The Ethics Of… Ignorance

Is there anything you wish you could just not know? That if it was completely erased from your mind a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, not only would you not miss it at all, but you’d actually be happier, healthier and your quality if life generally improve?

I can think of dozens. One unfortunate side-effect of being inclined toward an interest in philosophy, politics and just asking too many questions in general is that the answers don’t tend to make you very happy. Not only do you find yourself wading through a sea of horrible realities like poverty, sexual crimes and environmental catastrophe, you inevitably find yourself going a level deeper and asking why these thing are happening, which in turn leads you to the human minds underlying those problems. I mean it’s one thing to learn that your delicious chocolate probably involved slave labour in its production, but it’s another complete level of awful to find out that the company involved not only knows this, but actively lobbied to keep it that way.

And if you’re particularly self-destructive, or just can’t stop yourself, you go even deeper and start trying to understand how people can do these things without throwing themselves under a bus on reflex. The day you find yourself accidentally empathising with a school-shooter is not a good day.

And while I now value the insights this sort of study has given me (though I sure as hell didn’t for most of my teenage years), all in all it would be a lot less stressful if I could just relax, do a lazy 9-5 to make a dollar, avoid after hours volunteer work like the plague, and just do whatever I enjoy.

This sounds like a cop-out, but look around and you’ll notice that pretty much everyone is on the same page. Entertainment is one of our biggest industries and whether it be movies, TV, music or computer games, the fact that it’s one of the few industries to stay strong when the rest of the economy is in a screaming nosedive says a lot about how we use it to block out realities we’d rather avoid thinking about.

And just look at the way we romanticise childhood innocence, going to great (and occasionally fairly insane) lengths to shield them from the stark realities of the big bad world. We tell ourselves we do this for our kids but the unspoken truth is that it’s at least partly for our own benefit as well, letting us remember a time when choosing how to spend our copious free time was the biggest problem we could conceive of.

The problem with ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ of course is that it’s bit like sitting on a railway line and pretending the train isn’t coming. It might make you feel better about things in the short-term, but since your comfort levels don’t mean much to the train, it’s still going to completely wreck your day if you don’t admit there’s a problem and get off the tracks in time. You can tell yourself that paying off your credit card with another credit card is a sound financial strategy all you want, and it might even make you feel better, but that’s not going to stop debt collectors from repossessing your car. On a broader scale, you can say that you don’t care about politics and just vote for the party that has the most interesting name at election time, but then we end up with Clive Palmer in office and wonder why everything goes to hell (jumping the gun a bit here, but does anyone really care to take a bet against that?).

And just to make life even more complicated, inattention to these sort of political things can come back to bite you decades down the line without warning. While the 9/11 terror attacks were disgusting, unjustifiable acts in their own right (Ethics of War/Terrorism, coming soon) it speaks volumes that most US citizens had no idea why the attacks occured, despite the fact that their own government had been overthrowing stable foreign governments, indiscriminately funding insurgent groups, and propping up any anti-communist dictator they could find for nearly 50 years. It might be our governments that parked us on the train line, but that doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility to pay attention to what they’re doing. Indeed, given democratic governments only have power because us individual citizens grant it to them, it’s pretty much our job to ensure they don’t screw things up.

So, sure our duty is pretty clear cut, right? The things we do, support and even believe in have all sort of impacts on other people. Being ignorant of stuff means we’re far more likely to make a mistake and hurt someone because what we did, supported or believed was factually incorrect. Ergo, we need to be more informed so we hurt other less, make less mistakes and do things better.

Straight-forward? Yeah right.

So why should I care? We can talk about ‘duty’ all we want, but the annoying thing about duty for an ethicist is that it’s not very inspiring and, should the predicted lack of inspiration take place, there’s no way of actually making people do the stuff they should be doing. And since we’ve already established I’m part of the privileged elite, if I choose not to do my duty there’s not much the people I screw over in the process can do about it, any more than I can force the current Australian government not to suck.

And even if we’re not actively avoiding our duty for selfish end, you still need to consider burnout – we’re all humans and frankly there’s only so much of the dank underside of humanity we can deal with before it puts you into the foetal position. And quite apart from the trauma that can cause, rocking gently back and forth in the corner makes you pretty ineffective at improving the world.

As with most things ethical, ignorance comes down to a cost/benefit calculation. In principle, ignorance is a bad thing and we must all do our best to be fully informed about everything we can. But in practice, there’s limits on what we can know and especially what we can deal with. So the next time someone like me posts yet another god-forsaken link to something awful in the world, do the maths; Is this something I should care about? And is this something I can afford not to know about?


2 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Ignorance

  1. I am willing to picture you as a hot Australian girl, or alternatively question my sexual orientation so that I feel free to be totally in love you. πŸ™‚ This topic is huge and somehow you made it tidy. Maybe it’s because I am not an ethicist I don’t know hot to do it effectively!

    A lot of thoughts ran through my head while reading this so I shall answer your order with disorder. πŸ™‚ I guess my first thought is that unfortunately there may be no real purpose to it all. We are just supposed to survive and reproduce and everything we do just has to increase our odds of doing just that. I am big proponent of Michael Shermer’s central thesis in his book The Believing Brain that “we rationalize to support our beliefs, rather than believe based on rational thought”. We can rationalize a lot of our actions when it comes to maintaining a comfortable life that keeps us safe from harm and gives us a chance to raise a family with relatively little fear of harm coming to our offspring. Could that in the end be all we are, and that globalization has allowed us the privilege of being so far removed from those that we rely on for that comfort that we literal don’t have to see the pain we cause to others? We also have a strong compassion chip as well and so separating ourselves from the world perhaps prevents us from a more egalitarian society. That being said of course, we only have to look as far as slavery to see that we can be quite comfortable watching suffering up close when we’ve dehumanized others to the point that we don’t believe they deserve compassion almost as if they were some other species.

    I also think I know a fair amount of stuff. And you’re right there is some stuff that you wish I didn’t know about and it can feel like a burden, but I also appreciate things on a much greater level too. As an atheist who applies no intentionality to the universe I actually find myself much happier since I’ve accepted the universe as being indifferent than purposeful. I find I am much more at peace with even violent crime, knowing that the problem may be genetic coupled with undiagnosed traumatic childhood experiences. That means it’s a problem that has a chance of being solved, instead of “Evil exists and this killer is evil, let’s lock him up or put him in the electric chair.” I don’t know that those who are ignorant of how the world actually works are necessarily less burdened. Sure they maybe more easily entertained, but they can also be more easily stressed, angered or depressed. Maybe easily isn’t the right word. I liken it to be sort of not growing out of that childhood innocence. When you were a child you cried your eyes out when your hot dog fell on the ground, but as you become an adult the things you cry about are a lot more complex. But I don’t know that the sadness of your lost hot dog is any less than when you find out that another shooting happened in an elementary school. I mean any adult can see that one is certainly worse than the other, but I wonder if as individuals at a given age we actually feel very different. I remember spending a week as a young teenager being unhappy because my sister forgot to press record on the VCR for a movie I wanted to watch. I look back right now and think I was really stupid to be sad about that. Ignorant people get upset over pretty stupid things, and are often more easily fooled to become upset about things that they don’t even know much about, but hey getting angry about something feels good. They lose their shit when their favorite crappy show gets canceled, or having a tantrum because Pluto is no longer a planet. So I guess I don’t know that their ignorance is leading to a less burdensome and happier life, just a life where they are going to end up getting emotional about a lot of the wrong things.

    Ultimately I think being knowledgeable is a better way to be, because otherwise how will you make the world a better place, even if you can’t fix every problem you know about? One just has to remember to have some fun too, because good people who are trying to make the world better need to survive to keep doing good works. And it is an important part of our health to remain as stress free as possible and that comes by being balanced in our approach to the problems in the world. Doing what we can, but accepting that we can’t do it all. But I could just be rationalizing my beliefs as well. πŸ™‚

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Christmas | The Ethics Of

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