This post is by Mandi Astola, a PhD student at Eindhoven University of Technology. This contribution is based on the article “Mandevillian Virtues”, published in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice in 2021.
Now let us think about the figurative meaning of the saying. Do people with “rotten” characteristics always lower the morale and ruin the vibe? If we think about group cognition, do unintelligent, boorish or closed-minded people always impact the intellectual climate negatively? I think there are many examples where our imperfections end up having a positive effect on the group or community that we are a part of. In many cases, having group members that are biased, less intelligent or less cognitively capable, can make the group smarter as a whole.
Here is one example: Some of us might have experience with overly dogmatic friends or family members. These are people who believe things firmly and are not easily convinced even when they have good reason to be convinced. However, what tends to happen when overly dogmatic people challenge their friends or family members? In many cases this results in a long discussion with heated arguments, googling and fact-checking. If this happens often enough, the family or friends group can get better at fact-checking, googling or arguing. Therefore, even if the dogmatic individual has an epistemically negative trait, this trait can play a systematic role in the whole group performing better epistemically speaking. This can be because it stimulates the group to engage in epistemic activity, perhaps to refute the dogmatic view. It can also widen the scope of possible answers to a question and make sure that the group considers all alternatives, even the ill-founded ones.
Are bad ways of thinking still bad if they make the group smarter?
Many people would say that it is a bad thing to be an overly dogmatic person. An overly dogmatic person is likely to think the wrong thing, and therefore also do the wrong thing, because they resist alternative viewpoints. One should not want to be overly dogmatic, at least from an epistemic viewpoint. And if one notices that one is becoming overly dogmatic, one has good reasons to try to work on oneself, to be less dogmatic. But if a dogmatic person causes their family to engage better in epistemic activity, then is their dogmatism still bad? Is there a need for such people to work on themselves? Or should we perhaps believe that such a person should stay as dogmatic as they are?
We must learn to judge groups on their epistemic character
In the last decade, epistemologists have begun to focus extensively on collective epistemic activity, which is a good thing. But there is still quite some room for development in this area, especially when it comes to collective epistemic character traits, or collective epistemic virtues or vices. We should definitely develop accounts of what positive and negative epistemic traits of groups look like. For instance, in what ways can a group be inquisitive, or open-minded? And in what ways can a group be forgetful, inaccurate or lazy in their thinking?
Taking the group and individual as separate units of analysis makes it possible to distinguish between individual and collective epistemic behaviour. While they are connected to each other, they can still be evaluated differently. And this makes it possible to explain how a bad characteristic can still be bad, even if it plays a structural role in something good. Just as a rotten apple is still rotten, even when it makes bananas taste better.