David Shatz - June 2016 Working Group Meeting Topic


Given that for some philosophers, knowledge, or,,more plausibly, knowledge of things that are important (unlike, say, the numbers in the Miami phonebook), ranks as the highest ideal, and that for perhaps all philosophers knowledge is at least a good, whether intrinsic or instrumental, it would seem to follow forthwith that ignorance is a vice. Plato and Aristotle certainly agreed.  Yet as Julia Driver argues, most fully in her book Uneasy Virtue, certain virtues require ignorance. She argues this as part of a larger attack on the notion that virtue requires certain psychological states. One example she proffers as a “virtue of ignorance” is modesty. In an earlier paper for this workshop I argued that ignorance of one’s worth is not a necessary or desirable  component of humility and can even be a vice; so this example is not one I agree with.[1] But her other examples include blind charity (seeing only the good in people), trust, and impulsive courage. If we assume that these are virtues, as seems plausible, ignorance cannot always be a vice, since blind charity, trust, impulsive courage and perhaps other virtues require ignorance. 

I believe that the connection between virtue and ignorance extends far beyond Driver’s examples—she has advocated for something very important. There are, however, two distinct questions about the connection between  ignorance and virtue. One is whether being in a state of ignorance is required by certain virtues, and the other is whether it is virtuous is to cultivate ignorance, to deliberately make oneself ignorant or to remain ignorant.  In Driver’s examples, I may be ignorant of my value, or of another’s faults, or of evidence that would cast aspersions on the truthfulness of a longtime friend, or of dangers, but not in every case is that through choice of a policy not to know certain things. In fact, in some cases (like modesty, in her view of modesty) it would be odd to cultivate ignorance. And in many cases  ignorance per se is not crucial, it’s the pursuit of ignorance, the decision not to find out, that reflects a virtue, not being ignorant. It is sometimes tricky to identify and name that virtue, albeit it is fairly easy to say that the action is virtuous.

In this paper I will discuss several areas in which cultivating ignorance is called for. These include:

 (1) Quotidian examples: These include refraining from nosiness about my neighbors, respecting confidential arrangements, choosing not to learn certain medical information about oneself, and refusing to seek further information about a question when it is pragmatically inefficient to do so. Intellectual curiosity can be a vice in some circumstances.

 (2) Philosophical Overreaching:  For those opposed to metaphysics, seeking to know Kantian noumena, (for example) is foolishness (trying to do the impossible) and perhaps arrogance.

(3) Religious beliefs: Philosophers in the Continental tradition maintain that it is wrong to seek theodicies. And some argue, in parallel fashion, that it is wrong to inquire into God’s reasons for commandments. In this tradition, one eschews theory and focuses on meaning, achieved through ethical action. Another religious example: Maimonides discouraged speculation about eschatological scenarios.

 (4) Ethics: Sometimes it is best not to explore whether has done the right thing.

 (5) Science: Are there areas where science shouldn’t go?

The notion that knowledge is the summum bonum looks dubious – in numerous ways--when scrutinized closely. Not every example works, I concede; and within each category above there may be significant distinctions. But overall, even if ignorance isn’t bliss, it ought at times be pursued.

[1] I’ll disregard possible differences between humility and modesty.