Perspectives of Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy

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Perspectives of Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy 

The ignorance in moral and social philosophy is undertheorized in contemporary analytic philosophy and has the air of a paradox. Can we know more about what we don’t know? But it is no more paradoxical than saying we need to think more about the category of the unthinkable or that we need to be more skeptical about skepticism. The blurb invites a question about what it is about the ignorance that needs to be more theorized.

Ignorance occurs in various discrete contexts, e.g., law, ethics, and epistemology. Is there something about the idea of ignorance that is worth sustaining in its own right, separate and apart from when it variously comes up in different areas? The examined essays do not betray a unity of approach or even a shared understanding of what is “ignorance.” Deep down, some of the essays seem not to be about ignorance but a rather moral responsibility. The essays by Carolina Sartorio and Elinor Mason or decision-making under uncertainty by Martin Peterson and Sven Ove Hansson. Essays by Marcia Baron and Larry Alexander on whether and when ignorance can justify or excuse lousy behavior are of the authors’ usual high quality, but they do not feel like breaking new ground. Nonetheless, two themes emerge in the course of several of the chapters, which show why ignorance is a topic that repays study and attention.

The first theme of how and whether one might be responsible for acts out of ignorance emerges in the two excellent essays by Michael J. Zimmerman and Holly M. Smith when placed back-to-back. Building on arguments he made previously but adapting them to the volume’s theme, Zimmerman develops what he calls the “origination thesis.” It holds that if one is guilty of an act done in ignorance, it must have its origin in some item of behavior for which one is directly culpable and which was an instance of willing wrongdoing. Zimmerman ably defends the thesis against objections, dealing most effectively and interestingly with “attributions,” or the view that agents are morally responsible for whatever “expresses who they are as a person.”

Zimmerman rejects attributions as giving us a good theory of responsibility, as opposed to a theory of blameworthiness. “I am quite willing to admit that the mere possession of a morally objectionable trait renders one blameworthy for its possession,” he writes, and so is “in this regard fully in agreement with attributionists.” But Zimmerman denies that one can hold someone responsible in any vital sense for a morally objectionable trait (and the actions that flow from it) if that trait does not have its origin in willing wrongdoing.

In a suggestive coda to his essay, Zimmerman highlights that he means the origination thesis to apply primarily to the question of fair punishment rather than questions of responsibility more generally. Anyone concerned with the justification of punishment must wrestle with Zimmerman’s concluding provocation. Either by coming up with an alternative to the origination thesis or looking at punishment as less about holding people responsible in any profound way and more about securing some other social good.

Smith’s essay deals with cases of “culpable ignorance,” specifically, where one performs a wrong act out of ignorance and is to blame for becoming ignorant in the first place. After revising her earlier view, Smith concludes that agents who act in culpable ignorance are not to blame for the act done out of ignorance. However, they are responsible for “the earlier dereliction that led to that act” (95). It is a somewhat counterintuitive claim. I think believing that people are blameworthy both for their original act of failing to pay attention in CPR class (Smith’s example) and for failing to apply the correct techniques to a choking victim because of earlier inattention. Smith quite rightly notes the connections between her topic and moral luck and sketches out in a beneficial table how luck might (or might not) bear on how we view the blameworthiness of culpably ignorant actors.

Smith’s essay overall is very persuasive. However, it is intuitively plausible that a person culpably ignorant is also responsible for harmful acts out of that ignorance. Holding a person blameworthy for the original act of becoming ignorant but not for the evil acts that spring forth the ignorance gives the idea that the person who causes the harm from ignorance is still a morally worse person than the person who is ignorant but causes no harm. Even though they are both equally blameworthy. Because they are both only to blame for becoming ignorant. Perhaps here we might turn again to attributivism, not as a full-on theory of responsibility, but for blameworthiness of agents, and draw a distinction between the moral worth of different agents on those grounds. Or perhaps, given the resultant harm (or even the potential risk of harm), it could be that some agents’ acts of culpable ignorance are, in fact, much worse than others — even though they are, in fact, only responsible for that original ignorance.

The second theme is rudimentary but present in the diverse essays of Don Fallis, Alexander A. Guerrero, and Seumas Miller. All of these chapters deal in one way or another with the social and political dimensions of ignorance and take on a greater significance in our current political climate, where (it is commonly argued) citizens are voting not based on any firm knowledge but out of ignorance. Fallis’s essay usefully equates making people ignorant as par with deceiving people. That seems fitting, as deliberately keeping people “in the dark” can be just as effective, and sometimes more so, than simply lying outright to them. Guerrero asks to assess experts since one cannot simply evaluate them on one’s own; that is why they are experts, and we are not. Finally, Miller considers the exciting possibility of “collective ignorance.”

Again, the theme that emerges from these essays isn’t as straightforward as in the Smith and Zimmerman essays. Still, it might put something along these lines: in modern society, especially in contemporary democracies, knowledge is at a premium, and knowledge must be widely distributed because it is the people who are the ultimate decision-makers. But much of that knowledge is because of its complexity — something only experts can have; moreover, some forces actively want to keep many people ignorant. Thus, we have “collective ignorance” problems that threaten well-informed collective decision-making. Put this way, the issue of ignorance becomes both promising as an avenue of theoretical investigation and more pressing than ever. If, as Rik Peels emphasizes in his helpful introduction, the study of ignorance is in its infancy, here is a place where there is room to grow. As it is, this volume takes some first, sometimes halting, steps towards showing ignorance as uniquely relevant to classic debates in analytic philosophy (e.g., moral responsibility) and some fundamental and relatively recent challenges facing modern democracies.

Ignorance is the enemy within: On the power of our privilege, and the privilege of our power. When Baldwin crafted his critique, power was held almost exclusively by wealthy white men and their institutions, including some of the institutions whose exercise of power we still scrutinize. Since his writing, however, the definition of the power that allies with ignorance has expanded to include privilege: the unearned advantages or preferential treatment from which all benefit in different ways—whether due to place of origin, citizenship status, parents, education, ability, gender, identity, and place in a hierarchy. The paradox of privilege is that it shields us from fully experiencing or acknowledging inequality, even while giving us more power to do something about it. So, privilege allied with ignorance has become an equally pernicious, and perhaps more pervasive, enemy to justice. And just as each of us holds some form of power or privilege we can challenge in ourselves, we each hold some form of ignorance, too.

Typically, in conversations about race, the word ignorance is associated with outright bigotry, and no doubt the two can be related. Yet, ignorance remains a ferocious enemy because of its silent, constant, unacknowledged presence. More than one billion people live with one form of disability, but we do not acknowledge people with disabilities when discussing inequality. Most Companies make no affirmative effort to hire people with disabilities; and do not provide those with physical disabilities with adequate access to their website, events, social media, or buildings.

The fact is that people with disabilities face harsh inequalities. People with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental health disabilities do not benefit from the same opportunities as others without disabilities. This inequality is pervasive and regularly intersects with other forms of inequality. The solution is to move from ignorance to enlightenment. The transformation should start with acknowledging fallibility and deficiencies in people.

The affirmative action on disabled people moves us closer to the ‘Great Command’ – Loving God & Others.


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