Issues in Philosophy Epistemic Vices and Conspiracy Theories

Epistemic Vices and Conspiracy Theories

By Quassim Cassam


Another school shooting, another conspiracy theory. In 2012 it was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that sparked a wave of conspiracy theories. This time it’s the brutal killing of 17 people at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. A theory doing the rounds on social media is that some of the people representing themselves as students who survived the shooting are paid actors being used by advocates of gun control to promote their agenda.

Why are such absurd theories propagated and why are some people apparently prepared to believe them? No fancy philosophical or psychological theories are needed to understand the spread of some conspiracy theories, including the one about the Florida shooting. It’s helpful to distinguish between producers and consumers of conspiracy theories. If one is concerned that a high school massacre will strengthen the case for gun control then the promotion of conspiracy theories about the massacre is an obvious, albeit nefarious, strategy for deflecting attention from the real problem. In such cases, the devising and spreading of conspiracy theories is a political act, and it’s not necessary to assume that the individuals doing the devising and spreading believe what they say.

It’s also worth remembering that conspiracy theories are big business. There are what Cass Sunstein calls ‘conspiracy entrepreneurs’ who literally make a living by peddling conspiracy theories. They have websites to promote, talk shows to produce, and merchandise to sell. Do they believe their own theories? Who knows, but they certainly have a strong economic interest in promoting them. So the promotion of conspiracy theories isn’t just a political act, though it is sometimes that as well: it’s also a good way to make money.

However ludicrous some conspiracy theories might be, conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily false or unjustified. There are justified and correct conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories that are unjustified and false. In any given case one can ask: which is it? The answer isn’t especially exciting: unjustified conspiracy theories lack adequate evidential support and are otherwise implausible. They posit conspiracies in order to explain what can be much more plausibly and economically explained in other ways.

It is one thing to question the motives and attitudes of conspiracy entrepreneurs, but what about the motives and attitudes of the millions of people who either believe–or at least don’t disbelieve–their more outlandish inventions? What explains their susceptibility to conspiracy theories, even ones that seemingly have very little going for them?

Psychologists talk about a ‘conspiracy mentality’, a personality trait that disposes those who have it to believe conspiracy theories, even obviously contradictory conspiracy theories.

Another factor is the deep need that many people have to make sense of what would otherwise be utterly senseless events. There is nothing more senseless than the mass killing of innocent school children by a disaffected or emotionally unstable classmate, and the search for a meaning in such dreadful events can take strange and surprising forms. This is analogous to certain forms of religious thinking about the purported purpose and underlying structure of the world. An expression of the religious impulse is, as Tim Crane puts it, the thought that this can’t be all there is. An expression of the conspiracist impulse when faced with the suggestion that a mass killing or political assassination is the work of a lone gunman is this can’t be all there is to it. If this correctly diagnoses the psychological drive to believe conspiracy theories, conspiracy theories are then (at least in many instances) an exercise in sensemaking.

To say that conspiracy theories are sometimes motivated by a desire to find meaning is to say that they are underpinned, at least to some extent, by wishful thinking. There are theories that people believe not because they are justified in believing them but because they want them to be true. Wishful thinking is an example of what Linda Zagzebski calls an ‘intellectual vice, and it is not the only one that underpins some — though not all — conspiracy thinking.

Wishful thinking is a way of thinking but many other intellectual vices are character traits. Closed-mindedness is one; naivety is another. There are also intellectual vices that are attitudes rather than character traits. For example, conspiracy entrepreneurs may display an indifference to whether their claims have any basis in reality or any genuine evidential backing. This attitude of indifference is certainly an intellectual vice, the vice of intellectual or epistemic insouciance.

It’s controversial how much of a role such vices play in sustaining belief in conspiracy theories. For example, one might regard a willingness to entertain conspiracy theories that go against the “official” account of major events as a mark of open-mindedness rather than closed-mindedness. As for naivety, there are certainly cases where belief in the official account may turn out to be far more naïve than belief in a conspiracy theory.

Regardless, there doesn’t seem much doubt that intellectual vices do play a significant role in a great deal of human cognitive activity, and philosophers shouldn’t confine themselves to analysing intellectual virtues like open-mindedness and conscientiousness. For when we go wrong in our thinking, intellectual vices are often to blame. In his book on the 2003 U.S invasion of Iraq, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks describes the political architects of the invasion as “arrogant,” “impervious to evidence” and “unable to deal with mistakes.” No serious account of what went wrong with the planning for the invasion can ignore the part played by these and other intellectual vices.

Another example from history: in a study of the failure of Israeli intelligence to anticipate the 1973 Yom Kippur attacks by Egypt and Syria, intelligence analyst Uri Bar-Joseph attributes this failure in large part to the dogmatism and extreme closed-mindedness of named individuals in Israeli intelligence. These individuals were committed to the doctrine that there would be no attack and this led them to dismiss all evidence — even highly compelling evidence — to the contrary.

Vice epistemology, then, is the philosophical study of the nature, identity and significance of intellectual vices. Intellectual vices are character traits, attitudes or thinking styles that systematically, though not invariably, get in the way of knowledge. This is an ‘obstructivist’ account of intellectual vices which, because of their impact on knowledge, might better be described as epistemic vices. According to obstructivism, epistemic vices get in the way of knowledge by obstructing its gaining, retaining or sharing but not every intellectual trait that gets in the way of knowledge is an intellectual vice. Forgetfulness is an obstacle to the retaining of knowledge but not an epistemic vice. Why not? One answer might be that genuine vices, as distinct from mere cognitive defects like forgetfulness, must be blameworthy. Vice, it is said, implies blame.

What it takes for an epistemic vice like closed-mindedness to be blameworthy is one of the questions that needs to be addressed by vice epistemologists. Some look to the motivational components of epistemic vices to explain their blameworthiness. Others look to other factors. In addition, it isn’t hard to make the case that people aren’t always blameworthy for their epistemic vices, but criticism can be appropriate even when blame isn’t. Epistemic vices are blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible character traits, attitudes or thinking styles that systematically get in the way of knowledge. To describe a trait or disposition as neither blameworthy nor worthy of criticism is to suggest that it isn’t a vice.

One can think that epistemic vices are systematically knowledge-obstructive without thinking that they are invariably so. Saul Kripke once made the case that dogmatism, which most vice epistemologists classify as an epistemic vice, can protect our knowledge by inclining us to dismiss without further consideration the detailed arguments of Holocaust deniers and other conspiracy theorists. If Kripke is right then dogmatism can protect our knowledge in the actual world, and not just in remote possible worlds. Whether the classification of dogmatism as an epistemic vice needs to be revised depends not only on whether Kripke is right about his cases but on whether dogmatism is systematically knowledge-conducive. The vice epistemologist can accept that dogmatism, like other epistemic vices, doesn’t always lead us astray while continuing to insist that its characteristic role in our cognitive lives is to obstruct the acquisition, transmission or retention of knowledge.

A concern one might have about the vice epistemology research programme is that it over-personalises error and thereby underestimates or neglects systemic factors. Is it really plausible, for example, that the Iraq fiasco can be explained by the epistemic failings of a handful of senior figures in the Bush administration? Presumably not. The claim is not that epistemic vices are all there is to it but that they are part of the story.

The contrast between personal and systemic factors is, in any case, not a sharp one. In his work, José Medina identifies arrogance, laziness and closed-mindedness as epistemic vices of the privileged. Epistemic vices of the privileged are vices associated with one’s occupancy of a particular social position. They are both systemic and personal failings, and it is hard to tell in such cases where the personal ends and the systemic begins.

A major challenge facing responsible thinkers is to identify their own epistemic vices and act to correct or counteract them. Vices that are grounded in systemic factors or, for that matter, in sub-personal cognitive biases are hard to shift even when their existence is recognised. It is sometimes possible to change one’s thinking or kick bad intellectual habits but not always. There might be vices we are stuck with. In addition, it is in the nature of some epistemic vices to evade detection by their victims. Such ‘stealthy’ vices are a major source of self-ignorance. For example, being closed-minded can prevent one from recognising that one is closed-minded. This is the vice epistemological version of the Dunning-Kruger effect and a rich source of further questions for vice epistemology to tackle.

The study of the nature and effect of epistemic vices couldn’t be more pressing. Writing in 1939, Susan Stebbing argued that “there is an urgent need today for the citizens of a democracy to think well” and that “it is not enough to have freedom of the press and parliamentary institutions.” Our difficulties, she suggested, “are due partly to our own stupidity, partly to the exploitation of the stupidity, and partly to our own prejudices and personal desires.” Perhaps it didn’t need saying in 1939 which difficulties she was referring to, and what was true in 1939 is still true today.

Intellectual vices are obstacles to thinking well, and it is striking that Stebbing saw stupidity and its exploitation and among the factors that prevent us from thinking well. Stupidity in this context isn’t just lack of intelligence. It is more a matter of foolishness or lack of judgement. When stupidity in this sense is combined with other intellectual vices the effects on our capacity to distinguish truth and falsehood can be devastating.

Unlike virtue epistemology, vice epistemology is still in its infancy and many fundamental questions about epistemic vices remain unanswered. We live in a social and political climate in which patently unjustified theories take hold, and the scepticism that such theories merit is instead directed at those who take the trouble to base their views on the evidence. Conspiracy theories about the Florida shootings are an especially vivid example of vice in action but there are many others. One only has to think about climate change scepticism and anti-vaccination campaigns. These and other equally depressing developments suggest that vice epistemology might just be the epistemology for our times.


Quassim Cassam (@QCassam) is a Professor at Warwick University. You can find out more about his book, Self-Knowledge for Humans, here. A TED Talk on epistemic vices by Quassim Cassam is available here. His forthcoming book, Vices of the Mind, will soon be out with Oxford University Press.


  1. This article, by a professional philosopher, is written as if the author had little or no knowledge of the last ten years of epistemology (theory of knowledge) in philosophy. The “vice” approach is widely regarded to fail when applied to conspiracy theories and much else. The objections aimed at Cassam have fallen on his own deaf ears. Epistemic vice?

    Cassam recalls that,

    “…the failure of Israeli intelligence to anticipate the 1973 Yom Kippur attacks by Egypt and Syria, intelligence analyst Uri Bar-Joseph attributes this failure in large part to the dogmatism and extreme closed-mindedness of named individuals in Israeli intelligence. These individuals were committed to the doctrine that there would be no attack and this led them to dismiss all evidence – even highly compelling evidence – to the contrary.”

    Yes, that’s our problem, but writ large. We should be skeptical of the information we receive, lest we be easily deceived. Salvation of the state lies in watchfulness of the citizen. Only evidence is the key to unlock passive acceptance of mainstream “news”. We can disagree on various conspiracy theories, but we should not assume those we find offensive and contrary to the official narrative are false and the result of intellectual pathologies–like the crisis actor thesis, which in typical form simply claims the students are being fed lines and perhaps promised future benefits for their remarkably well formed sound bites. (The crisis actor/student but not both dichotomy is not required by these theories.)

    Cassam’s approach, crying “vice!”, is an epistemically poor one, based on either intentionally ignoring history or simply being oblivious of it. Our information hierarchies–mainstream media and National level government–have proven disastrously unreliable in the last few decades, leading to moral catastrophes, like our most recent Iraq war. His arguments would only repeat that disaster. Insist upon it, actually. Many have taken notice of recent history and understandably distrust these information hierarchies, where so few determine the beliefs of almost everyone else, and these few have failed and misled us many times. Only evidence supplied or evidence lacking can decide these issues. Not the presumption of intellectual vice.

    Cassam concludes,

    “A major challenge facing responsible thinkers is to identify their own epistemic vices and act to correct or counteract them.”

    Absolutely. Physician, heal thyself. We’ll get back to you.

    Dr. Lee Basham

  2. Bravo, Lee. Well said and right on target. One example: Nixon sent thugs disguised as protesters to disrupt the protest at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. It worked. People “associated” Democrats with violence. Nixon was elected, on a promise to be a “law and order” president, conjoined with a promise to end the war in Vietnam. He then became a lawless president at home, and guilty of “crimes against humanity” in Southeast Asia as he expanded the war to include Laos and Cambodia. As he later said in the infamous Frost interview: “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”
    Meanwhile, the official narrative of 9/11 is so egregiously false and contradictory, what else could it be but a Cheney-inspired conspiracy on behalf of Big Oil and pentagon spending (not to mention Halliburton profiteering, Cheney doing a Kissingerian repeat of being Machiavellian prince to viciously vice-infested president). Those who don’t think the plutocratic oligarchs who run America conspire daily to augment their wealth and power, supported by a mainstream pseudo-news-media, are in Plato’s cave indeed. Blinded by a blizzard of epistemological confetti, they fail to see “dark state” machinations in the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, and John Lennon — a very successful conspiracy to shoot the messengers of love, compassion, equality, peace. Distortion, distraction, deception — key ingredients in WMDs: Weapons Mass Dysfunction. Bravo again on your astute response.

    • Thank you, Stefan,

      What I appreciate most about your remarks is the insistence on particular facts: “Particularism” about accusations of organized deception within our hierarchical political and economic systems. This is alien to Cassam’s establishmentarian approach, so represents a primary source of well-placed criticism. In the literature on the epistemology of organized deception, he falls under the category of a garden variety “generalist”. For Cassam, accusations of organized deception at high levels of political and economic power are (strangely, I would add) almost universally false: That is, we should only accept such accusations of this normal and ordinary activity under the pressure of extraordinary evidence. Which is, of course, an irrational stance and standard. Its mal-biasing against epistemic suspicions is both ahistorical, as you note, and otherwise unsupported. Cassam can brand an unbiased evaluative standard “epistemic vice” if he wants, but it isn’t vice. Not if we’re still doing honest epistemology. It’s epistemic virtue. His generalist standard is epistemic vice.

      I can’t speak to the murder of John Lennon–that seems to me a stretch–but the rest of your concerns appear somewhat plausible, and at any rate, only evidence can tell the tale. Sometimes a fairly well-warranted decision–while defeasible–is achieved. The accusations are well-warranted or not well-warranted.

      The remaining scenario is especially interesting, though; at least in our current information hierarchy. We are left, after a review of the evidence, and after basic tests of consistency with well-established background beliefs about the conduct of governing hierarchies, certainly including those which operate in representational democracies, are applied, with a studied agnosticism. We don’t know. But we should.

      This is perhaps a worse case scenario. Yet all too common. Because we ought to be able to know in a functional democracy the nature of pivotal events, and when we can’t, as honest evaluators, unwilling to default to the non-epistemic political pieties of our times as championed in Cassam et al, we find much about the epistemology active, and inactive, in our representational democracies, and much in limbo. After all, it representational democracy is, in concept, essentially a epistemic activity, distributed across a population of competent self-governors.

      But what if they are inevitably subject to an unreliable information hierarchy, even in the best of times, and the most ideal of extant nations?

      If we have nothing better to do, here’s a video from the “Conspiracy Theory and Conspiracy Fact” conference sponsored by philosopher Brian Keeley of Pitzer College, a specialist on the topic, where I try to explain some of the epistemic challenges both we, and those high placed in an information hierarchy, face.


      Lee Basham

  3. Many thanks for your reply, Lee, including the video link. In the spirit of further sharing, here’s a little something you might appreciate:

    In his 1784 essay on the nature of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant declared: “Enlightenment is liberation from self-imposed immaturity.” He also noted that, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase: “We live in an age of enlightenment, but we do not yet live in an enlightened age.” Kant’s observations ought to give us pause. They are worth pondering. They are as relevant today as they were in the late 18th century. To reflect upon them with the seriousness they deserve, we might begin by noting that one hundred years later, another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said of the same Prussian country in which Kant wrote his revolutionary Critique of Pure Reason: “This nation has made itself stupid on purpose.”
    Nietzsche’s observation applies to America today. So does the maxim by George Santayana: “Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Let us then pause a moment to reflect upon the possibility – indeed, the necessity – of what Richard Oxenberg calls “heart-centered rationality.” Heart-centered rationality is a way of referring to The Golden Rule, revived by Martin Buber in the Kantian-based ethics of his book I and Thou. Kant and Buber argue for the innate dignity of every person; a dignity worthy of respect. In order, then, to put an end to what the post-Kantian philosopher Hegel called “the slaughter-bench of history,” we need an ethical, educational, and cultural revolution; one in which cooperation has primacy over competition, and which embraces what the Dalai Lama calls “a common religion of kindness.”
    Accordingly, we must recognize that our collective survival now depends upon a global commitment to what might best be called The Enlightenment Project. This, of course, returns us to Kant’s definition of enlightenment, which I would now like to elaborate with reference to other major figures in the history of philosophy and the pursuit social justice. We might begin by noting that during America’s wars on Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Mark Twain declared: “America’s flag should be a skull-and-crossbones.” And when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied: “I think it would be a good idea.”
    Liberation from self-imposed immaturity is liberation from social conditioning. Liberation from social conditioning is escape from Plato’s cave. Escape from Plato’s cave involves appreciation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tragic dictum that “man is born free, but is everywhere in chains” – what Eric Fromm calls “chains of illusion.”
    To break the chains of illusion is to become what Albert Camus calls a “lucid rebel.” A lucid rebel engages in Promethean protest against the vast ignorance that Buddha recognized as the primary cause of suffering. Ignorance, Buddha said, manifests primarily as greed, hatred, craving, clinging, and delusion. To overcome such ignorance is to embrace the point of Karl Marx’s observation: “The demand to abandon illusions about our condition is a demand to abandon the conditions which require illusion.”
    For example, the primary function of the U.S. military is make the world safe for the Fortune 500. The primary function of U.S. education is to ignorate. To awaken people to these nefarious facts, Martin Luther King declared: “Wealth, poverty, racism, and war – these four always go together.” Hence the only way to move from an age of enlightenment to an enlightened age is to recognize that “these four” vices are inextricably entwined with pervasive political sophistry, a lapdog mainstream news media, and jingoistic pseudo-history in what Gore Vidal calls “The United States of Amnesia.” Equally relevant here is Mark Twain’s observation: “It is easier to fool people than to convince them they are being fooled.” Also worth noting is that Emerson, Twain, and William James were members of The Anti-Imperialism League. The point is this: The U.S. will never be the country it ought to be, and will never be at peace – either at home or abroad – until it eliminates Presidential pardons, throws corporate and Presidential criminals in prison, conscientiously repents for America’s Indochina Holocaust (euphemistically called The Vietnam War), dismantles the American empire (the largest and most globally devastating in world history), and transfers most of the Pentagon budget to an educational system in which schools are gardens and palaces of self-actualization, enlightenment, and cooperative creative evolution.
    Standing before Michelangelo’s statue of David, the poet Rilke said: “I must change my life.” A Catholic bishop, after reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, said in his New York Times book review: “We must change our lives.” Hence we might conclude that Kant implicitly points to a national motto that ought to read: “Treat all people always as ends in themselves, rather than merely as means” to personal gain. Hence also – as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant would applaud – we should revise America’s Pledge of Allegiance to read: “I pledge allegiance to the planet, and to all the people and creatures on her; one ecosystem, with nourishment and beauty for all.”

  4. Dear Stefan,

    You’ve provided us with the outline of a fine, wide ranging essay. I would like to move this forward into publication. Would you be willing to annotate and footnote the piece, and expand it into ~3000 or so words? I think you have a winner here, one quite timely. There are a number of first and second tier philosophy journal venues available for free philosophical thought along these lines. And the number is growing as the controversy grows and establishment reactionaries, like Cassam, have failed to quell it. Let’s get in touch. I’d like to see the paper. You’ll have no trouble finding me on the interlink. Nor getting published.


    Lee Basham

    • Greetings, Lee. I’m honored to hear from you, and I thank you for the praise and the invitation. Alas, I need to decline your very generous offer, for two reasons. First: The “article”, in revised and expanded form, has already been web-posted at Engaging Peace, and might likely, in the not too distant future, be re-posted at Political Animal. Second: I’m under (self-imposed) pressure to finish writing a commissioned book (on “Buddha’s Political Philosophy”). I’ve been working on it for nearly two years, and am closing in on the end, but the going is tougher (and taking longer) than I expected, and I need to devote my time and energy exclusively to finishing the manuscript. The whole of the summer will then be devoted to rewriting the book in accord with suggestions (soon to be received) from the two editors at the publishing company who commissioned the work (with the shared hope that the book will be published in the fall). Kindly allow me then, instead, to refer you to my short, illustrated, published, paperback book AMERICA’S INDOCHINA HOLOCAUST: THE HISTORY AND GLOBAL MATRIX OF THE VIETNAM WAR (recommended on the back cover by Howard Zinn). That book concludes by showing how America’s wars on Afghanistan and Iraq were launched by lies similar to those that led to our tragic and sinful war on Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia), such that our current and ongoing wars in the Middle East constitute what might rightly be called America’s Second Vietnam War (hence what Barbara Tuchman called “A March of Folly”). Thanks again for your offer, and for understanding my need to concentrate on finishing my book-in-progress. Respectfully, and with great admiration for the work that you do. Stefan


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