An article published a few weeks ago in the New York Times provides a concrete example -
- of an increasingly complex and difficult problem for bioethics: '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
“[I]t is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men.”
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 most clearly absurd postulation: that by “ignorance is bliss” it is meant “ignorance of all things is bliss.” This, I imagine, would entail something like an individual burying her head in the sand whenever knowledge or information threatened to disrupt an otherwise blissful state of ignorance. Apart from a basic problem of circularity – how can one embrace the concept that ignorance of all things is blissful without first being aware, and thus no longer ignorant, of this maxim and its supposed value? – consider what else would result: there would be no cause to conduct research into a cure for AIDS, cancer, or world hunger. To do so would decrease our ignorance about the causes of disease and of starvation. Similarly, we would avoid sending craft into the solar system or under the sea because this would decrease our scientific ignorance. Hence the proposition seems, at least facially, to be one that no reasonably human being would ever accept. Nevertheless, let us look closer.
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, heavily qualified, postulation explained and examined in the following pages is that whereas ignorance of all things is absurd, some people may reasonably accept ignorance as blissful in certain circumstances.
Prudential or Epistemic Reasons for Belief
To understand how, and in what contexts, ignorance can be blissful or desirable I examine two different justifications for belief – prudential and epistemic – and the relationship of ignorance to each of them. The latter, epistemic, provides justification for belief in terms of truth or knowledge and denies the value, though not the inevitability, of ignorance. The former, prudential, justification hinges on an analysis of the benefits created and instrumental ends served by accepting certain beliefs and is, as a result, indifferent to the notion of ignorance except insofar as it relates to the individual’s instrumental ends, whatever they may be. Accordingly, it matters whether one employs a prudential or an empirical justification for belief. Under the prudential justification for belief it may indeed be beneficial to hold a belief in ignorance – that is, a positive belief about that which is untrue or simply unknowable. The empirical justification, on the other hand, rejects the possibility of a justified belief held in ignorance. Therefore, my qualified claim in support of certain kinds of ignorance can only logically be accepted if the empirical justification for belief fails to overcome fully the argument in support of prudential justification.
1. Prudential Reasons for Belief
Perhaps the best known argument advanced in favor of prudential belief is that of Pascal’s Wager. The wager, Pascal says, is whether or not to believe in God. “Either God exists, or he does not exist” but “reason can determine nothing.” Furthermore, you must wager, you must bet either on God’s existence or against it. And, at least potentially, everything is at stake: “if you win, you win everything; if you lose you lose nothing. Don’t hesitate then. Take a bet that he exists.” Pascal’s famous conclusion is that the choice is clear – if we are to act rationally we must gamble that God exists, and attempt to shape our beliefs accordingly.
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 heaven and eternal happiness, whereas the utility of all other options – wagering against an extant God, wagering for a God that doesn’t exist, or wagering against a God that doesn’t exist – is either negative, finite, or both. Furthermore, the probability that God exists is finite and not infinitesimal according to Pascal: “you have one chance of winning against a finite number of chances of losing.” The argument concludes with the assertion that reason requires us to perform utility maximization in this sort of wager and so, when “the chances of gain and loss are equal, and the infinite is the prize,” rationality requires us to wager for God.
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 unavoidable. I now turn to consider several situations in which similar prudential justifications are employed to suggest that ignorance, though not fundamental and unavoidable, is nevertheless deemed desirable.
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 leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision,— just like deciding yes or no,— and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth. In the absence of an epistemic justification it is, at least in certain situations, impossible to simply hold no belief. James contends, and I concur, that in determining whether or not to believe in God I must employ something like a prudential justification, or at least some justificatory scheme other than an epistemic one, because I simply am unable to obtain any empirical evidence one way or another as to the existence of God.
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 have chosen not to deceive him, and thus never create his state of ignorance, but they made what they contended was a prudentially justified decision to do so. “Deception”, the claim would go, “is the only way to save the human race, and the survival of the human race is more valuable than Ender holding a true belief about these battles which he is fighting.” Still, at least in Ender’s case ignorance, while not absolutely compelled, was imposed and not voluntarily assumed. In contrast, in the case of patients who exercise a right not to know, individuals affirmatively desire to hold beliefs in ignorance of available knowledge about their physical state of being. The obvious question, at least the one that comes first to my mind, is why anyone would ever voluntarily choose to deceive themselves, to deny themselves access to significant information that is obtainable with a minimum of effort on their part?
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 have heretofore suggested. Writing generally about the threat posed by too many options, Schwartz comments that
[w]hen people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.
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 available choices, his thesis is clear: there are some individuals for whom an increase in knowledge, especially when presented in the form of increased choice, corresponds to a decrease in general satisfaction and happiness.,
Beginning with Pascal’s wager and ending with Schwartz’s discussion of the tyranny of choice we now have a body of examples in which a belief held in ignorance of the truth is justified using a pragmatic, as opposed to epistemic, rationale. These beliefs, Pascal’s belief in the existence of God, Ender’s belief he was merely participating in a simulation, the terminal patient’s belief she has only a benign tumor, or the consumer’s belief that she has only two brands to choose from, all stand apart from truth and knowledge in some important respect. Nevertheless, each of these beliefs is defended on pragmatic grounds and it is up to the advocates of the epistemic justification for belief to overcome these arguments.
2. Epistemic Reasons for Belief
An epistemic justification for belief is distinguished by its “reference to epistemic aims, these being truth, avoidance of error, perhaps explanatory and predictive power and perhaps more.” The argument in favor of epistemic justification is derived from the desire to justify our beliefs not on the basis of their instrumental value but on the basis of their relationship to truth and to knowledge.
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 endeavors is truth: we want our beliefs to correctly and accurately depict the world.” It must be observed that in this claim Bonjour implicitly distinguishes between our endeavors qua human beings and our “distinctly cognitive endeavors.” Accepting Bonjour’s claim that appropriately chosen standards of epistemic justification tend to bring about true beliefs then, to the extent that we value cognitive endeavors over other types of human endeavors, epistemically justified beliefs are preferred. With respect to our cognitive endeavors prudential justification will not be “…the right kind to satisfy the requirement for knowledge.”
In support of this claim Bonjour raises the problem of epistemic irresponsibility and contends that “part of one’s epistemic duty is to reflect critically upon one’s beliefs, and such critical reflection precludes believing things to which one has, to one’s knowledge, no reliable means of epistemic access;” failure to do so is “…epistemically irrational and irresponsible, and thereby unjustified.” This requirement to avoid epistemic irresponsibility sounds a similar chord to my first formulation of the Socratic method –to engage in self-reflection and examination of my fundamental beliefs – with the added requirement that the determination of which beliefs to revise or discard must be made from a purely epistemic perspective. It is also clear that this formulation of epistemic justification rejects Pascal’s wager insofar as the belief in God is one Pascal admits will never be epistemically affirmed.
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 behavior as epistemically irresponsible. Still, I can’t help but notice that this critique of prudentially justified beliefs hinges on its own form of prudential justification. That is to say, if I ascribe any value at all to knowledge or truth then the pursuit of an epistemic justification, provided it can be done without any corresponding decrease in the fulfillment of my other goals, is a no-brainer. However, the much more difficult test for Bonjour and epistemic justification is to show how this scheme triumphs in the scenario where pursuing truth and attempting to produce an epistemic justification for my belief results in a diminished ability to satisfy my various other, non-cognitive human endeavors. In such a scenario it is not enough that I attach some value to truth – if I persist in my pursuit of an epistemic justification then I must necessarily ascribe more value to truth than to happiness, bliss, or any of my other goals. For the theory of epistemic justification to universally prevail over that of prudential justification, the cognitive endeavors of human beings must be assigned primacy of place relative to all other articulable human goals.
One possible response to this objection, and indeed the response I have always given, is that as a matter of principle it is always better to know than not to know. By this I could reasonably mean one of two things: either 1) it is better to know now, and not to be ignorant, because in the long run that will make me happier or 2) it is better to know than to be ignorant, irregardless of the impact that knowing the truth will have on my net happiness. The former claim clearly does no work in support of an epistemic justification because it depicts truth not as an end itself but as means to a higher goal, namely happiness. The second formulation is one that Bonjour implicitly supports, but notice what it entails. To say, as Bonjour does, that utilizing any non-epistemic justification for belief leaves “…no reason for a person whose goal is truth to accept beliefs according to its dictates” ignores the obvious rejoinder that not everyone’s primary goal is truth. All that I can claim in asserting that I would rather know than not know, irrespective of how that impacts my happiness, is that I prize truth more highly than I prize happiness; that my primary goal is a cognitive one. The possibility can not be denied that another individual, while seeking truth in her cognitive endeavors, may nevertheless pursue her more fundamental goal of blissfulness or happiness or anything else at all. And if that is the case then prudentially justified beliefs may well be epistemically irresponsible and, nevertheless, fully rational.
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 have a duty to make the pursuit of truth and knowledge their principal human endeavor. If, the argument goes, it is irrational or immoral to principally aspire to any goal other than the cognitive one then the objection to the epistemic justification is thereby quelled. Everyone’s primary endeavor either is, or should be, the cognitive one. Though arguments of this kind have been made this debate is one about which it is accurate, and sufficient for our purposes, to say that reasonable minds will disagree.
In concluding the discussion of the merits of an epistemic justification for belief I do not contend that the theory has no purchase whatsoever. Even while it awaits the arrival of a irrefutable, winning argument to affirm the primacy of truth and the cognitive endeavor over all other human endeavors, there are still individuals that nevertheless accept the claim and thus pursue epistemically justified beliefs and reject beliefs held in willful ignorance of the truth. Equally, however, there are individuals who ascribe greater value to some other human endeavor apart from the cognitive one of pursuing truth and, at least for them, a prudentially justified belief may not only be acceptable it may frequently be desirable. Perhaps, then, it was to this cohort of individuals to which Thomas Gray was referring when he penned his memorable lines: “Thought would destroy their paradise! / No more; where ignorance is bliss....” When appropriately restricted in its meaning and considered in context the claim that ignorance is bliss can no longer be characterized as irredeemably illogical and repugnant.