Not all of our vices are fully under our control – we cannot switch them off at will. But Cassam is optimistic about the possibility of self-improvement. This can only begin when we know about our own vices. Sometimes this is relatively straightforward. But some vices, which Cassam calls stealthy vices, actively prevent their owners from detecting them. In a fascinating discussion he argues that the best hope for recognizing our stealthy vices is through what he calls transformational insight, a kind of shock to the system brought on by a traumatic event – for instance a doctor losing a patient owing to an overconfident or arrogant misdiagnosis – which offers us direct and radical insight into our intellectual failings.
The philosopher Quassim Cassam introduces his tightly argued book with the question of how the architects of the Iraq War convinced themselves that it would be such a triumph, and his answer is that they were personally, and culpably, defective in reason: they suffered from “vices of the mind”, which include “arrogance, imperviousness to evidence, and an inability to deal with mistakes”. These he defines as “epistemic vices”, because they are to do with one’s attitude to acquiring and maintaining knowledge...At the end of this superb (and icily furious) book, one is persuaded by the author’s diagnosis, but a cure looks to be as far off as ever.