Justifying Ignorance

I watched a video today. This one in fact. It’s a damning indictment of food marketing and battery farming delivered by an eager young presenter. She ends this wonderfully delivered speech with an accusation of willful ignorance. We, the consumer, are guilty of turning a blind eye to animal suffering, not out of horror or disgust but for the sake of convenience.

As I prepare to eat the massive bowl of fried chicken in front of me, I find myself agreeing with her. Willful ignorance is a powerful tool and it is one that we all employ daily. And its use is far wider than ignoring the plight of animals who wouldn’t exist if we didn’t find them so delicious.

Suffering is everywhere in the world. In fact, there is so much that the following issues have become cliché. There are people homeless and destitute in every major city, people constantly persecuted for reasons of race, gender and sexuality, and let’s not the starving children in Africa who remain hungry despite the efforts of Bono and Make Poverty History (still going, by the way, despite flagging wristband sales).

Why then do we as individuals not spend every minute of every day working tirelessly to solve these problems (as we no doubt would if we were ‘good’ people)? Why, of course, because we insulate ourselves with willful ignorance. Yes, occasionally we might find something that penetrates our protective layers of justification and distraction but all too often, our disgust and horror is momentary, or easily salved by sharing an article on Facebook or Tweeting (#BringBackOurGirls anyone?).

We so easily justify our inaction. In the best cases we simply absolve ourselves of responsibility telling ourselves ‘It’s not my problem, not my fault'; in darker times we might blame the victims or we might simply forget once the media has lost its taste for the tragedy.

I have my own rather convoluted justifications for my laissez-faire attitudes. I don’t give to charity (‘Not until I have a steady income’), I ignore every one of the twenty or so homeless people I pass every day (‘I can’t help all of them’) and I eat copious amounts of meat, eggs and milk (I’m rather proud of this one ‘Animals can’t be considered worthy of ethical consideration’).

Of course, I am doing many of you a disservice by comparing you to me. I am very and genuinely happy to know a large number of good people. People who volunteer abroad, who give to charity, who heal the sick, who fight tirelessly against the injustices of the world. However, willful ignorance is an insidious beast and if one searches for it, it can easily be found.

What do I mean by this? Well, how often when you buy a book, a film, a meal out, or even pay your rent, your internet, your phone bill, do you consider the impact that your spending has on those who have nothing? If it’s any less than 100% of the time then you are guilty of willful ignorance. The reason for this is that in order to prevent yourself from doing very measurable harm to others, you must remain ever vigilant.

Surely purchasing any form of entertainment is not just frivolity but harmful to those who could benefit from the money in your hand. In fact the more good you already do, the greater the evil. The less ignorant you are of the plight of others the more willful you must surely be to justify the purchases that condemn them. Did I mention that the point of this blog was to sell my book?

Now, I have no doubt that all the world’s ethicists, from the Kantians to the consequentialists have serious qualms about the above. The former will say that such self-sacrifice is irrational and the latter say it is unsustainable (do check out Effective Altruism by the way) and there is certainly weight to they say. However, there is a tacit admission behind these claims, and that is this: our ideals are too lofty for us to attain. Willful ignorance is more than just a tool to be used at our convenience, it is a part of our very nature.

We cannot blame ourselves for not giving all we should, because what we ‘should’ is very different to what we ‘can’. This reassures me greatly, however, the very fact that it does rings false. It reeks of convenience. Isn’t the purpose of an ideal to be something to strive towards? Shouldn’t we attempt to overcome our nature at all costs, raising ourselves from mere beasts, mere slaves to impulse to something greater, something transcendent? This is a question that I don’t want to consider right now.

I choose to stay purposefully and willfully ignorant.


  1. It comes down simply to how interested you are and how capable, no? The problem is that these are large scale issues and can’t be solved by any one person at any one time. A millionaire can give a homeless person enough to give them food, shelter, and get them off the streets, but he can’t do this for everyone – and months later he may well walk past the corner where he first saw the guy/girl he’s just helped and see someone new there, in a similar situation, which reminds him that it’s an issue that’s beyond his control. It’s a cycle with no end.

    On a day-to-day basis we engage in tasks that are solvable largely by ourselves in a short amount of time. We have no clean washing, so we put ‘our’ washing into the washing machine, and then hang them up to dry. That issue is then solved within a day or two – and collectively all the washing in the world is ‘solved’ on a recurring basis because we tackle it on an individual basis. The difficulty with larger projects like poverty and violence is that people approach them as concepts – they don’t think, ‘I want to help that man off the street, help him get a job, find shelter’, instead we think, ‘I want to solve poverty’ as an abstract concept. No one person can solve poverty – but one person can save another from poverty.

    So, if every person decided today that global warming was important and decided to tackle it on an individual basis – through recycling, reduction of their own carbon footprint, cycling rather than using a car – the effects would be huge. The abstract concept would be ‘solved’ (I place ‘solved’ here carefully, because that may not be the case) through concentration on an individual basis. If we think ourselves capable of solving an abstract ourselves then we’ll find ourselves overburdened, likely depressed, and eventually we’ll throw the whole thing in the bin.

    Of course, you can’t really (and I believe shouldn’t) force someone to believe that one thing is right and another thing is wrong. All you can really do is give them the information and allow them to work out how they feel about said information. If you sit there watching a programme about the horrors of factory farming , about it’s effect on the environment, the bad effects meat can have on the body etc etc and continue to eat the chicken in front of you you’re not doing anything wrong – at least you’re imbibing the information in the same way you are the chicken. Perhaps, one day in the future, you’ll recall that information and think on it a little deeply, work out how you feel and either shrug and buy some chicken, or decide abstain.

    I’ll end this with an interesting observation. This thing happens which I like to call ‘Rabbit Hole Syndrome’ where you find something you’re interested in and you engage with it, learn about it, read about it loads and loads and loads – you fall down the rabbit hole; into the depths. The rabbit hole is especially useful when it comes to things like animal rights, or societal violence – the more you read about it, the more horrific you realise it is and, if you’re interested, you keep reading on. You learn a lot of horrible things this way, you learn about things very few people have any knowledge of – Unit 731, MKULTRA, COINTELPRO, MKOFTEN etc. You reach a point where you feel like nothing can be done – there’s so much horror, how can you change anything?

    Again, never attempt to change the whole, always attempt to change the part. If everyone tackles a part, the whole is achieved.

    • Just a quick note. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written. My point wasn’t that we should do nothing, merely that all of us do far less than we should.

      Yes, everyone working together solves the world’s problems, but given that everyone doesn’t work together (an unarguable fact), at what point does your individual responsibility end? Effective Altruism attempts to pose some solutions, but it seems that even they argue there are limits to what can be expected of a person.

      I thought it would be interesting to examine the justifications (legitimate or not is irrelevant) we make every day, namely why we feel justified in spending any more than the bare minimum of resources on ourselves. Unless you believe that not saving a life is qualitatively different from killing someone then it seems to follow that every penny you spend unnecessarily (or don’t earn because you’re pursuing a personal project) is hideously immoral.

      I might clarify the point with some thought experiments in a later post (e.g. the difference between eating a Subway sandwich on Princes Street and eating it in front of a starving child in a refugee camp: simply because we are not immediately confronted with the child we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of using the money to feed him).

      Essentially, the point I wanted to make is that we’re all guilty of willful ignorance (to a degree), though I think my line about the chicken might have accidentally made it seem that the whole rant was a justification for me to ignore animal suffering. Ironically, I ate vegetarian the night I wrote it.

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