One of the things I love most about philosophy, and in particular ethics, is that philosophy is the study of everything. When you study philosophy you can study History, English, Science, Math, Language, Politics, Law, and probably literally everything else you can think of. I think this situates philosophy as a uniquely versatile and intersectional discipline that allows it to tackle a wide variety of complex problems.
Today, that problem is the one we currently face of the widespread epidemic of fake news, alternative facts, and general anti-intellectualism. So, today I am here to argue why we all have a moral duty to acquire knowledge, regardless of the context in which they find themselves (me? disregarding context? weird.).
Normal & Abnormal Contexts
In “Cultural Context and Moral Responsibility“, Tracy Isaacs gives us a framework to understand moral responsibility in a variety of social contexts.
In normal moral contexts, we generally have the knowledge we need to behave in moral ways. For example, in our society (Canada) it is not possible to be ignorant of the fact that death is widely considered to be a harm (with the exception of individuals who may not be able to have this level of knowledge, but they are outside the scope of moral duties, as they are moral dependents, not moral agents).
In abnormal moral contexts, it is harder to have the knowledge we need to behave in moral ways. For example, in a sexist workplace, mysoginistic slurs against women may be commonplace, so the environment itself does not give you guidance on what is morally permissible and what is not.
*Moral relativists might argue that what is moral is what is accepted in a certain context, but I think there are some pretty clear baseline intuitions that tell us that that is wrong, and some good arguments against moral relativism I won’t get into here.
We can see these contexts in the microcosm of political affiliation. Depending on the political context you come from, different environments may seem normal or abnormal, and the beliefs held by individuals in those contexts may seem wrong as a result.
But how do we know which context we are in, and how do we make moral determinations independent from our context if we find ourself in an abnormal one?
Ignorance is Not an Excuse
Just as there are different moral contexts, there are different types of ignorance that affect our ability to make good moral judgments. We can talk about ignorance in terms of affected/motivated ignorance, or cultural ignorance.
Affected or Motivated Ignorance is the type of ignorance wherein we may have a nagging suspicion that our actions are wrong, but we intentionally do not seek out information so that we may continue to lie to others or perhaps even ourselves about the morality of our actions.
Cultural Ignorance is what happens in an abnormal social context. In this case, it is harder or perhaps (in extreme examples) impossible to find outside information that challenges our ignorance, though it is still possible to independently reason about why the culture may be ignorant.
Despite this distinction, we can really just imagine that cultural ignorance is affected ignorance writ large. For example, a culture that held the belief “slavery is morally permissible” is simply a culture that has chosen to insufficiently examine that belief. We are human beings who perpetrate culture in which we live, and therefore ignorance on a cultural scale can simply be seen as many instances of affected ignorance of individuals.
Given that both types of ignorance eventually come down to the action of individuals, how can we prevent it, and hold individuals morally accountable for their damaging beliefs?
Often, combating cultural ignorance is slightly more difficult than merely combating affected ignorance because cultural ignorance often will involve some context in which you are ignorant of your own ignorance. In the abnormal social context we do not know what the wrongs we may be committing are, so we do not necessarily know which principles we need to examine more thoroughly to arrive at a correct moral judgment.
There are a hundred actions we can undertake in a day, and if any of these are a possible wrong due to ignorance then we must examine each of these actions. Obviously, most of these are probably not wrongs, but any of them may be wrongs. Therefore, if we have a moral duty to not do wrongs, then we have a duty to examine the underlying assumptions that permeate all of our everyday actions.
It may seem overly demanding to state that we have a moral duty to examine every underlying assumption of every action that every individual takes. However, I do not think that this is actually the case. Most of the actions that we take on any given day are repetitive, and so after examining them initially, we can accept that they are probably okay. Similarly, many actions only impact the individual performing them (like you singing musicals alone in your house), and as long as you can be sure they are only impacting you, then there is no concern for their moral weight.
The other benefit to creating a duty to acquire knowledge and examine one’s actions is that both of these things are often goods independent of their effects on other individuals. When we learn and take stock of ourselves and our impact on the universe we better ourselves.
To be honest, I know that the people that need to examine the world they live in and the effects of their actions upon that world are probably not the people reading this. In reading this, you yourself are seeking new knowledge, and as I have said here- I believe that is a moral good because it leads to a world where immorality due to ignorance is less possible.
Maybe we aren’t at a point where we can hold people accountable for the beliefs they hold whether they are anti-vaxxers, Trump supporters, or climate change deniers. But I believe the first step in changing that is holding them accountable for not examining the beliefs they hold in the first place.