Tuesday 21 December 2021

When Unintelligence Makes a Group Smarter

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.

Mandi Astola

Does one rotten apple spoil the whole bunch?
There is the saying “one rotten apple spoils the whole bunch.” This saying means that a single unpleasant person, “rotten apple,” can lower the morale in an otherwise nice group and ruin the vibe for everyone. Let us think about the literal meaning of the saying for a moment. The analogy with apples comes from the fact that rotten apples emit ethylene gas, which causes fruit to ripen faster. This is why rotten apples can make other fruit rot faster. But this also means that if you have a bunch of unripe, green bananas, you can actually ripen them faster by putting a rotten apple next to them. Therefore, one rotten apple does not always spoil the whole bunch! Sometimes it can improve the bunch, depending on what the bunch consists of.

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?

One might argue that we should see the trait in context, and not call it bad if it is an essential part of what makes one’s close community inquisitive in a positive way. But then again, when the dogmatic person leaves the good company of their family and goes to work, their resistance to alternative viewpoints causes problems. The rotten apple that ripens other fruits is still a rotten apple after all. What should we, then, think of such a dogmatic person’s dogmatism? How should we evaluate this character trait from an epistemic perspective?

We must learn to judge groups on their epistemic character
Examples like these show that we need to make a distinction between good and bad epistemic traits of individuals and traits of groups. The dogmatic family member clearly has a negative trait, but the family as a whole has a positive epistemic trait, for which the family as a whole deserves praise. Groups can also evolve epistemic traits and tendencies, virtues and vices, just like individuals can. Seeing the group as a whole, including the dogmatist, as a separate “person” with the trait of inquisitiveness solves the paradox of how to value the dogmatic person’s dogmatism. We can still say that dogmatism is a negative trait, but that the family just possesses an over-and-above positive trait, that of inquisitiveness.

We often tend to talk about intelligence, open-mindedness and inquisitiveness as traits that are possessed by individuals. However, we often display them in group activity. A group of scientists working together can sometimes be much more curious and accurate than an individual scientist. Many people also claim to produce their most creative work in groups with other people.

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.

1 comment:

  1. It is also true that if you yourself are dogmatic, but in addition thoughtful, you will be embarrassed by your own dogmatism, and then go looking for a good answer. I have discovered a lot this way.


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