The morality of rational ignorance

Last night, my wife and I watched a portion of a new TV series (“Oceans Blue”) about Earth’s seas and oceans that my son and I have enjoyed bits of. During the segment my wife and I watched, we observed a small group of East African men catch a bunch of small sharks, bring them ashore, hack off their valuable fins (to sell), and abandon the sharks' bodies on the beach. My wife said she hates watching such stuff and would rather not know about it because it’s too depressing. She called herself “an ostrich.”

This is rational ignorance: If certain knowledge causes one emotional pain but serves no useful purpose, willful ignorance may be beneficial.

We used this logic to shield my dying grandmother of knowledge that one of her best friends had died suddenly. Why burden her with such sad news, given her failing health and already substantial physical pain?

But the morality of rational ignorance is seldom so clear-cut.

Not knowing about (or knowing about but refusing to view) the large-scale murder of sharks for their fins is fine… as long as one doesn’t eat shark’s fin soup. But what if willful ignorance leads one to engage in practices a fully informed self would shun? Many Americans would be horrified by the mistreatment of American pigs and chickens, yet Americans regularly eat huge amounts of chicken and pig “products.” Should Americans be required to watch “Food, Inc.” if they want to eat meat? I think we all (above a certain age) should have to see where our food comes from. (Hint: Very little of it comes from the pretty family farm in your mind’s eye. Picture thousands of chickens genetically engineered to grow giant breasts so quickly their immature legs can’t bear their own weight constantly banging into one another on a poop-covered floor in a darkened, windowless room. That’s more realistic.) But I suspect meat consumption would fall 50% (because some would stop eating meat and many would reduce their consumption) and public pressure would force farms to adopt more expensive animal-friendly — er, less cruel — methods, and the powerful meat lobbies won’t tolerate that.

So perhaps it’s about drawing a border between information I should know because I can make a (very small) difference and information I can safely ignore. But identifying that border is very hard because the world is so interrelated. Giant swaths of Brazilian rain forest have been hacked-and-burned to plant soy for hungry Chinese. And forests in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations have been felled to put wooden floors in Chinese apartments (and build furniture that the Chinese ship to Americans). Should Chinese people be studying Amazonian and Indonesian rain forest ecology? And if/since they don’t, is human society doomed to make countless wrong decisions?

Because it’s so hard to know what one must know before one learns it, perhaps the best solution is not rational ignorance but learning about the world while maintaining an emotional distance from events and activities over which one has no control. I may be disgusted watching men kill sharks just for their fins, but I realize it’s not my fault and that I have no control over the activity. It’s almost equivalent to the slaughter of native Americans and Australian Aborigines and the enslavement of Africans… horrible, horrible events over which I had no control, so I feel no guilt and lose no sleep over them. It’s important that we understand how cruel people can be to one another so that we don’t allow it to happen in our name.

Millions of Americans are rationally ignorant of the million or more Iraqis who have died as a consequence of America’s decision to invade Iraq. That is, to me, immoral rational ignorance because the American people should have demanded better for the Iraqi people, many of whose lives have been lost or ruined (many because they lost their parents).

There certainly are many, many reasons to be depressed by the world, if one takes time to observe. But what matters is not external events per se but our reaction to external events. We are capable of realizing that our becoming depressed about something benefits no one (except insofar as it prompts us to take positive action… and even this does not require depression).

I feel an obligation to those around me (and myself) NOT to become depressed because that would only hurt those I love. While I wish the world were a much better place, I have only so much ability to change things. So, I’ll do the best I can to make a small difference, but I’m not going to let the many horrible things that happen but are beyond my control affect me too negatively.

In other words, I try to think of myself as an outside observer of world events outside my sphere of influence. To the extent I can try to make a difference (by working hard to get rid of Joe Lieberman in 2006, for example), I do. But my feeling depressed about, say, victims of the Chernobyl disaster or those starving in Africa doesn’t help the victims and can harm me and (indirectly) those who depend on me.

In short, I reject rational ignorance in favor of rational response and reaction. I want to know everything. But I don’t let evil depress me. And I pick my battles to, hopefully, make the world a slightly better place for my having been here. Being a good parent is one way I’m trying to help. To the extent that parents raise their children more thoughtfully, the world becomes a better place.

Posted by James on Tuesday, August 17, 2010