Wilful ignorance or intellectual vanity

There’s been a request for a post on wilful ignorance. How much should we aim to learn about the world, and when should we stop inquiring? Should we read up about the latest violence in Gaza or should we shut it out and concentrate on what we’re doing? In particular, what trade-offs do we face between learning and doing? For every moment we spend reading about tragedies we could be doing something to mitigate or avert it.

To begin we need to ask what we really want to achieve from learning about current events. Do we want to help others in need? Do we want to impress our friends with our learned discussion? Do we simply value accrual of knowledge? All of these are no doubt a part of our decision, yet in each case we face trade-offs. If we want to help people then looking around for people to help reduces the time we can spend actually helping them. If we wish to impress then reading the news reduces the time spent on highbrow discourse. In the final case, there is a trade-off between the depth and breadth of knowledge one can amass.

Most noble must be the goal of helping those most in need. Yet often, when considering great tragedies, there is very little that we can personally do to help. Even if we can do something then the marginal benefit of our actions might be very small. Applying search theory suggests that I should keep on searching if there’s little I can do to help. Since the marginal cost of my involvement is likely to be higher than the marginal benefit I offer, it is better to move on and look for others who I might be able to assist.

This presents a puzzle: if it is best to help where one can truly be of assistance then why do I, in New Zealand, hear more people lamenting the Palestinians’ troubles than the problems local to the South Pacific? Presumably it is because helping others isn’t the only reason why we might choose to learn of their troubles. No, we must also take into account the other motivations for learning of foreign tragedy: to impress friends and to feel knowledgeable.

Should we bother learning about the problems of others even if we can’t help? Depending upon your social circle, probably. How much should we learn? How intellectually vain are you? Should we feel immoral for doing so? Perhaps a moral philosopher can help on that count.

  • Eric Crampton

    You’ve read Hanson over on Overcoming Bias, right?

  • “No, we must also take into account the other motivations for learning of foreign tragedy: to impress friends and to feel knowledgeable.”

    basically, i don’t agree with your assumption that if troubles aren’t local, that we can do nothing. we live in a global village now. an example is the project phoenix team from the waikato going off to sri lanka for some weeks to build houses for those who lost everything in the boxing day tsunami a few years ago.

    in order to do stuff like that, you have care enough. you’re only going to care enough if you have sufficient information about the situation. and you’re unlikely to be able to do as much as an individual as you could if you worked as part of a team (synergy & all that). in order to have a team, you have to persuade other people ie with information.

    i think you miss the issue of collective action, which can be extremely powerful. i can bring up the very often quoted example of south africa in this regard, where collective action, particularly in nz, did have an impact on a situation that was far away from home and not really much to do with us at all. in order for collective action to work, people need to be informed and persuaded as to the cause. so you might want to become informed in order to convince people, for example, to join a global boycott of products or whatever.

    of course, you’re issue of trade-offs stands. one can’t be informed about everything and act for all causes. you have to choose. but then you need information before you can decide about which cause(s) you want to support. and those choices might change if you took the trouble to keep yourself informed.

    see, why was it that these project phoenix people would spend all that time & money & effort to go to sri lanka, when there are plenty of preventable things that cause as many deaths a year (eg starvation)? isn’t it information, which causes one to feel identification?

    i just can’t believe that there are too many people out there who keep informed on a multitude of issues merely for the sake of intellectual wankery.

  • “basically, i don’t agree with your assumption that if troubles aren’t local, that we can do nothing”

    I don’t think that is Rauparaha’s assumption. I got the impression that he was stating that there is, over some range, a trade-off between doing actions that help people and learning new information about the situation where people are struggling.

    “i just can’t believe that there are too many people out there who keep informed on a multitude of issues merely for the sake of intellectual wankery”

    I suspect that there are a large number of people like this – just look at us economists 😛 (jokes, maybe 😉 )

  • Hi Rauparaha,

    I agree with what you are saying, however I also think that there are complementarities between the “effectiveness” of helping other people and the information that has been gained.

    Over some range, gaining information would actually increase the effectiveness of your “helpfulness”. Now, I know that this point seems very obvious – but I still think it is an important one to make as it implies that the “noble” people will still work to gain some degree of information.

    Given the existence of this point, we can state that arguments over whether finding out more information are noble or an ego trip actually depends on implicit judgments surrounding the effectiveness of information to provide solutions or improve decision making. The point where information accumulation turns from a noble task to intellectual wank is under debate – not the fundamental model of information search.

  • Matt Smith

    Another benefit of learning about others’ troubles is that you can often apply the lessons at home. This might be learning about new and interesting ways of dealing with conflict (the South Africa pre to post apartheid example) or learning about what feels good but doesn’t work very well (the Gaza/Israel situation).

    Ultimately of course the extent to which you can apply the things you learn is taken into account in the trade offs you make (but that will depend on your reason for learning or action in the first place).

  • goonix

    “i just can’t believe that there are too many people out there who keep informed on a multitude of issues merely for the sake of intellectual wankery.”

    Oh yes there are.

  • “i just can’t believe that there are too many people out there who keep informed on a multitude of issues merely for the sake of intellectual wankery.”

    “Oh yes there are.”

    i was going to say “oh yeah, show me!”. but on second thoughts…

  • rauparaha

    stargazer:

    We can, of course, sometimes help and perhaps we should in those cases. I think observing that people often accumulate a large body of knowledge on hardship that they cannot alleviate is enough to sustain my point.

    You seem to doubt that people accrue knowledge simply ‘for the sake of wankery’. I don’t have any data on the point but the anecdotal evidence that I have suggests that they do. I can’t do better than that, sorry.

    Matt:

    You make a very good point. The extent to which these complementarities aid us naturally depends upon our expectations about future events. We’d need to know about somebody’s expectations in order to assess their ex ante motivation for gathering information. I stayed away from the issue of uncertainty in the post because I thought it would make it needlessly long, but maybe you could explore the subject sometime 🙂

  • “I stayed away from the issue of uncertainty in the post because I thought it would make it needlessly long, but maybe you could explore the subject sometime”

    Fair enough – there is a trade-off for post length 🙂

    I think we can add the topic to a long list of 100s of other things we want to write about – but currently don’t have the time 😛 . At least with economics you never run out of blogable material 🙂

  • moz

    Not necessarily intellectual vanity directly, but people also learn about problems for reactionary reasons. I have met a few people whose only interest in an issue seems to be arguing against the common wisdom. Although that may just be a cynical response to people who care passionately about an issue but can’t imagine anything they could do about it, so instead just argue. I suspect not, however.

    thanks rauparaha.

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