Moral Idiocy

If you are like me, you all too often encounter arrogant incompetence in our once-lauded service economy: wrong answers delivered with the conviction of certainty, or incomplete services rendered as if they were fully performed. If you are like me, you are also sometimes puzzled at the wide circulation of political falsehoods parading as truth but held as articles of faith. What accounts for these and other phenomena of error and indifference?

In his “pop” philosophy book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford examines the entangled relationship between moral virtue and intellectual virtue. Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic and philosopher, and draws much from Robert Pirsig’s similar encounters with others who hold themselves out as mechanics, but who lack the virtues necessary for commitment to their craft.

Recounting an episode in which the putative mechanic took no care in what he did, and did his work badly, causing further damage to the motorcycle, Crawford writes:

Here is the paradox. On the one hand, to be a good mechanic seems to require personal commitment: I am a mechanic. On the other hand, what it means to be a good mechanic is that you have a keen sense that you answer to something that is the opposite of personal or idiosyncratic; something universal. In Pirsig’s story, there is an underlying fact: a sheared-off pin has blocked an oil gallery, resulting in oil starvation to the head and excessive heat, causing the seizures. This is the Truth, and it is the same for everyone. But finding this truth requires a certain disposition in the individual: Attentiveness, enlivened by a sense of responsibility to the motorcycle . . . The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators.

Pirsig’s mechanic is, in the original sense of the term, an idiot. Indeed, he exemplifies the truth about idiocy, which is that it is at once an ethical and a cognitive failure. The Greek idios means “private,” and an idiotes means a private person, as opposed to a person in their public role—for example, that of a motorcycle mechanic. Pirsig’s mechanic is idiotic because he fails to grasp his public role, which entails, or should, a relation of active concern to others, and to the machine. He is not involved. It is not his problem. Because he is an idiot.

I want to share some thoughts about moral idiocy after the break.

Crawford continues:

[W]ith the idiot we see the result of a premature conceit of knowledge. If the expert and the idiot both know what they are looking for, what is the difference between them? How does the disposition of the one give rise to the expertise, while the other rushes in and habitually finds himself in such straits . . .

The cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. Contrary to the cognitive psychologists’ own view of the matter . . . this cognitive capacity seems to be rooted in a moral capacity. . . . In the real world, problems do not present themselves unambiguously . . . so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue.

It is this last thought that most interests me: a failure to attend to the possibility of error in one’s activities is not only a cognitive failure, but a moral one as well. Error can occur through a lack of care about the proper conditions for knowledge or an inattentiveness to the norms governing a practice or craft. These kinds of errors can be corrected either through training by others or through the willful decision of the individual to take care or attend properly to her activities. But what happens when training and will are not enough? Is it possible that incompetence and error are sometimes beyond our cognitive ability to avoid?

Errol Morris, in a five-part series in the New York Times, recently explored the cognitive condition of anosognosia—roughly, a condition where one is unaware of one’s own cognitive defects—a term first coined by the French neurologist Joseph Babinski. This condition has many manifestations, some of which Oliver Sacks has poignantly brought to our attention through stories of people who live in cognitive error, but because of brain trauma of various kinds, are cognitively incapable of understanding the existence of their mental disability. What interests Morris (and me) is the suggestion that to live in a state of ignorance about one’s own cognitive limitations does not require trauma or disease. The paradigm trauma cases are those of a person who speaks gibberish, but is unaware of the fact, or the person who suffers paralysis but is unaware of the fact. By contrast, in articles such as Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,  David Dunning and Justin Kruger have explored cognitive error, not from a source of trauma, but as an everyday limitation on cognition.

The story of McArthur Wheeler is illustrative. Convinced by others that that rubbing lemon juice on his face will render him invisible to security cameras, Wheeler proceeds to rob two banks while looking straight at security cameras and smiling. When caught he is reported to have exclaimed, “But I wore the juice.” Wheeler lacked the basic criminal “skills” to rob a bank successfully, but he seems blithely unaware of his own cognitive limitations. Similarly, Dunning and Kruger run experiments with university students that reveal that some students are not only unable to perform a task well, but are incapable of discerning expertise in others, while simultaneously greatly overestimating their own competence. They call this a metacognitive failure. Here’s the dilemma that Dunning and Kruger have identified: incompetence can render persons not only incapable of performing a task well themselves, but render them incapable of recognizing competence in others. And the kicker is that such a person remains unaware of his own incompetence. He’s doing just fine.  Dunning and Kruger’s thesis then is “that when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”  Or, in the words of Errol Morris: “Alas, by definition one can never be aware of one’s own anosognosia. It takes someone else to point it out, and confronted with that diagnosis, the anosognosic will deny it. Here is at least one instance where it doesn’t take one to know one. Quite the opposite.” This everyday anosognosia is a limitation that can plague accurate decision making and knowledge acquisition. If we are cognitively incompetent, we may be incapable of recognizing the distinction between truth and falsehood, or the normative possibility of doing a task well or badly that Crawford identifies as essential to caring for one’s craft.

I want to push these descriptive findings about cognitive incompetence in the direction Matthew Crawford suggests—as moral failings as well as cognitive. This matters for our everyday lives in very many ways, not the least of which include the problems of truth in politics.

It may be a simple fact of human cognition that we lack the capacity to understand certain features of our world. Pushed by epistemic skepticism, we might be tempted to ask the question whether we can really know anything at all about the world. Let’s assume such global skepticism is wrong—we can know some things about the world (I am no skeptic in this regard). But in our acquisition of knowledge, we are plagued by concern over what Donald Rumsfeld identified as the “unknown unknowns. These are the things we do not know we don’t know.” The world of knowledge is surrounded by a sea of ignorance. If something like this is true, then what should our disposition be towards both intellectual and everyday inquiry?

At the very least, the possibility of everyday anosognosia should prompt a disposition towards humility and analytic care, with an active concern to others. These are also scientific virtues. We cannot be held responsible for the things we don’t know that we don’t know when they are matters of knowledge not relevant to our everyday lives (say, the distance between two yet undiscovered galaxies, or the current world population of zebras). The universe of (potential) knowledge is vast, but not always full of truths relevant to our everyday lives. Some of these truths we don’t know that we don’t know, but others do know, or could find out (zebra populations, for example). Yet those things that we don’t know we don’t know that are relevant to our everyday practices and crafts are truths for which we are personally responsible. The idiot motorcycle mechanic holds himself out as a craftsperson, yet he is blithely unaware of his own incompetence. The intellectual failing is made possible by a prior moral failing: a failure to attend properly to the norms of a craft as well as a failure to maintain a disposition of humility and analytic inquiry. The idiot mechanic does not seem to care that he is incompetent. And, as Crawford identifies, such a “mechanic” suffers from a failure to be actively involved in concern for others for the objects of his craft. Seize the hammer and wail away at the engine block, rather than attend to the motorcycle with more deliberate care. Act with self-assurance oblivious to the consequences of one’s actions for others. What the failed mechanic needs is both practical and moral training.

Morris’s interest in our own lack of awareness of our anosognosia raises another question: how can a person receive training if she is incapable of recognizing the competence and truth of what the other imparts? Pushed very far, this question could lead to skepticism about the possibility of education, and the response is simple. We know moral and vocational training is possible because we succeed at it all the time. Crawford is a good motorcycle mechanic and is capable of training others who are willing to attend to the rigors of the craft. Such training is also possible in morality for those who are willing to attend to the concerns of others. Even the utilitarian calculator of pleasures and pains must be capable of attending to the consequences of his actions for others, a task for which moral education is presumably possible. Part of what it means to be a good mechanic, or a good lawyer, is to exercise one’s intellectual skills with a concern for others. A well-crafted legal brief is a failure if it is unconcerned with the interests of the client for whom it is written.  I might add something similar can be said about what it means to be a good citizen. Since politics is an intrinsically other-concerned activity, requiring us to consider policies and practices applicable not only to ourselves but also to others, civic participation is also a kind of craft. Everyday anosognosia is thus equally possible in the realm of politics. In all these activities, the choice is ours whether we will to attend to the moral obligations they present, quite apart from our differences in ordinary cognitive capacities.

Within our universe of concern—those people with whom we interact, those activities in which we are engaged, or those crafts with which we hold ourselves out as professionals—everyday anosognosia must always begin as a moral failure, not a cognitive one. As Dunning and Kruger demonstrate, we may lack metacognitive skills necessary for recognizing competence in others, but I would add that we do not lack the psychological and moral ability to cultivate a capacity for self-awareness, for concern for others, or for taking care in what we do. Or, to put my point a different way, there is no “metacognitive regress”—we do not lack the skills necessary for recognizing our own limitations (our own lack of metacognitive skills), for these are moral, not intellectual, capacities. Attending to the possibility that we might be mistaken, means being concerned with our own limitations, not merely for the purpose of self-awareness, but for the prospect at self-improvement, both morally and intellectually. Failure to do otherwise leaves us in the position Socrates found his fellow Athenians so very long ago in the Apology: unskilled about matters beyond their immediate purview, unaware of their own limitations, and unconcerned about their own incompetence. They were moral idiots.

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8 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    1. A narrow point, apropos of “A well-crafted legal brief is a failure if it is unconcerned with the interests of the client for whom it is written”: what about concern for the interests of those affected by your client’s actions, if you believe your client was in the wrong, or is seeking to do something wrong? Doesn’t your account of moral idiocy mean one needs to be more discriminating in accepting (and continuing) engagements?

    2. Do you think that the larger problem you lament is exacerbated by the fact that in recent decades an increasing number of our elites (among whom I include those who have a graduate education, including in business or law), and perhaps too of the public at large, have been taught that the greatest good results from each person’s promoting his or her own self-interest?

    3. To what extent do the pace of change promoted by our economic system and the societal encouragement to present oneself, via new technologies, to ever-larger sections of the public in more or less real-time (within which category I’d include, inter alia, Twitter, blogs, social networking, cable TV news and, for some, publish-or-perish) challenge the development of these moral skills?

  2. This is a very thoughtful article, and I agree with much of the exposition. However, I believe you take an unjustified turn towards the end, here:

    “… but I would add that we do not lack the psychological and moral ability to cultivate a capacity for self-awareness, for concern for others, or for taking care in what we do. Or, to put my point a different way, there is no “metacognitive regress”—we do not lack the skills necessary for recognizing our own limitations (our own lack of metacognitive skills), for these are moral, not intellectual, capacities.”

    I don’t see how that makes sense at all. Wouldn’t this imply that the people with brain traumas are thus somehow lacking in moral capacities? I think you’ve tried to argue out of a corner, by assertion, the problem being: if people don’t know what they don’t know, how can they be blamed for that in a moral sense?

    The difficultly with this issue is once you outline the overall problem, what then? Of course humility and caution are good things – but by itself, that’s just preaching. It still doesn’t tell anyone how to apply it, especially because crucial decisions have to be made all the time on imperfect and incomplete information.

    Socrates might also not be the best example, as the moral idiocy he was decrying was pretty widely seen as a political argument that dictators need to rule Athens rather than the citizens who were supposedly such idiots.

  3. Seth,

    Socrates appreciated the virtues of Athenian democracy (it tolerated to a degree not found elsewhere both philosophical activity and moral criticism; and of course Athens was well known in the ancient world for both its liberty and equality) although he thought in several respects (e.g., early moral education) that Sparta and Crete were also well governed. But of the three, the Crito appears to make clear that he nonetheless preferred his native city to the other two. He was indeed concerned about the moral obtuseness of his fellow citizens, and this concern was not at all subordinate to (or simply a premise of) a political argument, unless by such an argument one is referring to the comparative political freedom Athenians possessed and Socrates exploited (owing to the ‘silence of the law’ in this regard). Ideally, the morally virtuous should rule, short of that, the Athenian legal system and polis generally had much to recommend it. As Richard Kraut writes,

    “[Socrates] was a critic of democracy in the sense that he criticized the way the many ruled, and saw no theoretical justification for democracy. But at the same time, there was no feasible alternative that he preferred. Athens provided its citizens with precisely the conditions they needed in order to make moral progress, and that gave Socrates an overwhelming reason to be pleased with its legal system.”

    I think Kraut’s book, Socrates and the State (1984) remains the best treatment of this topic.

    * * *

    And for what it’s worth, I also think Professor Crocker is absolutely right “that we do not lack the psychological and moral ability to cultivate a capacity for self-awareness, for concern for others, or for taking care in what we do.” These may not be intellectual activities as such (if only because they encompass the emotions as well) but I think they are nonetheless and in some measure still “cognitive,” hence the term “self-knowledge” used often as a synonym for “self-awareness” and the fact that both self-knowledge and self-awareness in the Indic philosophical schools involves cognitive processes (e.g., knowledge of the ‘self’…or ‘non-self’ in the case of Buddhism) and different states of consciousness (i.e., states of awareness different if not ‘higher’ than routine states of awareness in our everyday lives). Of course self-knowledge is not like conventional propositional knowledge and thus might be said to be in some sense or in the end, “non-propositional knowledge” (for a nice discussion of this in Platonic thought, please see Francisco J. Gonzalez’s Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry, 1998).

    I believe not a few religious traditions have teachings and exemplars that outline in theory and praxis (for a largely Christian example, see John C. Cottingham’s The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value, 2005; Joel Kupperman and Herbert Fingarette provide perspectives from Daoism and Confucianism; and there are quite a few works on this grounded in the Indic religio-philosophical systems) the necessary if not sufficient conditions for cultivating, nurturing or provoking our psychological and moral capacities for an expanded self-awareness, for an ever-widening concern for others, and for taking deliberate and sensitive care in all that we do. Outside of religious traditions, philosophical schools like the Stoics (see Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire…, 1994, and John C. Cottingham’s Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics, 1998).

    Moral idiocy, or what I prefer to call moral obtuseness, is a variation on the theme of Erich Fromm’s locution, the “pathology of normalcy.” What is at issue here is to what extent some view this as an ineradicable feature of the human condition (literally or figuratively, original sin, the fall from grace, etc.) or whether, like Condorcet or William Godwin, or even Jesus himself (‘Be ye perfect…’), we are perfectible creatures (in the Godwininan sense, which by definition rules out ‘perfection’), in principle capable of open-ended growth with regard to our psychological and moral capacities, self-knowledge or self-awareness, and the virtues (in short, ‘values-realization’ for ourselves and others). Rabbinic, Stoic, and Buddhist traditions, for instance, emphasize the potential, in theory at least, for all of us to overcome such moral obtuseness and obduracy, to transcend what is also called “false consciousness,” in other words, to ascend out of the Platonic Cave of darkness and have a vision of the Good (followed by a descent back into the den of darkness and particulars, the latter now seen in a new light as it were). This means all of us would have an obligation to practice what were once (and largely still are) the prerogatives of elites: the contemplative arts and philosophy.

    Finally, in both the novels and philosophical writings of Iris Murdoch we’ll find the subject of our “psychological and moral ability to cultivate a capacity for self-awareness, for concern for others, [and] for taking care in what we do,” addressed in a manner exemplifying the virtues of both the novelist’s art and the philosopher’s craft.

  4. Erratum : “Outside of religious traditions, philosophical schools like the Stoics…virtue and care ethics, neo-Freudian psychology (e.g., Jonathan Lear), and some schools of humanistic and existentialist psychology, evidence similar or identical foci of concern.”

  5. It perhaps should also be pointed out that the commitment to “perfectibility” does not, have some have thought or insinuated, involve a lack of appreciation for evil in the world, a naivete about the ubiquitousness or recalcitrance of evil and suffereing, or a failure to appreciate the gap between how individuals behave and the goals, ends or ideals they endeavor to instantiate, embody, realize and so forth (i.e., the gap between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be). There appear to be positive looping and feedback effects for our conceptions of human nature that act on the order of a self-fufilling prophecy (Ian Hacking has talked about such mechanisms with respect to what he terms ‘human kinds’) such that we become more or less, in the bosom of time, what we fancy ourselves to be.

    I would like also to give a more concrete example from John Cottingham by way of illustrating the arts of contemplation and philosophy. Cottingham first explains what he means by “spirituality,” which he distinguishes from religion proper (the latter is, arguably, often thought to be a necessary yet not sufficient condition for the former), which has to do with the primacy of praxis over beliefs and thus immediately takes us beyond preoccupation with intellectual questions as such. As he explains, at one end of the spectrum of definitions of spirituality we

    “find the term used in connection with activities and attitudes which command widespread appeal, irrespective of metaphysical commitment or doctrinal allegiance. Even the most convinced atheist may be prepared to avow an interest in the ‘spiritual’ dimension of human existence, if that dimension is taken to cover forms of life that put a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our relationship to others and the natural world. [….] Spirituality has long been understood to be a concept that is concerned in the first instance with activities rather than theories, with ways of living rather than doctrines subscribed to, with praxis rather than belief. In the history of philosophy, the epithet ‘spiritual’ is most commonly coupled not with the term ‘beliefs’ but with the term ‘exercises.’ [….] There were many Stoic treatises entitled ‘On Exercises,’ and the central notion of askesis, found for example in Epictetus, implied not so much ‘asceticism’ in the modern sense as a practical programme of training, concerned with the ‘art of living.’ Fundamental to such programmes was learning the technique of prosoche—attention, a continuous vigilance and presence of mind (a notion, incidentally, that calls to mind certain Buddhist spiritual techniques). Crucial also was the mastery of methods for the ordering of the passions—what has been called [by Martha Nussbaum] the therapy of desire. The general aim of such programmes was not merely intellectual enlightenment, or the imparting of abstract theory, but a transformation of the whole person, including our patterns of emotional response.”

    While Cottingham further elaborates upon this notion of spirituality as it applies to Christianity and theism more broadly, we can see the more explicitly philosophical dimension of what is involved in a shift in one’s mentality, in a change of one’s heart, in embarking on a path of practical self-transformation, in Michael McGhee’s Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice (2000).

  6. errratum: “It perhaps should also be pointed out that the commitment to “perfectibility” does not, as some have thought or insinuated….”

  7. Thomas Crocker says:

    Thank you for all the thoughtful responses. Patrick is perceptive to see Iris Murdoch in the background to my thinking on this issue. Matthew Crawford also discusses Murdoch in the section of his book I discuss.

    A.J. Sutter’s first point is interesting. For a lawyer to avoid being idiosyncratic in the way that Crawford discusses in the quoted passage, she must consider her client’s interests, but to cultivate a robust moral capacity she would have to be aware of broader social interests, or the interests of third parties, as well (which may or may not influence her representation of the client). I think that the avoidance of moral idiocy here is about being aware of how what one does affects others, and attending to the proper object of one’s craft (which is something other than oneself), and does not lead to any specific conclusion about what one ought to do in response to that awareness. So perhaps one might feel morally incapable of representing a client as a first-order moral position that follows from the self-awareness about the effects on others, but avoiding moral idiocy does not require a particular conclusion about whether to provide the representation (though it may (ought to?) influence how one represents the client).

    At least a degenerate form of teaching that seeking self-interest will as if by the magic of an invisible hand lead to greater social happiness may be an issue here. If this form of egoism is incapable of recognizing the effects on others, and the ways that others help create the possibility of one’s own self, then yes, such forms of self-interest would contribute to moral idiocy. As Crawford mimes the supposed motorcycle “mechanic” — what do I care, it’s not my problem. So, such a simplistic form of self-interest would be a form of idiocy. One would hope that social networking could foster a sense of connectedness to others, and a concern for their well-being. I do not have a good sense of whether this will help develop a person’s concern for self-knowledge and a person’s concern for the obligations of care to his practices and crafts.

    Finally, to add to Patrick’s response regarding my main point that everyday anosognosia must begin as a moral failing, I implicitly made a distinction between anosognosia caused by brain trauma and disease, and what Errol Morris explored with Dunning and Kruger as an “everyday” anosognosia. That is, my focus is on the possibility of being unskilled, unaware, and unconcerned about one’s lack of skill and awareness that might plague a person’s everyday activities such as motorcycle maintenance. It is this possibility that I see as caused by a moral failure that begins with a lack of concern for self-awareness or self-knowledge. I do not want to make any claims about the moral lives of those who suffer mental disabilities from known physical causes like brain injuries. It is true that my post does not tell us much about the mechanics of how to avoid moral idiocy, as Seth suggests, other than to say that we should foster self-knowledge, humility, and concern for others (persons and the objects of our crafts). But, my post ends where ethics and morality begin. Here’s a way of putting my point: a necessary condition for the possibility of ethics and morality is the fact that possibility of everyday anosognosia must be limited ultimately by human capacities for self-knowledge and concern. Since most do believe in the possibility of our engaging in ethical practices, then we must also be committed to the impossibility of an anosognosic regress (that we may lack the capacity to recognize our lack of awareness and skill in engaging in first-order moral reasoning). As a basic fact, I’m asserting that we have the ability to choose whether to care about our own blindnesses and limitations, and this is an important first moral choice (again, otherwise morality would be impossible) that both limits everyday anosognosia, and helps us understand how it might function in our lives.

  8. Steve Shor says:

    Thomas-
    Just got to your article and found it to be incredibly insightful and rewarding.

    I’ve quickly emailed it to a few of my friends to see if I am suffering anosogonosic tendencies or if I know what I like when I read it.

    I think I like beautiful prose, and your article on Moral Idiocy is just that. Beautiful prose.

    Thank you