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Epistemic restraint and the vice of curiosity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2012

Neil C. Manson*
Lancaster University


In recent years there has been wide-ranging discussion of epistemic virtues. Given the value and importance of acquiring knowledge this discussion has tended to focus upon those traits that are relevant to the acquisition of knowledge. This acquisitionist focus ignores or downplays the importance of epistemic restraint: refraining from seeking knowledge. In contrast, in many periods of history, curiosity was viewed as a vice. By drawing upon critiques of curiositas in Middle Platonism and Early Christian philosophy, we gain useful insights into the value and importance of epistemic restraint. The historical discussion paves the way for a clarification of epistemic restraint, one that distinguishes the morally relevant features of epistemic process, content, purpose, and context. Epistemic restraint is identified as an important virtue where our epistemic pursuits pose risks and burdens, where such pursuits have opportunity costs, where they are pursued for vicious purposes. But it is in the social realm where epistemic restraint has most purchase: epistemic restraint is important both because privacy is important and because being trusted are important. Finally, some suggestions are offered as to why epistemic restraint has not received the contemporary attention that it deserves.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2012

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1 In reliabilist virtue epistemology the focus is on cognitive dispositions and faculties (perception, inference, memory, and so on) that correlate with the sources of knowledge in traditional epistemology. In contrast, responsibilists virtue epistemologists lay stress on the development of the character traits that are relevant to being a good epistemic agent, one who is capable of engaging in rational inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge.

2 For example: ‘An epistemic virtue is an excellence of character instrumental to the acquisition of true belief and knowledge’ Dancy, Jonathan in A Companion to Epistemology, ed. By Dancy, J., Sosa, E. and Steup, M.. (Oxford Blackwell 2010), 343CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘An epistemic virtue is a special kind of intellectual virtue, one that is conducive to producing epistemically valuable states of affairs’ Foley, Richard, Intellectual Trust in Ourselves and Others, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 224CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Montmarquet, James, Epistemic Virtue and Doxastic Responsibility, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993), 223Google Scholar.

4 Hookway, Christopher, ‘Epistemic Akrasia and Epistemic Virtue’ in Virtue Epistemology: Essays on Epistemic Virtue and Responsibility by Fairweather, Abrol and Zagzebski, Linda (New York: Oxford Universty Press, 2001), 178199, 195Google Scholar.

5 Similar points can be found in Heil, John, ‘Doxastic IncontinenceMind 93 (1984), 5670CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Owens, David, ‘Epistemic Akrasia’, The Monist 85 (2002), 381397CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Code, Lorraine, Epistemic Responsibility (Hanover: University Press of New England and Brown University Press, 1987), 55Google Scholar.

7 This section is indebted to Walsh, P.G.The Rights and Wrongs of Curiosity (Plutarch to Augustine)’, Greece & Rome 35 (1988), 7385CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 John Calvin's commentary on Genesis 3:5 ‘Eve erred in not regulating the measure of her knowledge by the will of God [. . .] we all daily suffer under the same disease, because we desire to know more than is right, and more than God allows.’ (emphasis added, cited in Harrison)

9 Op. cit. note 7, 81.

10 Augustine, Confessions and Enchiridion trans. Outler, Albert Cook (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), Book X, Chapter xxxvGoogle Scholar.

11 Op. cit. note 10, 234.

12 All Aquinas references are to the online version,

13 Moralia, Essay 39, Book VI. The essay title – De Curiositate – has been translated in various ways: ‘On not minding your own business’, ‘On Being a Busybody’. Quotations here are from the translation by Goodwin, W. ‘An over busy inquisitiveness into things impertinent’ in Plutarch's Miscellanies and Essay Vol. 2 (Boston: Little Brown, 1878)Google Scholar. We shall use curiositas for curiosity in the pejorative sense (i.e., the kind of curiosity that Plutarch, and others, identify as vicious).

14 Op. cit. note 13, 424.

15 Op. cit. note 13, 424.

16 Op. cit. note 13, 431.

17 Op. cit. note 13, 437. The ‘monster market’ is where deformed and disabled slaves were sold. Many were bought and kept as curiosities or pets. The value of deformity was, bizarrely, so high, that some children were deliberately disabled. For a discussion, see Barton, Carlin A.The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans:The Gladiator and the Monster (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 86Google Scholar. Barton relates how curiosity was viewed by Romans as motivated by envy and malice, with metaphors of cannibalism (feasting one's eyes on another).

18 Op. cit. note 13, 442.

19 Op. cit. note 13, 435.

20 Hunink, Vincent, ‘Plutarch and Apuleius’, in: de Blois, Lukas, Bons, Jeroen, Kessels, Ton, Schenkeveld, Dirk M. (eds.), The statesman in Plutarch's works. Vol. I: Plutarch's statesman and his aftermath: political, philosophical, and literary aspects. (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 251–60Google Scholar.

21 The tale is one which has held considerable appeal over the centuries, being re-told or adapted by amongst others, Milton, Spenser, Wordsworth, Keats, and C.S. Lewis.

22 Aurelius stresses how Lucian remains in the grip of curiositas even when turned in to an ass. See DeFilippo, Joseph G., ‘Curiositas and the Platonism of Apuleius' Golden Ass’, The American Journal of Philology 111 (1990), 471492, 476CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hunink (op. cit. note 20) notes the irony in The Golden Ass: Lucius’ vice of curiosity is identified as a heredity one, but Plutarch is identified as Lucius’ ancestor, implying, to the knowing reader, that Plutarch, the author of a critique of the vice of curiosity is likely to have suffered from the vice himself.

23 Jonathan P. Masinick and Hualiang Teng, An analysis on the impact of rubbernecking on urban freeway traffic.; see also Knoop, Victor L., van Zuylen, Henk J. and Hoogendoorn, Serge P., ‘Microscopic Traffic Behaviour near Incidents’ Transportation and Traffic Theory (2009), 7597Google Scholar.

24 Rubbernecking may also be intrusive and distressing for those in accidents-we return to issues of privacy and curiosity below.

25 Plutarch cites this kind of example in order to illustrate the general point that epistemic pursuits can be dangerous. (op. cit. note 13, 429). Such examples are not fanciful: e.g., see Altman, Lawrence K., Who Goes First? The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

26 The proper semantic framework for talking of epistemic pursuits is one that deploys interrogative content clauses. Such clauses use a range of interrogative (rather than relative) pronouns in indirect questions. We talk of people seeking to find out where, when, why, who, which, what for, whether and so on.

27 E.g., the journalist Anna Politkovskaya. (see

28 Zagzebski, Linda, Virtues of the Mind (Cambridge University Press, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar gives a clear account of how phronesis is relevant to the acquisitionist epistemic virtues. (Part II, Chapter 5).

29 For a grim catalogue of the activities of the many hundreds of scientists and doctors in Unit 731, and the shocking way in which clemency was granted by their US captors in exchange for their research results, see Harris, Sheldon H., Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare 1932–45 and the American Cover-Up. (London: Routledge, 1994)Google Scholar.

30 Hibbs, Thomas S., ‘Aquinas Virtue and Recent EpistemologyThe Review of Metaphysics 52 (1999), 573594, 589Google Scholar.

31 Op. cit. note 30.

32 The contrast is drawn between (a) our interests in ensuring that knowledge of certain kinds of fact about ourselves remain unknown by others (unless we will it); (b) our interests in ensuring that our bodies, or space, or possessions are not violated, intruded upon, or used by others (unless we will it).

33 Fried, Charles, ‘Privacy’, Yale Law Journal 77 (1968), 475493CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Rachels, James, ‘Why Privacy is ImportantPhilosophy and Public Affairs 4 (1975), 315322Google Scholar.

35 Edward Shils outlines how a blend of bourgeois and Puritan ideals in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century helped shape a culture of privacy in the US. Privacy: its constitution and vicissitudes’, Law and Contemporary Problem 31 (1966), 281306CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Op. cit. note 13, 435.

37 I do so in ‘Information privacy and epistemic restraint’ (draft in progress)

38 Driver, Julia,‘The Virtues of Ignorance’, Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989), 373384CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 E.g. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (1750) trans. Cole, G.D. H. (London: Dent and Sons, 1923)Google Scholar.

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