Ethics of Ignorance

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Moral ignorance is ignorance about the permissibility of one’s conduct. It involves both conceptual and normative issues. We could ask what it is, and we could ask when agents are culpable for it.

§1 distinguishes some main forms of moral ignorance. Agents could be ignorant of different things, for example that their conduct has a certain outcome, or that they could act otherwise. Moreover, agents may be ignorant in different ways. They might never have considered the issue, or they might have considered it, but be mistaken about it.

§2 asks when agent have duties to inform ourselves better and remedy their ignorance, and what these duties prescribe. A duty to question all one’s beliefs seems to provide poor advice, while a duty to reflect to some reasonable degree is insufficiently detailed, and so unhelpful. Suggested duties of inquiry enable one to comply with other duties one has, such as the duty to maximise general welfare.

§3 concerns the follow-up question: if we should have informed ourselves better, then when are we culpable for failing to do so, and our ensuing ignorance? There are two rival views on this question. Volitionism says that we are culpable for our ignorance only if we were aware that we had to inform ourselves better, while attributionism says that we are culpable whenever our ignorance is due to a lack of moral concern.

§4 addresses two further issues concerning the ethics of ignorance. First issue: does culpability for ignorance come in degrees, and how? Second issue: if agents are culpable for their ignorance (or rather excused), then what does this mean, i.e. what kind of culpability is at issue?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
EditorsEdward Craig
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9780415249126
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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