Sunday, February 24, 2008

Is Ignorance So Terrible?

Susan Jacoby laments:
nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it "not at all important" to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it "very important."

That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.

I'm not sure about this. Members of the intellectualist tribe may signal their cultural loyalties by affirming the great need for bilingualism, Shakespeare, learning a musical instrument, and knowledge of geography, history, astronomy and evolutionary theory. These are all fine things, and enriching in their own way, but I'm not convinced that any one of them is vital for ordinary people living ordinary lives. Why would it be "necessary" for average Joe to know the location of Iraq? He's not the one making decisions over there. Or, again, it's easy to poke fun at those who are ignorant of basic astronomical facts, but the intrinsic importance of this is less apparent than the symbolic effect -- drawing our attention to a cultural gap. (I'm reminded of the snob's favourite pastime: constructing lists of books that "every educated person must read".)

As Brandon says, we are all ignorant of a great many things. Moreover, "It is not a crime, or a sin, or a shame, or even a misfortune, to be ignorant of something. It is merely an opportunity." Now, I do think it is important to always recognize the opportunity for further knowledge as an opportunity. We should celebrate and value learning as such. But there are so many things to be learnt, we cannot hope to pursue every one of them. Further, some opportunities for learning will excite us more than others. So, given limited time and resources, it doesn't seem so inappropriate for one to simply disregard some fields as not one's concern. We ought to respect and value others' expertise in an area, of course, but that need not translate into any great desire on our own part to emulate them. There needn't be anything anti-intellectual about this.

I would say there are two broad cases in which the untroubled ignorance Jacoby laments is genuinely problematic. One is general anti-intellectualism, i.e. an attitude which positively denigrates learning, or at least does not recognize it as broadly desirable (an 'imperfect duty', if you will). Think of Huckabee boasting about how he 'majored in miracles, not math'.

The second case is when particular knowledge is required to inform one's decisions, but the "anti-rationalist" feels licensed to think and act from a position of ignorance instead. This is where worries about public policy debates come in. Many political partisans are simply 'bullshitters', in the Frankfurtian sense that they demonstrate a complete lack of concern for whether their claims are true. Others are dogmatists, so convinced of their own righteousness that, again, evidence and careful reasoning go out the window. This pollution of the public sphere is, I believe, the height of (common) evil (and it really is imperative that this be more widely recognized).

Private morality is not demanding, but politics is. Those who enter the public sphere, or seek to exert political influence, have an obligation to contribute constructively to the decision-making process. This holds especially for journalists, pundits and other "shapers" of public opinion, but even ordinary citizens have some obligation to become minimally informed before they vote. (Though it remains an open question whether ordinary people have any obligation to act as citizens in the first place. If one were to refrain from ever voting or influencing others by voicing a political opinion, one's personal ignorance might not matter in the slightest.)


  1. This is exactly the reaction I had when I saw that article.

    With regard to political pundits, I am inclined to think they do believe the things they say, but that they are often pragmatists of a sort about belief. They assent to those things that they think will bring it about that desirable political outcomes are more likely.

  2. Bah, I think there are a lot of good arguments that entail ignorance as a moral shame. Mill's stuff about development, for example. If intellectual pleasures are the highest kind, then it's a damn shame if people don't try and get them.

    A less sectarian version of the same point goes something like this: not only do we not know what we don't know, we often don't know that we don't know it, and we further don't know that we'd want to know it if we did. If I knew quantum physics, I might find some use for it, or it might bring me more pleasure than I expect. So there's some room for saying that I rationally ought to have a bias toward learning rather than nonlearning. (Not too hard to take that as a moral claim, though I'll leave the last step untaken...)

  3. And yet Mill's argument doesn't, in fact, entail that ignorance is a moral shame; it simply tells us that it's a shame to have no interest in intellectual pleasures. (Nor, as far as I can see, can it: it's clearly not useful for Mill's purposes to require that everyone strive to know everything. Further, that intellectual pleasures are the highest kind does not tell us that every intellectual pleasure is equally high, and there seems no way to deny that intellectual pleasures admit of a hierarchy of priorities given Mill's utilitarianism.) Similarly, an argument for a bias toward learning falls radically short of being an argument for ignorance as a "moral shame" -- it just tells you that, all things considered, you should tend to try to learn when you can. I'd agree that's a moral claim, but it certainly is not an argument that 'entails ignorance as a moral shame'.

  4. Brandon: eh? The argument seems pretty straightforward given what you've conceded:

    1. "all things considered, you should tend to try to learn when you can"

    2. Ignorance is a sufficiently harsh judgment that it's only offered after consistent, not occasional, nonlearning. (If I don't read the newspaper every day, we don't call me ignorant. If I don't know where Iraq is, we do.)

    2-->3. If I'm ignorant, I failed to tend to learn when I can.

    4. If I don't do something that, all things considered, I ought to do, it's a shame.

    1&3&4-->5. Ignorance is a shame.

    6. If my failure to do something is a shame, and the obligation at which I failed is a moral one, then the shame is a moral shame. (Whatever on earth a "moral shame" is. Nothing hinges on the word "shame" -- call it a "failing" if you will.)

    7. "All things considered, you should tend to try to learn when you can" is a moral claim, giving rise to moral obligations.

    5&6&7-->8. Ignorance is a moral claim.

  5. 8 should read moral shame, not moral claim, obv.

  6. Paul - Ignorance on particular matters is entirely compatible with intellectual curiosity and a general disposition towards learning.

    I'd say your #1 is only true if interpreted to mean that we ought to have a general disposition towards learning. (Then #5 does not follow.) It is false that for all possible objects of knowledge P, we ought to tend to try to learn P when we can. (Again, there are just too many things which I could learn, but I certainly can't learn them all.)

  7. Richard: my #2 was crafted to evade just that objection. The objectionable kind of ignorance is one that reflects an overall failure to have a general disposition to learning, in many cases over one's life.

    But -- sneaky move coming up here -- that objectionable kind of ignorance might manifest in single particularly egregious instances of missed information. One such egregious instance would be something like not being able to find Iraq on a map -- since, given the current political situation, anyone who can't find Iraq on a map is highly likely to be totally uninterested in just about all meaningful information.

  8. Paul,

    #3 doesn't follow from #2 -- to fail to learn (even consistently) and to fail to tend to learn are not the same thing. (For instance, I could be disposed to learn X but all my resources for learning are consistently taken up with learning Y. Then I've failed to learn X but not failed to be disposed to learn it.) Thus #2 doesn't evade Richard's problem.

    Further, the sense of 'failing' or 'shame' in which #4 is plausible doesn't appear to be the same sense in which #6 is plausible. #4 identifies as a shame or failing the fact that, all things considered, I failed to do what I ought to do. But this is very weak, since in a great many cases (e.g., cases with extenuating circumstances, cases with exculpating circumstances, etc.) it will be plausible to say "it's a shame that I failed to do what I ought to do," but there will be no moral failing. But if this is so then #6 can't be interpreted so as to result in #8.

    So, in other words: #1's plausible; #4's plausible if taken in a sense to weak for the argument; and #7's plausible. I'm not sure what you'd use to support #2, since it doesn't seem to fit ordinary usage; so I don't know if I understand it.

  9. Iraq precisely the sort of situation where ignorance is a moral failing.

    Why are we in Iraq? Because a rather large number of people were utterly ignorant of the geography, cultural makeup, and politics of Iraq. Anyone who was paying attention could clearly see that Saddam's WMD claims were posturing to prevent an invasion from neighboring Iran -- and even if he did have WMDs beyond the Sarin gas that the US sold him in the 80s, he had no way to deploy those WMDs to attack Israel, much less the US.

    (This is on top of the ignorance required to lump chemical weapons like Sarin gas into the same "WMD" category as nuclear weapons. There's a certain cosmic giggle factor in thinking the death tolls are even remotely comparable.)

    If the US citizenry hadn't been so ignorant of Iraq, we (a) possibly wouldn't have elected Bush in 2000, (b) most likely wouldn't have believed Bush's 2003 claims that Iraq had WMDs (and certainly not nukes), and (c) certainly wouldn't have believed Bush's 2003 claims that Iraq was linked with Al-Qaeda.

    In decisions where suffering is a possible outcome, morality demands that we examine the consequences and weigh the results in order to minimize the suffering caused by the decision. Decisions made in ignorance are more likely to cause needless suffering than decisions made with the best available information.

    Thus, so long as you're not making any decisions that involve a topic, there's no moral culpability in being ignorant of that topic. However, as soon as you're aware that you'll face such decisions, it becomes a moral responsibility to learn as much as you can about the topic in question, so that you can accurately judge the consequences.

  10. Sill.... no individual American would have been able to do anything about that aside from the Cheney/Bush duo. Sure a million or so put together might have swung the balance but decisions on what to learn don't get made at that level.

    Even if one of the major Democrats or liberal republicans had all along insisted that it would result in exactly the situation we have now (as opposed to the vague political opposition that we get) all that probably would have happened is that they would have been marginalized for a while and would now have quite a lot of credibility - if they survived the marginalization.

  11. You brought up, "It is not a crime, or a sin, or a shame, or even a misfortune, to be ignorant of something. It is merely an opportunity."

    I am going to illustrate a few concepts which show how the diametrical opposite can be true, in some cases.

    1) Ignorance can lead to committing crimes, such as genocide, through distorted thinking which causes one to not care about the value of human life itself regardless of religion, race, etc. (wouldn't ignorance then be unadvisable due to how it leads to a crime?)
    2) Ignorance can even lead to getting sick or dying prematurely. For example, walking somewhere where there may be starving lions. (You get the idea.) Is this not a misfortune?
    3) Ignorance can lead to prejudices against people who have disabilities. Wouldn't this be irresponsible, a disgrace, and unadvisable as well?

    As you can see, there are many examples in which ignorance would simply be erroneous. The opposite of ignorance, which constitutes of perceiving, leads to reasoning which makes us more perceiving towards every field of knowledge and every creature ever to exist on the planet.

    The Greek philosopher Aristotle was a caring person. His ignorance was pretty much zero compared to other people. When one is the least ignorant, he is also more perceiving and capable of caring more due to understanding behavioral patterns. We harm others because we do not perceive their rights as being as important as ours.

    Aristotle took great interest in virtually everything. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING that has ever entered human awareness and not yet entered human awareness.

    The intensity of his curiosity for every single thing on the planet is what made him such a great reasoner and less ignorant than just about anyone of his era. The two factors involved with his reasoning are: 1) the # of things he took interest in, 2) the intensity of his interest for each thing.

    The level of interest one takes in something has a proportional relationship with one's level of perceiving and learning. If you are not interested in something, then you will be unable to notice it. This is because only when you have interest are you looking for something.

    So logically it follows to say that if you are INTENSELY interested in everything, then you can also INTENSELY perceive and learn. Aristotle was like this.

    All you need to do is look at this site: and you will learn that Aristotle wrote over 170 books covering all fields of science imaginable.

    Then you can skim parts of and you will notice that he was very thorough and detailed in his exposition of the biological and psychological properties of so many different creatures.

    He paid attention to every single thing; he was keenly interested in ALL OF THEM. What you are looking at here is the cure for ignorance itself.

    It does not matter how boring or disgusting something appears, one must always be intensely interested in them, and willing to question even his or her own convictions/beliefs. Getting rid of ignorance also has to do with being interested in every single thing even if it is not your primary interest and not something you'd ordinarily spend your time studying, yet would still pay VERY MUCH attention to and ask questions about even only when someone brings it up, then you WILL learn.

    I have done quite a bit of research on how the sensory organs of several creatures, including our species, function due to a deep desire to better understand man's nature. In doing so, I began to understand that we perceive only what is important to our lives, just as other creatures only perceive what is important to their lives. We can recognize this in observing how a toad may starve itself to death from not be able to perceive dead flies, because it only perceives "moving" flies. It has to be noted that people are no different. By not perceiving (and remaining ignorant), they unconsciously harm themselves and are much more likely to arrive at wrong conclusions that can even lead to things like premature death.

    By understanding all these factors, one can then realize we all share a personal responsibility towards ourselves and others, by perceiving and avoiding any undue harm.

    Let's carefully look at Aristotle one more time. He was intensely interested in every single thing. Since interest has a proportional relationship to how fast one can perceive and learn, it is of the utmost importance to have intense interest in everything. Aristotle was able to reason very clearly because of this. To match the reasoning ability of the ancient Greeks, let alone Aristotle's, would be impossible unless one took great interest in virtually everything, which would then lead to equivalent perception.

    By understanding such a simple concept, there is actually a glimmer of hope when it comes to being able to reason like the ancient Greeks philosophers did. It can even be taught to others. It takes practice and should feel like effortless learning, but in doing so, you become able to perceive many things you could not perceive before.

    I can see that you are a Princeton student. I used to correspond with someone from Princeton many years ago. She used to be on my high school swimming team. Anyway, I want to point out that without such natural curiosity, even those of the highest intelligence will never be able to perceive a couple of things even if it were brought to their attention. It is a fact that the less the interest in certain things, the less one perceives them.

    Since you all enjoy discussing philosophy, I thought all this would be a noteworthy observation to bring to your attention regarding ignorance. Let me know what you think.

  12. The second half of my post discusses under what special conditions ignorance really can be terrible. One of these is "when particular knowledge is required to inform one's decisions."

  13. I stayed up very late while typing this - probably not such a good idea. I overlooked a few perfectly obvious things.

    Do you agree with what I wrote about how ignorance can be eliminated?

  14. Vidi,

    With regard to your three questions I would say: definite No, qualified No, and definite No. For the first and third I see no reason to put the blame on ignorance. There is no reason to think ignorance causes things like genocide or discrimination; people are not racist because through ignorance but through perversity -- that is, to make the first and third questions work you have to conflate 'ignorance' and 'distorted thinking', and these are simply different things. The only tricky cases are cases where ignorance is symptomatic of some clearly identifiable negligence -- but in those cases it is the negligence that is wrong, the ignorance merely an incidental byproduct.

    The second question is trickier. Would there really be any difference in the misfortune if I knew that there were starving lions? Only if, knowing that there were starving lions, I could do something to make sure I wasn't eaten. Thus the misfortune is not being ignorant about starving lions, as such, but powerlessness to do anything about it. And I think this will generally be true: it's powerlessness that's the misfortune, and ignorance is merely sometimes a contributory factor to that. Thus one could say that ignorance sometimes contributes to misfortune, and in that sense is a misfortune. But, then, ignorance is sometimes a contributory factor to being fortunate, and knowledge a contributory factor to misfortune. If I am sitting on a high ledge without realizing that it's a high ledge, I just sit normally; but if I know it's a high ledge, I react to that fact, and thus increase the chances of losing my balance and falling off. How unfortunate knowledge is! Of course, we don't conclude from occasional cases like these that knowledge is a misfortune; we just say that some situations involving knowledge are unfortunate -- and so it is with ignorance.

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  16. Brandon,

    We're literally on the same page, although we're looking at this from different vantage points. Go on and correct me if you think I'm wrong after you read all this. I know perversity and 'distorted thinking' are the same thing, in addition to how perversity and ignorance differ.

    Here it would seem negligence is synonymous to 'not being interested.' Without being interested, one cannot perceive nor learn. Negligence is often a cause for ignorance. Not being able to perceive (e.g. blindness or deafness or simply unaware of its existence) is another.

    What I think is that just as negligence often leads to ignorance, being interested leads to knowledge. Being interested cancels out neglect, while knowledge cancels out ignorance.

    So with an all-encompassing knowledge (like Aristotle's), every ignorance AND perversity out there has a reasonable chance of being nullified. An all-encompassing knowledge can greatly reduce misfortunes as opposed to simply being knowledgeable or ignorant--because then you become supremely wiser and will know how to react in every given situation. It is possible to become more caring to others if you also perceive others' rights as being equal to yours.

    That is why I think an all-encompassing knowledge is so important. But knowledge and reason are still two different things. The best kind of reasoning has to do with being intensely interested in a number of things which then overlap each other to form reasoning based on what has been perceived. You do not want to be "less interested" in any opportunities for learning, even if you only have a minute to learn, because this may cause distorted reasoning other than what you have been programmed to believe. But if you are intensely and equally interested in everything, there is a much better chance you will learn to reason better.

    To acquire an all-encompassing knowledge (and reasoning), you have to be intensely interested in every single thing out there as well as within (e.g. "could my beliefs be wrong? how?") whenever you have an opportunity to learn. because then you nullify neglect itself and begin to perceive and learn.

    Look through all Aristotle's 47 surviving books. He wrote a staggering total of 170 books (some of them really long). You will notice that even in the few that remain, he was a titan. What a mind! His expanse of knowledge is beyond the wildest dreams of just about anyone on Earth today. But how did he do it?

    And "how" is precisely what I have answered. I think it would be helpful to a great many people to be aware of this, because they can learn how to perceive much better. I have practiced this and had success with it.

    Now, I see what you are getting at when you talk about powerlessness being the misfortune, rather than ignorance. I think it would have been better for me to talk in terms of negligence and powerlessness so I'm glad you brought this up. I am sorry for sounding redundant.

    Now here's my observation about the 'high ledge' incident...

    We do not conclude that knowledge is a misfortune from occasional cases like losing balance and falling off a high ledge because we generally do not think of how the knowledge had anything to do with it. We only know the person fell off, and that's about it. But if you take the time to think deeply enough, only then can you understand how falling was the accidental outcome of the knowledge itself, and arrive at a more defined conclusion.


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