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.