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Ignorance and Ethics Anna L. Peterson In his essay in this volume, Wes Jackson challenges us to take ignorance seriously in politics, science, and a host of other fields. Since we are so much more ignorant than knowing, he asks, why not go with our strong suit? This question opens up a host of intriguing possibilities for a variety of disciplines and fields. I concentrate here on the implications for social ethics, beginning with two questions. First, do our ideas about doing good and being a good person depend on knowledge we have or think we have? And, second, if we acknowledge that we have much less knowledge than we think—and that the sum total of what we know will always be much smaller, and much less certain, than the sum of what we do not know—then what does this mean for thinking and acting ethically ? After exploring the role of knowledge in several ethical systems, I look at some of the possible models for an ignorance-based ethic. The most systematic of these are religious in origin, although some secular alternatives also exist. Their “ignorance” is most evident in their visions of human nature and of historical change, in which admissions of ignorance ground a willingness to relinquish not only knowledge claims but also means-ends calculations. critiquing knowledge-based ethics When we scratch the surface, most of the ways we usually think about doing and being good turn out to be based on knowledge we have or think we have. Without the right knowledge, we assume, it is impossible to act morally. This knowledge might be quite general, such as “knowing” about human nature. If we know what people are really like, for example, we can provide fitting rewards or punishments and, thus, 120 Anna L. Peterson encourage morally good behavior. Or we can predict how someone will act in a given situation, which is important if we seek a particular morally desirable result or conclusion. Moral behavior may also require more specific kinds of knowledge, such as the appropriate rules to follow in a given situation, the wishes of others, or the likely risks of a certain action. Doing good thus depends on answers to questions such as the following: Do we have all the relevant historical and empirical information? Do we know about all the interested parties? How accurately can we assess present conditions and predict future ones? Without access to this sort of knowledge, our efforts to do the right thing seem doomed to failure. How can I decide what to do in a given situation without knowing how others will act or what may be the result of my own actions? Does the likelihood of success justify my effort? And what do I risk in my effort to do good? The questions asked by professional philosophers are not all that different, nor are their assumptions and conclusions about the relation between knowledge and morality. This becomes clearer if we look at two of the most important models in philosophical ethics. The first, consequentialist ethics, are those in which the goodness of an action or a decision is based on its outcome. Results matter much more than processes, in this approach, though extreme versions in which ends justify all means are rare, at least philosophically. The best-known consequentialist philosophy is utilitarianism, including the influential models developed by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. According to utilitarian thought, the moral course is that which ensures “the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number.” There are many varieties of utilitarianism, but they share a common base in certain kinds of knowledge. Utilitarians assume that we “know” that all people are self-interested, that all want to attain similar goods and to avoid similar evils, and, perhaps most important, that particular decisions or acts will have certain consequences. Lack of correct knowledge, in this perspective , is likely to lead to bad consequences and, thus, to bad morals. A second important framework for philosophical ethics emphasizes rules or laws. The classic example of this approach is Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative,” according to which people should act according to principles (“maxims,” for Kant) that they believe should be universal laws. For Kant, a rule or principle that is moral must by definition be universalizable and not dependent on any particular context or characteristics of the subject. An example of this is human rights discourse, Ignorance and Ethics 121 according to which disregard for context, consequences...


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