Ignorance and Blame During the Recent Alien Invasion

by Tim Sommers: Does ignorance always excuse someone’s actions no matter how much harm they cause? If so, doesn’t that imply that the less I know about the problems of the world the less I can be blamed for them? Paradoxically, can I be a better person by remaining more ignorant? Or can I be morally culpable despite being factually wrong or ignorant about something? Either possibility seems unsettling.

Suppose malevolent aliens philosophically dedicated to chaos and destruction invade the Earth just for the sake of creating havoc and killing as many humans as they can before they move on to the next planet. As part of the struggle for survival, governments create and distribute an “alien repulsive device” (ARP). About the size and shape of a wristwatch, the ARP emits a frequency of electromagnetic radiation that discourages, but does not totally prevent, alien attacks. During the first ten months after the ARP device is distributed the authorities estimate that 200,000 lives are saved in the US alone, and a million and a half hospitalizations due to alien injuries are prevented.

Nonetheless, there is a group of people who oppose the use of ARPs. Some argue it is just a way for governments to track your movements. Others argue that the device does more harm to the wearer than is justified given that the risk of an alien assault is quite low – and the results are usually not that bad. Others deny the existence of the aliens altogether.

As a result of these views, ARP/alien-deniers spread the word to the world. Do not wear ARPs! They blog, they podcast, they protest, they try to prevent the government from handing them out by threatening or harassing public health officials. Some harass total strangers in public settings for wearing ARPs. Doctors and demographers estimate that a third of a million additional people die as a result of the alien-denialist movement, people who otherwise could have been saved.

Since this is a hypothetical, let’s just stipulate that no reasonable person could deny that there was an alien invasion, that on-balance ARPs saved lives and seriously mitigated harms, and that ARPs cannot be used as trackers. Given this, are deniers morally culpable for any of these excessive deaths?

Or , on a more human scale, suppose one particularly vehement alien-denier single-handedly convinces their partner to forego wearing an ARP – and their partner is killed in an alien attack. Is the denier morally responsible for their partner’s death?

Famously, many of the Nazi’s tried for war crimes at Nuremberg at the end of World War II, including those involved in the holocaust, offered as a defense of their actions, that they were only following orders. However, many more simply pleaded ignorance. How were they to blame if they did not know what was going on?

Even if one thinks that it is not an acceptable defense in the Nazi case, surely, ignorance is sometimes a reasonable defense. Suppose, for example, that with the most altruistic of motives, you try to save some one’s life with CPR, but they have a medical condition that results in the CPR killing them. You may be guilty of something. Jumping in too quickly without knowing enough, perhaps. But you are probably not guilty of murder.

So, why not just say that all other things being equal, ignorance excuses (or mitigates culpability for) actions that would otherwise be immoral? But this makes ignorance a fool-proof way of avoiding moral responsibility. Call this the culpability paradox. If ignorance is always a defense against moral culpability, then we can always avoid being blameworthy by cultivating our own ignorance.

Suppose someone does not know how many of the things that they do contribute to global warming. Or imagine they simply do not believe that global warming is real. While people aware of the problem must, morally, make sacrifices to minimize the impacts of an ongoing climate crisis, the ignorant do not have to do anything – and yet they can remain morally blameless. Presumably, they can even go around telling other people not to believe global warming is real, and no matter how many deaths that causes, they are not responsible.

Another way to look at the culpability paradox is as a reductio ad absurdum. It must be the case that you are, at least sometimes, morally responsible for your own ignorance or false claims, because if we assume the opposite, that ignorance always excuses one from moral responsibility, then one can always avoid responsibility by cultivating their own ignorance. Some people talk about the problem of people on the internet being in their own “epistemic bubble.” I think it is more accurate to use the old-fashioned phrasing I keep using. A better description of what many of us do from time to time on the internet is “cultivating our own ignorance.”

One thing that might help is to distinguish willful ignorance from ordinary ignorance. If someone’s ignorance is deliberately cultivated to shield themselves from moral culpability, it should not excuse. This helps. But there is a fine line between cultivating ignorance and simply not taking reasonable steps to educate yourself. It is hard to deny that we are sometimes blameworthy, even where we are ignorant, because sometimes ignorance is itself morally blameworthy. Many philosophers think of justified true belief as the heart of knowledge. We may have a moral, as well as epistemic, obligation to justify (at least some of) our beliefs, if factual ignorance is sometimes morally blameworthy.

Another way to put it is that we have a moral responsibility to cultivate the epistemic (as well as the moral) virtues. Epistemic virtues are habits or practices that promote knowledge; these include conscientiousness, objectivity, and humility, among others. It’s plausible that we have a moral obligation to cultivate certain epistemic virtues, and that knowledge depends on cultivating moral habits and practices and not merely certain epistemic practices.

It may well be that the road to hell is paved with good intentions that are uninformed or unjustified.


I should mention that there’s a distinction between the study of epistemic virtues and “virtue epistemology.” I just explained the basic idea behind epistemic virtues, i.e., that we ought to cultivate certain interconnected epistemic and moral practices or habits. Virtue epistemology addresses a different problem altogether. Relying on sense perceptions and reasoning, internalism about knowledge, may not get us knowledge of the external world because of certain “defeaters.” How do you know you are not dreaming or in a simulation? Externalism or reliabilism tries to tie the efficacy of our perceptions and reasoning to their reliability or, on the virtue version, to the reliability of certain habits and practices.  What justifies, at least certain beliefs, is that they are the product of certain epistemically virtuous practices. There’s a connection here, obviously, but two different literature, with different aims, as well.

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