Epistemic Externalities: The Academic “Marketplace” Produces Intellectual Arrogance

            . Intellectual vices are commonly defined as personal attitudes or character traits that impede effective inquiry. In recent years, there has been increased recognition of the presence and proliferation of such vices globally in academia; however, discussion has been limited regarding the way in which the academic institution actively produces this result in part by incentivizing arrogant attitudes. Arrogance as a vice is defined by Roberts as “a disposition to infer illicit entitlement from a supposition of one’s superiority, and to think, feel, and act upon that claim” (2003, p. 243). Intellectual arrogance is specifically when the premise of or the entitlement claim itself concerns one’s intellect.

            Placed within an academic context, intellectual arrogance may manifest as an entitlement to positive evaluation of one’s intellectual work due to a supposition that one’s intellectual products are superior to those produced by others. While vices are typically considered to be character failures for which the individual is at fault, I argue that the academic institution actively produces this type of intellectual arrogance among academics. The incentivization of arrogance is made possible by one sole characteristic of academia: that the intellectual and their intellectual output are considered inseparable. I will justify that this characteristic is present in academia, concluding with the implication that it incentivizes attitudes of intellectual arrogance, specifically as it manifests as an illicit entitlement to positive evaluation.

            Academia is traditionally framed as a marketplace for ideas, where knowledge, or more specifically, papers, applications, and other work containing findings are traded like any other material good. Persuasive or novel ideas are rewarded: grants, jobs, and prizes go towards those individuals who have displayed the ideas most worthy of receiving such advantages. There is a crucial difference, however, between the trade of tangible goods, such as foodstuffs or furniture, and the trade of knowledge in academia. For example, when a farmer grows a corn crop and sends it to the marketplace, he receives money in return for his corn. The corn and the grower are clearly separable: corn grown by one grower versus another is nearly functionally identical, and once the corn leaves the marketplace, it leaves its grower’s possession.

            When academics communicate their findings to peers within the institution (akin to sending a crop to the marketplace), they remain in possession of that intellectual property. The idea contained within that work is always traceable to and belonging to the individual; thus, when the work itself is evaluated, the individual, too, is deemed worthy or unworthy of certain grades, grants, positions, or other rewards. Such things can be considered a form of payment for work well done; all are forms of positive evaluation. Those individuals who most consistently produce the most plausible, well-written, and popular arguments and/or scientific findings reap the most rewards; however, such outputs are considered extensions of the individual rather than separate entities.

            This conflation can explain why every accolade earned functions not only as a positive evaluation of one’s work, but as a determinant of one’s credibility as an intellectual–in other words, a signal to the institution that this person can be trusted to produce good work. Take, for example, two applicants vying for a postdoc position at Puget Sound. One had a productive career in graduate school, with several first authorships, two research grants, and a nearly perfect GPA. The second applicant is less impressive, though by no means unproductive. This applicant has slightly fewer publications, no grants, and earned mostly ‘B’’s throughout graduate school. Instinctually, most readers would favor the former applicant for the position, since high grades, grants, and publications function as signals of credibility in academia. Thus, positive evaluation confers future career benefits within academia, and vice versa.

            Some may argue that the work-self conflation and competition characteristic of the current academic system functions to reward only the most proficient scholars, thus facilitating the collective effort to find scientific truths. However, my short argument does not intend to determine whether the incentivization of intellectual arrogance by the academic institution provides a good or bad outcome, nor to suggest an alternative system of inquiry; it is only to point out that the current system conflates the individual with their output, which provides clear incentive to individuals to display intellectual arrogance.

            So far, I have justified that the intellectual is conditioned to internalize evaluations of their intellectual output but have not yet demonstrated how this internalization enables attitudes of intellectual arrogance. After all, to classify the feeling of superiority over others as a vice is only justified, according to Roberts, if the individual possesses some false entitlement claim. Therefore, the academic who continually receives accolades, awards, and publications in the best journals, but who does not assume any entitlement to future accolades based upon this status cannot be classified as intellectual arrogant, even if she does suppose herself (correctly so) the most proficient in her field.

            However, in our current system, the individual and their output are considered indistinguishable since the degree of positive evaluation one’s past work received functions as a determinant of one’s credibility as an intellectual. This implies that those in academia are conditioned to anticipate positive evaluation in the future when their current work is evaluated positively or given any other form of validation from the institution. This, by Roberts’ definition, is intellectual arrogance: as individuals earn more accomplishments, they are motivated to develop an illicit entitlement to future accolades.

            The college admissions process and its aftermath present a prime example of this dynamic. Applicants must submit test scores, essays, and high school transcripts to various college institutions, where they are evaluated in direct competition with one another. Those admitted to the school, depending on the selectivity of admissions, are deemed to be superior to some degree to those who didn’t make the cut. Students of particularly high appeal to the school earn scholarships and other merit-based grants. Those students who were admitted or received a scholarship may suppose themselves people of higher academic value than their rejected peers, and due to that self-estimate, have an incentive to consider themselves entitled to future accolades in college itself.

            The entitlement displayed among first years is acknowledged by the administration; after my first semester at Puget Sound, I received an apologetic email (as did my parents) communicating that most student’s final grades were considerably lower than what they were used to receiving in high school, due to a comparative increase in academic rigor in college classes. I am not asserting that this decrease in grades cannot be explained by an increase in rigor, but the students’ collective disappointment in their performance indicates that, on some level, they believed that their outstanding performance in high school warranted the same outcome in college. This is intellectually arrogant by definition and was enabled by the conflation of individual success to positive evaluations. This dynamic that my example served to demonstrate is visible at all rungs of the academic hierarchy and is not discipline specific.

            Given my argument that positive evaluations confer future advantages, one may argue that inferring one will receive positive evaluations based on past successes can be justified in some cases, which would by definition dismantle any claim that this attitude equates to intellectual arrogance. However, this sort of entitlement claim cannot be justified the majority of the time. For example, the biology department is hiring for a faculty position and has received some 170 applications from, as my professors have told me, nearly equally impressive candidates! In cases like this, where candidates for a job, grant, or scholarship are well-matched, let us assume each of them anticipates that because of their past accomplishments they will be granted an advantage over their peers.

             For whom is this claim of entitlement justified? Perhaps for the one person who ends up being hired, but certainly not for the other rejected applicants. Moreover, given the competitive nature of academic positions, it is highly implausible that any individual in academia has never once been rejected from something they have applied for or received any criticism. Therefore, given the competitive environment characteristic of academia, any claim of entitlement to positive evaluation is almost never justified even though positive evaluation is indeed treated as a signal of credibility. Therefore, the anticipation of a positive evaluation based on past accolades constitutes arrogance.

Demand for novel, ground-breaking ideas in academia serves to further our collective knowledge of the world and of each other. However, the academic “marketplace” does not internalize the production of intellectual vices, such as arrogance. There is no mechanism is place to account for those individuals who begin to behave arrogantly as a result of positive evaluations of their output. To prevent the proliferation of arrogance in academia, we would have to restructure the current academic system so that positive evaluations don’t function as signals of credibility.


Roberts, R., & Wood, W. (2003). Humility and Epistemic Goods. In Intellectual Virtues. (pp. 257–280).

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