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Ethical Knowledge, Essay Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1659

Essay

http://books.google.com/books?id=l_HMz6Ub-rcC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Two primary questions are often associated with the notion of human knowledge. The first question is: what is knowledge? That is, how can knowledge be defined? Also, what if anything constitutes the source of knowledge? The second significant question that is often associated with the notion of knowledge is whether or not possession of knowledge carries with it a corresponding degree of ethical responsibility. At first glance, this question may appear very simple to answer. Obviously someone who has the codes to launch a nuclear missile posses knowledge that requires ethical responsibility. However, even in such apparently clear cases such as possession of nuclear codes, the nuances of philosophical argument bring out enough ambiguity to warrant discussion. When the same philosophical approaches are used to different ares of knowledge, such as artistic or scientific knowledge, the question of ethical responsibility becomes increasingly complex.

Before it is possible to determine the nature and potential boundaries of ethical responsibility in regard to knowledge, it is necessary to offer an attempt to define what knowledge is. In order to do so, the following quick survey will examine several philosophical positions regarding the nature of knowledge. these will, in turn, be compared to several ethical systems to demonstrate that there is, in fact, an ethical responsibility that corresponds to the possession of knowledge. The formal, philosophical approach to the argument will be supplemented by reference to personal experience. This is due to the fact that,as the following discussion will conclude, while ethical responsibility for knowledge exists, the subjective experience of this responsibility is varied. It is so varied that a formal system of rules or law that described the responsibilities of knowledge would be impossible to create.

Richard van de Lagemaat in his study Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma (2011) notes that knowledge, no matter of what kind or to whom it belongs represents the human need to “impose an order, a pattern that will enable us to make sense of the world” (van de Lagemaat, 2011, p. 110). The idea that knowledge is a way of imposing meaning on the world rather than drawing meaning out of the empirical reality is very important in relation to the question of ethical responsibility. This is because knowledge defines the world we all share, even though it represents a projection of order rather than a recognition of intrinsic order. Time is a perfect example of how this dynamic of knowledge functions. The way that we all run our lives on clocks reflects our need to impose an order on the world that is a fabrication, but which is also knowledge. Speaking from personal experience, it is obvious that half an hour spent in the company of a good friend passes quicker than half an our waiting for a bus. This is due to the fact that emotional, subjective experience is also a part of the way we experience reality.

G.T. Ladd in  Philosophy of Conduct: A Treatise of the Facts, Principles, and Ideals of Ethics (1902) offers the observation that: “This attitude toward reality in which knowledge consists — call it what you will, envisagement, intuition, belief, inference, or what not, or better all combined” is the result of a combination of emotional, logical, and psychological factors.  Ladd writes that knowledge consists of “not identical nor yet distinct and separable forms of functioning — namely, intellection, feeling, will.” (Ladd, 1902, p. 594). Because knowledge is based only partially on sensory experience and logic, it is difficult to call knowledge something that rests on purely empirical experience.

The way that emotional experience underlies the human experience of knowledge is as important as the empirical experience that forms the foundation of knowledge. Because the possession of knowledge carries with it an emotional consequence as well as a rational consequence it is easy to see why Lloyd in his work: Part of Nature: Self-Knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics (1994) chose to emphasize Spinoza’s ideas about the influence of emotion on knowledge. Lloyd interprets Spinoza’s writings as suggesting that “the virtue and power of a mind is defined by the power of its knowledge of its passions”  (Lloyd, 1994, p. 102). This suggests that knowledge of self is crucial in defining the nature of ethical responsibility. The idea that “passions” or emotions play a significant role in modes of knowledge and modes of ethics will be highly important in the second half of the present discussion, when ethical systems and their relationship to knowledge and responsibility are examined.

The basic idea is that part of what constitutes and ethical or moral judgment is based on an emotional, rather than purely rational, response.  Of course, as Ladd points out, the idea of knowledge devoid of emotional response or ethical responsibility forms an underlying part of the scientific perspective of knowledge. It is this mode of knowledge that is commonly considered to be the most “authentic” in that scientific knowledge is believed to offer insight into empirical nature of reality. Ladd asserts that, according to this model, “As knowledge grows, man’s conception of reality becomes more comprehensive and more profound” (Ladd, 1902, p. 600). So, even at the level of empirical knowledge, some degree of ethical responsibility is suggested.

Particularly in regard to scientific knowledge, van de Lagemaat’s assertion  that “when you say that you know something, you are, in a sense, taking responsibility for its being true” (28) seems poignant and true. The nature of revealing increasingly profound discoveries and facts about the objective world seems to carry the fundamental responsibility for applying that knowledge in an ethical way. This is why there are regulations that control the practice and responsibility of doctors and other professionals. I have, myself, been mis-diagnosed by a physician. The responsibility, by law, for this mistake, led to the physician being held accountable. However, not all cases, even those which involve scientific knowledge, are the same.

If all cases were the same it would be possible to codify a set of laws that govern all responsibility for knowledge, scientific or otherwise.  D. G. McNabb in his book David Hume, His Theory of Knowledge and Morality (1951) suggests that true ethical responsibility, according to Hulme, requires a degree of self-determination. McNabb observes that “”Hume argues that the liberty of spontaneity is, indeed, necessary for moral responsibility,” (MacNabb, 1951, p. 201). This means that ethical responsibility bears a close connection to self-knowledge. The reflective capacity to make moral judgments is informed by something other than obedience to abstract laws. The emotional and subjective component of ethical responsibility is revealed through knowledge and particularly knowledge of self. Closely aligned to this thought is Hume’s idea that “the foundation of moral distinctions was a moral sentiment, which was perfectly natural in origin, arose as the result of discoverable psychological processes” (MacNabb, 1951, p. 160). The important assertion is that ethical responsibility and  self-knowledge are, to some extent, symbiotic. One requires knowledge of self to make spontaneous ethical decisions.

Another perspective on ethical responsibility, that offered by Immanuel Kant suggests that “ethics is a matter of doing your duty” (393). This perspective indicates that an external rather than internal function creates an ethical responsibility that corresponds to knowledge. In this case, it is one’s responsibility to scoiety that evidences the responsibility of knowledge. An example of this would be, in my own case, the responsibility I have to make sound ethical choices in my scholastic career. If I make bad ethical choices, such as skipping class or avoiding my work, my choices will impact other people. If I possess knowledge about someone else who is acting in a dishonest way my choice to divulge this information or keep it private is an ethical decision based  at least in part on my sense of responsibility to the larger society of which I am a part.

This brings into question the difference between possessing knowledge and acting on knowledge. It is true that “”some people have argued that in itself knowledge is always a good thing and that we should distinguish between the possession of knowledge and the use to which it is put” (van de Lagemaat, 2011, p. 455). This statement also brings to mind the conviction that knowledge carries with it an ethical responsibility. In fact, the statement shows that knowledge by itself may be an ethically neutral component, but combined with subjective human response and the implementation of knowledge, ethical responsibility becomes and unavoidable consequence of possessing knowledge.

As previously mentioned, the responsibility that knowledge creates extends beyond those modes of knowledge that are understood to be scientific or rational.  Artistic knowledge for example also carries a weight of ethical responsibility.  Van de Lagemaat asserts that in terms of the ethical responsibility for artistic knowledge, it is the emotional basis of knowledge that plays the most important role. He writes: “the arts have a moral and educational role…The connection between the arts and ethics is said to derive from the fact that they provoke emotions that influence our behavior” (Van de Lagemaat, 2011, p. 347). The best conclusion to draw is that all forms of knowledge, whether empirical or subjective in nature carry a corresponding degree of responsibility. As the preceding discussion has clearly established, the adoption of various theories of knowledge indicates a similar disclosure that knowledge is both empirically and subjectively based.  Closely aligned with these facts is the reality that self-knowledge and ethical responsibility seem to be simultaneous influences over the individual capacity to make ethical decisions. Therefore it can be truly stated that there is no knowledge that can be possessed that does not also carry an ethical responsibility.

References

Ladd, G. T. (1902). Philosophy of Conduct: A Treatise of the Facts, Principles, and Ideals of Ethics. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.

Lloyd, G. (1994). Part of Nature: Self-Knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

MacNabb, D. G. (1951). David Hume, His Theory of Knowledge and Morality. London: Hutchinson’s University Library.

Van de Lagemaat, Richard. (2011) Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma. Cambridge University Press.

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