.

The second key characteristic of the idealized picture is a tendency to understand good or bad thinking in an acontextual, ahistorical way. There is a set of character traits the possession of which makes one a good thinker irrespective of the context or situation. There is another set of traits the possession of which makes one a bad thinker irrespective of the context.

For example, you might think that a tendency to engage with salient alternatives to your own views is a central part of virtuous thinking. It demonstrates open-mindedness. On the other hand, you might think that a tendency to ignore salient alternatives is a central part of vicious thinking. It demonstrates closed-mindedness, dogmatism, and perhaps even arrogance.

The idealized picture runs into trouble because of these two characteristics. It is often a mistake to judge human performance against an ideal standard because we don’t think like an ideal thinker would. Good human performance is often very different from an ideal version thereof. Good human strategies for arriving at a reasonably accurate understanding of the world can’t ignore our obvious limitations, cognitive or otherwise. If we are bad at following the laws of logic or probability theory, that’s likely because we haven’t used these tools to solve the practical problems that have occupied us as a species. If we are bad at “thinking on our own,” that’s likely because we are social animals, and have evolved strategies for solving problems together rather than by ourselves.

Moreover, it is often a mistake to ignore social context and environment. Whether it is a good thing to engage with salient alternatives depends in part on what will happen when you engage. Will you be taken seriously? Will your perspective be listened to? It isn’t closed-minded or dogmatic to refuse to listen to people who won’t listen to you. A willingness to listen and engage may manifest your genuine open-mindedness. But it might just reflect the fact that you expect (and like!) to be taken seriously.

If we can’t understand good thinking in terms of fit with an ideal standard, how can we understand it? One alternative—the alternative I pursue in my book—would be to start with examples of successful thinking—not just isolated cases where someone has “thought well,” but the social institutions and structures that represent our best attempt to make sense of the world. The result would be an empirically-driven understanding of what it is to think well—what I call a non-ideal epistemology.

The various sciences have produced vast amounts of knowledge about the world around us. We can study—scientifically!—how it is that they have done this. The result may well be an understanding of good thinking that differs radically from the idealized picture. For example, a degree of closed-mindedness and dogmatism, not to mention arrogance, may be essential to scientific progress. Ultimately, it may well turn out that humans succeed by harnessing the biases, prejudices, and forms of irrationality to which we are prone.

Featured image by Jr Korpa on Unsplash (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Iftekhar Sayeed

    I beg to differ.

    The ideal thinker is essential – if only for tolerance.

    Science, for instance, must be regarded as sub-ideal for, otherwise, scientifically advanced societies are in danger of appearing superior to religious societies.

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