Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that we are forced to live our lives with a merely superficial knowledge of a great many things. I wrote that the physical laws of nature give us only enough time to superficially skim the top of many issues going on around us. This is just a part of the real world in which we live in and we are better off acknowledging this fact than ignoring it.
I also warned against manipulative individuals who take advantage of our necessity to 'skim' issues to manipulate us into actions that are harmful to us and useful to them – the way the Bush Administration has exploited the skimming of knowledge of energy in order to impoverish the American people (and, particularly, their children and grandchildren) for the sake of profiting a few friends.
This fact of necessary ignorance has two additional moral implications that are worth mentioning.
Given the fact that we are all so incredibly ignorant about so much, we can consider it a moral failing when people pretend to be smarter and wiser than any human being can possibly be. Yet, it is extremely common for people who are substantially ignorant of the relevant facts to claim to know with utter certainty – with so much certainty that they are willing to risk other peoples’ lives – things they cannot possibly know.
I have mentioned one example of culpable arrogance in a number of posts. These are people who get their understanding of the situation in Iraq from some broadcast news segments and a little internet research. They then proclaim, "I know exactly what strategy we should use with respect to Iraq, and my vote in the November elections will be given only to those who agree to embrace my plan."
Often, that plan does not even come from the snippets of news and research they perform. Rather, they form their opinion in advance, and they filter their interpretation of the available information according to what best fits their pre-determined conclusions. It's the same technique that the Bush Administration used in evaluating the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’. And these people complain about how the Bush Administration blinded itself to an objective interpretation of that intelligence. They do so while they engage in the exactly the same practice.
Such is the nature of culpable arrogance.
On the domestic front, many Americans report that the number one issue on their minds today is the high price of gasoline. They are willing to sell their vote to whomever they trust to bring down the price of gasoline. Plus, they know exactly what the problem is and what we need to do to fix it.
The problem is either that we are not consuming domestic supplies fast enough, or the big oil companies are in a secret agreement to jack up prices and rob us of our hard earned wealth.
This demonstrates culpable arrogance in two ways. The first is with the assumption that the price of gasoline is their most important concern. To which I reply, "Honestly? You're telling me that the one item that can most affect the rest of your life, for better or worse, is the high price of gasoline?" It takes a certain amount of arrogance to even make such a statement.
It takes less arrogance to say that we have a variety of important issues – from the future collapse of social security, to global warming, to a struggling economy, to poor education, and to simply add, "I don’t know which one is the most important, which is why I want somebody with sufficient breadth of knowledge to deal with all of them."
The other moral issue relevant to the fact of wide-spread ignorance is that of wasted intelligence.
Given that we are so ignorant of so many things, why do so many people waste time and effort becoming knowledgeable about things that are not important, using intelligence-resources that could have been spent learning something useful.
I can identify three huge realms of wasted intelligence.
(1) Knowledge of the events on American Idol, or Dances with the Stars, or Gilligan’s Island, or any of hundreds of other television shows and movies. People have a great deal of knowledge of these things that they acquire by examining primary materials on these events (that is to say, by watching them on television). But, it is useless knowledge. Exchange 1 person-hour of American Idol with 1 hour reading an article in National Geographic magazine, and we are all better off.
(2) Knowledge of sports facts. A great many people have a great deal of knowledge about those who are particularly skilled at throwing a ball through a metal ring or hitting a ball and running around in circles.
(3) Knowledge of religious claims. Religions don't even make good history. We can gain some knowledge about people, their values, and how they behave from stories. However, we can get these stories from any piece of fiction (and even better from any peace of history). It is still far better for us when we study what it is to be human in a work that we know to be fiction than one that is fiction but mistakenly taken to be fact.
When I get on the bus and see passengers using the time to read their bibles (as many do), I wonder how much better the world would be if they were sitting there reading a book on international economics, or contemporary society in China or India, or the science of global warming, or matters relevant to energy policy, or cosmic threats to the existence of human civilization.
One of the significant costs of television, and sports, and religion, is the resources that people are putting into them that they are not putting into understanding science, economics, geography, and the like.
We have good reason to believe that these preferences are malleable to some extent. We have some reason to believe that, through social forces, we can promote an aversion to wasting time on mindless television, sports, and religion. At the same time, we can use those same forces to promote a desire to understand things like science, economics, and geography.
It is a matter of the judicious use of praise and condemnation (particularly directed towards children) we can promote a love of learning and an aversion to being an ignorant fool. In particular, we can promote a love of learning and the wonder and awe of the real world, and a simple aversion to wasting one’s day.