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.
[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.