Ignorance, Bliss, and the Right Not to Know
An individual's right not to know - in this case to refuse genetic testing - is asserted and defended on a number of levels. In discussing this question I'm posting an excerpt from a prior paper I wrote on the topic: "Ignorace, Belief, and the Socratic Way of Life."
[Excerpt from "Ignorance, Belief, and the Socratic Way of Life"]
“Thought would destroy their paradise! / No more; where ignorance is bliss / 'Tis folly to be wise.”
- Thomas Gray
Understanding “Ignorance is Bliss”
Understanding “Ignorance is Bliss”
At first blush there appears to be an inherent and obvious tension between the Socratic way of life and Gray’s aphorism. With support from Socrates himself, who claims that “the unexamined life is not worth living for men,” While the concepts of ignorance and examination are not perfect antonyms they nevertheless do not seem to harmonize well, if at all. But before moving too hastily to conclude that there is no room for ignorance in the Socratic way of life we must first give Gray’s words some teeth. We must ask, that is, what the saying “ignorance is bliss” could reasonably be taken to mean by those who employ it in their lives?
The first attempt at defining this maxim leads to the strongest and mos
While “Ignorance of all things is bliss” entails the universal proposition that I ought never to increase my knowledge, a proposition that appears to me to be obviously absurd, my own belief in its absurdity is hardly sufficient to satisfy my mandate to examine this proposition Socratically. Instead, I propose to reject the claim that ignorance of all things is bliss by deriving from it a logical contradiction:
P = Pa & Pb = I ought never to increase my knowledge.
Pa = Ignorance of all things is bliss.
Pb = Increase in knowledge of any thing results in a diminishment of ignorance.
A = I consume food (calories) in order to be alive and, thus, retain the capacity to be blissful.
B = I must increase my knowledge about where to obtain food, how to identify objects as edible, etc., in order to be able to consume food.
1. P -> ~ B
2. A -> B
4. ~ B
5. B & ~ B
6. Therefore, ~ P
The argument against the proposition that ignorance of all things is bliss has now been formalized using the Socratic technique of reductio ad absurdum. The contradictory conclusion that results from the assumption that ignorance of all things is bliss can be summarized as follows: I must not decrease my ignorance about food if I want to be blissful but, on the other hand, I must decrease my ignorance about food if I want to stay alive. What follows from this logical contradiction is that we must reject one of the initial propositions from which the contradiction derives. In this case, the clear candidate for rejection is the premise that I ought never to increase my knowledge (P). Also note that from the same premise “Ignorance of all things is bliss” it is not difficult to develop any number of equally problematic contradictions and so I think it is safe to conclude that it is a premise that must be rejected.
Of course, rejecting the proposition that ignorance of all things is bliss as absurd admittedly fails to show that “ignorance is bliss” is itself a meaningless or irrational dictate. There very well be some other formulation of the phrase that proves reasonable. In the following section I consider two different justifications for belief  and, in the process, reformulate the claim for ignorance to establish a version of the proposal that “ignorance is bliss” which, when appropriately qualified, appears to me quite reasonable. The new, he
Prudential or Epistemic Reasons for Belief
To understand how, and in wha
1. Prudential Reasons for Belief
Perhaps the best known argument advanced in f
I flesh out, briefly, the reasoning behind Pascal’s prudential argument. Pascal argues that utility gained from believing in a God that exists is infinite and positive, coming in the form of he
The specific philosophical and logical objections to Pascal’s wager, of which there are plenty, are unimportant here. What is important is that Pascal’s wager remains as a paradigmatic example of a prudential justification for belief – of the notion that one’s belief, in this case a belief in the existence of God, may be justified despite the believer’s complete ignorance as to the truth of that belief. Pascal’s classic argument uses a prudential justification to address a situation where he asserts the problem of ignorance is fundamental and un
In Ender’s Game, an award-winning science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a military prodigy who undergoes intensive training to prepare him for his role in the fight to s
What is the explanation offered for the elaborate deception of Ender Wiggin? Ender’s teachers, the principal adult figures in a novel depicting predominantly children, offer a prudential justification: only if Ender, who was already experiencing feelings of anguish and remorse over what he believed to be simulated battles, was ignorant of the true nature of his actions, and of the true cost in lives of his military decisions, could he h
Similarly, individuals who assert their right not to know in the context of medical and genetic ethics also employ a prudential justification for certain beliefs though, unlike Ender, they frequently do so in furtherance of their own personal ende
Any justificatory scheme that depends on the truth of that belief could not support the individual’s belief held in ignorance. If the patient is to be allowed to live in a condition of obvious ignorance, believing herself to be medically or genetically healthy when in fact she is not, then a prudential justification for the belief must be invoked. What follows is that, in such cases, the individual who asserts her right not to know attaches more importance to the instrumental result of that belief than to the truth of that belief. At this point it begins to be apparent how an individual, making use of prudential justifications for her beliefs, could easily determine the qualified version of Gray’s aphorism – ignorance of some things is bliss – to be a reasonable proposition.
As mentioned above, Pascal’s ignorance in wagering is ignorance borne out of necessity – we are “incapable of knowing either what [God] is, or whether he exists” – and so there is, he claims, no other choice but to rest a belief in God on something other than epistemic grounds. Nor can I choose not to believe in God and expect to find an epistemic justification to support that belief. As William James points out, if no epistemic evidence exists with which to justify a decision then “…to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but le
Pascal’s wager, and the form of ignorance it touches upon, is fundamentally different from the type of ignorance implicated in the examples drawn from Ender’s Game and the assertion of one’s right not to know. Ender’s ignorance was hardly compelled. His teachers could h
Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, answers this question by way of a discussion of the harms posed by too many choices. Schwartz argues that selective ignorance may be valuable in far more contexts than those I h
[w]hen people h
We can tie Schwartz’s discussion about the paradox of choice to the examination of the Socratic way of life and beliefs held in ignorance by noting that the existence of choice necessarily implicates knowledge. Awareness of options, or choices, is a form of knowledge and, correspondingly, in opposition to ignorance. Regardless of how many choices there are they can neither liberate nor tyrannize the individual that is unaware of their existence. Thus, to the extent that Schwartz suggests voluntarily restricting or limiting our choices he must also simultaneously promote a particular form of ignorance.
On Schwartz’s argument, complete ignorance (i.e. total absence of choice) makes life “almost unbearable” and, thus, Schwartz too clearly rejects the strong claim that ignorance of all things is bliss. However, if the paradox of choice is that it may debilitate and tyrannize, as Schwartz suggests it does in some instances, then increasing one’s awareness of choices must be at times undesirable. In pointing out “[t]he fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better” Schwartz establishes a relationship between choice and ignorance – ignorance of all choice is clearly bad, but knowledge of every choice, especially when there are numerically many choices, can be tyrannical – that looks strikingly similar to our reformulation of the ignorance proposition: in some contexts ignorance (e.g. of choice) may indeed be blissful.
Schwartz also offers philosophical and empirical arguments that describe how individuals can become burdened with what he terms “the responsibility of choice.” While Schwartz tends toward advocating improved management of choices and options, as opposed to willful ignorance of
Beginning with Pascal’s wager and ending with Schwartz’s discussion of the tyranny of choice we now h
2. Epistemic Reasons for Belief
An epistemic justification for belief is distinguished by its “reference to epistemic aims, these being truth,
An intriguing question, posed by Laurence Bonjour in his work The Structure of Empirical Knowledge, is why we “…as cognitive beings, care whether our beliefs are epistemically justified?” Bonjour considers epistemic justification as an alternative to prudential justification for belief and declares that “…the goal of our distinctively cognitive ende
In support of this claim Bonjour raises the problem of epistemic irresponsibility and contends that “part of one’s epistemic duty is to reflec
But what does epistemic responsibility demand in the other scenarios, considered above, in which a prudential justification for belief is employed? At least with respect to those scenarios where the ignorance is of a voluntary nature Bonjour is quite clear. There is, he says, “something epistemically reprehensible about such a choice: the person chooses to delude himself, or rather to bring it about that he is deluded, and such a choice is a clear example of epistemic irresponsibility.”
Given my own predisposition to reject the value of ignorance I am sympathetic with Bonjour’s characterization of such beh
One possible response to this objection, and indeed the response I h
It would seem, then, that the only way out of this dilemma set against an epistemic justification for belief is to demonstrate that human beings h
In concluding the discussion of the merits of an epistemic justification for belief I do no
 Thomas Gray. Ode on a Distant Prospect of
 Plato. Complete Works. Cooper, John M. ed.
 Plato. Apology, 38a.
 The conclusion ~ P is, of course, not logically compelled. We could choose to revise our other premise (A) instead of rejecting the supposition that ignorance of all things is bliss. However if either A or P must be rejected P clearly seems to be the more sensible candidate for refusal.
 Admittedly these are not the only two justificatory schemes for belief though they are the only two that will be extensively considered within the scope of this discussion.
 Pascal, Blaise. Pascal’s Pensées. Turnell, M., translator.
 Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game.
 For a more thorough overview of these questions see
 The debate over the right not to know, long-standing in medical ethics and recently renewed in the context of genetic ethics, is a fascinatingly complex discussion that deserves (and has certainly received) a forum all its own. My only hope here is that I h
 Pascal, 201.
 James, William. “The Will to Believe.” In Pragmatism and Other Writings. East
 I must make what James refers to as a “passional decision” which is to be contrasted with a belief “decided on intellectual grounds.” (James, 205).
 Here I am considering the individual who exercises her right not to know but need only submit a signed form authorizing the release of her personal data to waive that right. The individual is also aware that she may waive this right and choose to know and, thus, knowledge is
 Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.
 In particular Schwartz distinguishes between “maximizers” and “satisficers” (Schwartz, 79-81) and argues that the “proliferation of options not only makes people who are maximizers miserable, but it may also make people who are satisficers into maximizers.”(96).
 At this stage I must point out a broad and crucial supposition that this argument employs. I will assume, but not defend, the claim that bliss is roughly equivalent to an intense state of pleasure. What follows from this is that any increase in bliss will result in a corresponding increase in pleasure, and vice versa.
While I do not intend to suggest that happiness and pleasure perfectly coincide I assert that the basic thrust and commonly accepted meaning of bliss is one which is roughly equated to something close to happiness. The concepts of happiness, pleasure, and bliss are sufficiently related that for the purposes of this paper they can be used almost interchangeably, without delving into any of the nice distinctions between these terms. The argument that I am advancing with respect to bliss – tha
 Bonjour, Laurence. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge.
 “To accept a belief in the absence of [epistemic justification], however appealing or even mandatory such acceptance might be from some other standpoint, is to neglect the pursuit of truth; such acceptance is, one might say, epistemically irresponsible”(Bonjour, 8).
 Pascal, 201.
 Bonjour, 151.
 This is not a debate that I can fully engage in, let alone hope to resolve, within the scope of this examination. However, I do wish to briefly note one key argument that must be overcome by anyone who wishes to argue that truth is necessarily a higher goal than happiness, bliss, or any other goal. To do so one must first answer the skeptical claim that denies the possibility of knowledge (the weak skeptical position) or even of true belief (the strong skeptical position). That is not a claim that I am prepared to answer here nor is it a challenge that, to the best of my knowledge, has ever been fully met. Thus, the most appropriate course of action seems to me to be to point out the lack of resolution in this debate and to see what follows from this.
 At least one possible exception to this is the situation in which epistemic justification is impossible or currently inaccessible. In these cases, of which Pascal’s wager is an excellent example, where a belief must be held one way or another and no epistemic justification can be had, there is no choice but to but to accept a prudential justification for my belief if I want it to be justified on any grounds whatsoever. This, I contend, is the argument that William James makes in his essay “The Will to Believe” (see Footnotes 20, 21) and, while compelling, it is not strictly applicable here because this paper is primarily concerned with ignorance when it is a function of choice, and not the result of necessity or circumstance.
 Gray, lines 98-100. Emphasis added.