An interesting feature of everyday social life is that we charge other people with vices. By that term, I refer to negative character traits, in contrast with the admirable traits we call virtues. We might complain about the arrogant celebrity who waltzes into a restaurant, unbooked and unannounced, demanding the best table. We might criticize the dogmatic politician who presses ahead with some project despite reasoned objections from the local community.
Often the vices invoked are ethical vices, deficiencies in our moral character that corrupt how we regard and treat other people. But sometimes these vices seem peculiarly intellectual—related to our beliefs, ideas, cognitive habits, or ways of thinking. Dogmatism is a good example, as is closed-mindedness. Of course, the ethical and intellectual cannot be rigidly separated, since what we think can lead us to do bad things, and how we think can be morally criticized—a racist is a bad person for what they do (mistreating or discriminating against people of color, for instance) and what they think (supposing that human worth is fixed by racial identity).
The practice of charging other people with arrogance, dogmatism, and other negative character traits can be called vice-charging. After explaining what a vice is, I want to describe and defend this practice. For, from the fact that we do charge people with vices, it does not automatically follow that we should.
What Are Intellectual Vices?
Dogmatism and closed-mindedness are what philosophers call intellectual vices, as they are the vices of the mind. Other intellectual vices include arrogance, hubris, and others, perhaps less familiar, with names like intellectual injustice and intellectual cowardice. Most virtue theorists have talked about both ethical and intellectual virtues and vices—including Aristotle, to whom we owe the distinction—but during the last few centuries, attention was focused solely on the ethical vices. Happily, this is now changing thanks to the recently developed discipline of virtue epistemology, which explores the relations between intellectual character and enquiry.
An intellectual vice is a stable negative intellectual character trait. If, on a bad day, you bluntly dismiss a plausible claim, without argument or evidence, that doesn’t in itself make you characteristically dogmatic. But if you consistently do so, on different occasions, without any exculpatory reasons, then you are (or at least, you are becoming) dogmatic. For a stable pattern of behavior is emerging, and people will come to anticipate and expect as part of your character.
“He’s so dogmatic!”
“There’s no arguing with her!”
“They just can’t take criticism!”
—such remarks are testimonies to people’s perception of an intellectually vicious character.
These vices are, I suspect, typically most powerful concerning certain topics or issues. I know a few people who tend to be dogmatic on most topics, but who, if pressed, are happy to let most of their claims go. Such people might adopt a stance of pre-emptive certainty, but pull back when put under critical pressure—perhaps a person likes the feeling of unearned certainty but is unable or unwilling to respond to the challenge to earn that certainty. In such cases, we see a sort of arrogance allied to a sort of intellectual laziness where, thankfully, the one is collapsed by the other, as well as by the virtue of others. After all, it often takes courage to challenge the arrogantly overconfident, especially if they are physically, socially, or politically powerful.
Vices in Political Discourse
Vice-charging is not just a feature of our everyday thought and talk about family, friends, and colleagues. It is also central to our social and political discourse, especially to our critical engagement with influential and authoritative groups and institutions—political, economic, religious, and scientific.
Consider two examples, the first involving ethical vices and the second involving intellectual vices.
Charging a Moral Vice: Greedy Banks
Since the 2008 economic crash, anger has been directed against the greedy bankers and reckless economists whose failures to manage their own ambitions led to one of the worst episodes in world economic history. “Greedy bankers STILL don’t get it!” screamed a British tabloid newspaper when the bankers restored their bonuses, which, this time, were funded by ordinary taxpayers. Similarly, activist Naomi Klein describes free-market advocates as exemplars of greed, accusing them of adopting a self-serving ideological “cover story” that disingenuously presents a vice as a virtue.
Indeed, a now-familiar narrative of the crash usually invokes vices—greed, dishonesty, recklessness—whether at the level of individuals or the whole culture’ of the banking and financial sectors. Apparently, the culture of banking is corrupting, insofar as it encourages vices (like greed) and drives out virtues (like modesty).
Charging an Intellectual Vice: Climate Skeptics
A second example of vice-charging is found in discussions about climate change, discussion of which is filled with intellectual vice charges. A British environment minister describes climate change deniers as “dogmatic and blinkered,”, while Exxon Mobil are accused, by The Guardian accuses Exxon Mobil, for of “consummate arrogance” in questioning links between their activities and climate change. The skeptics and deniers return the charge—a leading skeptic and, Republican senator, Jim Inhofe, insists the arrogance actually lies with climate scientists who claim to be able to give accurate predictions of long-term climatic change.
“… [I]t often takes courage to challenge the arrogantly overconfident, especially if they are physically, socially, or politically powerful.”
Such charges and counter-charges of intellectual vice will be familiar to anyone with even passing familiarity with the vast and vigorous debates, public, scientific, and political, over anthropogenic climate change. Those charges also reflect attempts by the various parties to call into question the authority of their targets. If Inhofe is a climate denier, ask many environmentalists, should he really be put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency? A vicious mind is not, after all, a mind to trust.
Clearly, then, vice-charging matters to people. It is a critical practice that people use and that we therefore want to keep on the table as it does important work for activists, critics, bloggers, and others who contribute to the discourses that sustain democratic society. If vice-charging is indeed kept on the table then we should strive to engage in vice-charging in an effective, efficient way. Unfortunately, this is rather difficult, for the practice is more complex than those who typically employ it tend to realize.
The Complexities of Vice-Charging
I offer these examples to underscore the fact that the practice of charging others with intellectual vice is difficult, for several related reasons. For a start, it’s not always clear what the various parties mean by terms like “arrogance” and “dogmatism.” No doubt most people, most of the time, have a general sense of what these vices are and a picture of how such vicious people look, talk, and walk. But that is not good enough if those vice charges are to be taken seriously. Charges of vice, like charges of crime, ought to be precise; otherwise, appeal to vices run the risk of degenerating into mere name-calling.
“If vice-charging is indeed kept on the table then we should strive to engage in vice-charging in an effective, efficient way.”
Another reason to take care with vice-charging is that the target of the charge is often unclear. Sometimes we are charging a person, like Inhofe, but other times it is a group of people, like bankers or climate skeptics. But groups are diverse and their members often have varying attitudes. , a fact that a blunt vice charge—“Bankers are greedy!”—risks obscuring. Perhaps some bankers are greedy, but others were just swept along, in which case, charging all bankers with the vice of greed is unfair. So the target of the charge needs to be carefully specified. Is the target individuals? Collectives? Institutions?
A further reason to urge caution about vice-charging is the fact that people often disagree about the vicious status of their behavior. What Bill Nye the Science Guy sees as dogmatic arrogance, the climate skeptic might see as robust confidence, and what Klein sees as grotesque greed, a city banker might call rational self-interest. Since the critical efficacy of vice-charging depends upon both target and critic mutually accepting the definition of the vices in play, such disagreements, as long as they persist, undermine the whole practice.
Back to Climate Skeptics
Consider the charge that climate skeptics are dogmatic. If dogmatism is defined in terms of irrational resistance to the authority of science, then Inhofe and others will straightaway reject the charge as question-begging and dice-loading. It is question-begging because the definition of dogmatic presupposes the very thing they contest—namely, that informed people ought to accept the authority of science. It is dice-loading because that way of filling out the vice effectively defines their position into dogmatism—climate skepticism becomes, by definition, dogmatic and therefore suspect.
Three Reasons Vice-Charging Is Complex
So vice-charging is complex for at least three related reasons.
One, the vices being invoked have to be defined, and that is much more difficult than our free and easy everyday talk of arrogance, greed, and closed-mindedness suggests.
Two, the target of the charge has to be clarified, for it may either be a specific individual, a group of people, a larger collective, or even an ideology, doctrine, or theory. Add to that the fact that individuals and groups change their behavior and composition over time, that makes for more hard work.
And three, the vices themselves have to be defined in a way that makes them acceptable to both the critic and the target. Otherwise, the very terms of critique are disputed, thereby undermining the efficacy of the critical practice.
The Legitimacy of Vice-Charging
Taken together, I’ve suggested that vice-charging can be a legitimate critical practice—it’s just that responding adequately to the complexities of the practice demands a lot of hard intellectual work. Defining vices, clarifying targets, and doing so in a way that ensures both critic and target accept the charge is tough work. But, given the important role that vice-charging plays, surely this is work worth doing.