Research Article

Epistemic restraint and the vice of curiosity

Neil C. Mansona1 c1

a1 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.

(Online publication March 14 2012)

Neil C. Manson studied philosophy in London (BA, MPhil) and Oxford (DPhil). From 1998 to 2005 he had two research fellowships at King's College Cambridge. He is currently Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Lancaster University. His current research interests are in the ethics of communication and knowledge: a broad field which includes issues to do with privacy, consent, deception, and ‘spin’.