Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Does Ignorance Lead to Immoral Acts?

(This question is a paraphrasing of the one posited in Plato's Protagoras dialogue.)

Ignorance of pleasure and pain (particularly that of others) is often the root cause of wrong or immoral deeds.

Pleasure and pain can be combined to mean consequences, as those consequences which yield either of these are those that concern us. Humans base most of their actions on how well that action avoids pain and finds pleasure. Very often it is not the ignorance of the well being of the person, but of the need to apply it to others. That is, we are acutely aware of how we enjoy pleasure and abhor pain; when it comes to how we treat others, however, we very often do not employ empathy to adequately judge the morality of our actions.

Simulations like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Stag Hunt suggest that focusing only on our own benefit may be less effective than cooperating with others. Humans are social animals, and require empathy to work together. By using empathy and applying the lessons of game theory, evolution has built tools into our brains that help us see actions that can be done for both individual benefit and group benefit. These two outcomes need not be mutually exclusive. Powerful tools like these are most likely the source of such ideas as “karma” and “reward in the afterlife”. Cooperating in the wild and then in civilization has allowed humans to advance. Ignoring this behavioral utility very often reduces pleasurable outcomes and may be detrimental to society.

Concrete examples of harmful ignorance include a lack of understanding of cumulative effects. If one person dumps their trash into the river, it probably won’t do too much harm. If a whole city dumps its trash in the river, it probably will do some harm. Drops in a bucket do add up. Each person feels that the consequences of their actions don’t amount to any great harm. Each can easily ignore the miniscule effect they have individually. The responsibility of the sum total of the effects is spread thinly amongst the people. Another example is excluding the ripple effects of an action. When a factory in the US moves oversees, the workers are often given the pink slip and left to fend for themselves. The community as a whole feels the loss, but not those who have a stake in the moving of the factory. In this case, only one side of the equation was considered, intentionally or not. This ignorance of the harmful effects our actions have on others, willful or not, is frequently the cause of immoral deeds.



Blogger Delta said...

Ignorance of the pain that others feel is certainly responsible for many immoral deeds. Most people, unless they were raised in a very, very religious family, have some sort of basic empathy level for others. However, if they don't know that their actions cause others pain, then they won't feel bad about themselves for doing such actions. This is why "democratic" countries can so frequently support war--because their people don't usually get decent reporting on the casualties that the war is creating. They think that they're doing someone a favor by spreading "freedom" and thus support the immoral act.

16 February, 2007 10:12  
Blogger Mookie said...

"They think that they're doing someone a favor by spreading "freedom" and thus support the immoral act."


"Most people, unless they were raised in a very, very religious family"

I have mentioned this, too. People would like to think that human nature is inherently greedy, evil, and selfish, but I would say we have the capacity for both that and remarkable charity. What we do to raise our children largely determines which one of the two main characteristics we exhibit. Religion in many cases ends up reducing empathy and its correct implementation. But really, who cares about non-xians? They're all going to hell anyway.

16 February, 2007 11:05  

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