The Ethics Of… Ignorance

Is there anything you wish you could just not know? Knowledge 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 would generally improve?

In a year where Donald Trump was elected as US President, I can think a dozen such facts. One unfortunate side-effect of being interested in philosophy, politics and just asking too many questions in general, is that the answers often don’t 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 things 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.

Image result for cadbury slave chocolate

Yeah, this is a thing. Here’s a list of slave-free chocolate companies.

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 may sound 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 we’re talking movies, TV, music or computer games, the fact that entertainment is 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 – namely to block out realities we’d rather avoid thinking about. And the more stressful things gets, the more we want that entertainment buffer between us and reality.

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 this 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.

No, seriously. Why the hell else would we get kids to do this?

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 Donald Trump getting elected with 27% of the vote and four years of wondering ‘what the fuck is happening‘.

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, it speaks volumes that most US citizens had no idea why the attacks occurred, despite the well-documented fact that their own government had been overthrowing 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, it is clearly our ethical duty to be more informed so we hurt other less, make less mistakes and do things better.

Straight-forward? Yeah right.


From Blue Chair comics.

Why should we 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 a westerner with the sort of privilege others would literally kill for, 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 impending Trump plutocracy not to suck.

And even if we’re not actively avoiding our duty for selfish ends, 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 – especially about the things that make us the most uncomfortable. 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?

4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Ignorance

  1. Perhaps one glimmer of hope in this massive paradigm shift that’s occurring in Western democracies is that we’re all now, out of necessity, politicised to some extent, and out of that new engagement comes a gradual movement towards sophistication of thought? Or is that too hopeful?

    • You’d think that Hariod, but the fact that ~50% of the US didn’t vote in the last election seems to suggest otherwise – maybe some of us are becoming more politicised and others are just switching off to the whole mess? Can’t really blame them, but it is very concerning.

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