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The Possession of Knowledge, Essay Example

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Words: 1681

Essay

The Possession of Knowledge Carries an Ethical Responsibility

Introduction

The study of the theory of knowledge is known as Epistemology. It addresses the concept of knowledge to determine its origin, nature, and to define it in terms that are relevant to everyday predicaments. One such quandary is the statement that the possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility. This paper will argue, through a comprehensive analysis of the topic of knowledge, that the latter statement is indeed true.

Discussion

The most popular means to define knowledge is through the application of the tripartite theory of knowledge. This model proposes that knowledge is warranted true belief. However, opponents of this idea argue that certain true beliefs cannot be classified as true knowledge. Because no conclusive resolution can be found, philosophers agree that the most essential question of epistemology remains unanswered(Huemer). However, despite the fact that a precise definition of knowledge remains unclear, it is safe to say that the general population has a clear understanding of what knowledge is. It is something that is learned and then becomes known to the person who obtained the information. In other words, if an individual learns how to drive, he has knowledge about operating a vehicle.

The source of knowledge is another aspect which the tripartite theory of knowledge addresses. Philosophers argue that knowledge stems from two primary sources; rationalism and empiricism(Russell). Rationalism argues that the majority of knowledge is based in reason. Empiricism argues that knowledge is mostly based in experience. In other words, according to empiricism, knowledge comes from living and learning and its result is something that can be proven (as in a scientific experiment); and according to rationalism, knowledge is a mental process that is not learned, but rather an innate quality of mankind (such as the instinctive nature to protect oneself from danger)(Descartes).However, as life shows, most individuals possess both empirical and rational qualities. In other words, it could be argued that knowledge is therefore a combination of empiricism and rationalism, rather than a predominant singular or either(Russell).

As mentioned before, knowledge is warranted true belief. But how are those beliefs justified? This question asks how we warrant what we believe.Empiricism argues that we believe something that is proven to be true. For example, we believe Einstein’s relativity theory because it is scientifically proven to be true. Our justification for the knowledge of science therefore resides on the premise that it can be proven to be true and we therefore accept it as such. We justify certain beliefs because they cannot be refuted. Rationalism argues that knowledge is a mental process; it is therefore more abstract(Audi). For example, a father may teach his son that all African Americans are criminals. He teaches that to his son because that is what he was taught by his father. The son will believe this to be true until his beliefs are proven erroneous. However, if nothing in his life ever happens to teach him otherwise, he justifies his beliefs in what his father taught him. It is important to note that although the outcome of this specific example depends on something that has to be proven, not all knowledge can be justified through proven fact. This is the pivotal point where ethics and morals play key roles. A person may know in his or her heart that the previous statement about African Americans is false, simply because it is immoral to assume otherwise. It may also be false because of personal perception. Perception, after all, is how we collect most of our knowledge(Russell). We utilize our senses to learn about the world around us. Perception, however, is objective. No two persons perceive the same thing the same way. So, one person may perceive African Americans to be predominantly dishonest, while another may perceive them to be mostly honorable. Each person can therefor justify their beliefs based on their personal perceptions(Matilal).

The tripartite theory of knowledge centers on the premise that in order for an individual to possess knowledge, three conditions must be satisfied. The three conditions of knowledge are belief, truth, and justification(Santayana). According to the tripartite theory of knowledge, knowledge (or the claim that one knows something) is dependent on the fact that (1) one must believe it to be true, (2) the knowledge must be justifiable, and (3) the knowledge must be true. If those three stipulations are not satisfied then one does not know it, or possess knowledge of it(Pojman). It is therefore crucial to examine belief, truth, and justification. Belief, according to Pojman (2002) is the primary condition for knowledge. A person cannot know something if he or she does not believe it. Additionally, something may be true and a person may have no justifiable reason to believe it not to be true, but unless he believes it to be true, he cannot know it. Truth is the second condition of knowledge. When a person knows something, that something becomes true(Pojman). However, if something is not true, then a person cannot know it. In other words, an untruth cannot constitute knowledge. Similarly, if one believed something to be true and then it is proven that that thing is untrue, then one no longer knows it. In other words, what was once thought to be known is no longer known. Falsities cannot result in knowledge. Justification is the third condition of knowledge(Gettier). A person cannot claim to know something simply because they believe it to be true; one must also be able to present good reason for believing it to be true. In other words, knowledge can only sprout from having good reason to believe that something is true.

Conversely, Gettier (1963) argued that in some instances a person may believe something to be true and may even be able to justify those beliefs, however, the beliefs does not constitute knowledge. In other words, Gettier (1963) argued that justification is not sufficient evidence to label something as knowledge. Through a series of thought experiments, Gettier (1963) proved that a person may believe something to be true, and then coincidentally correctly predict a certain outcome based on his or her supposed truths. However, although the outcomes may be accurate, the truths used to make those predictions are not the actual reasons for the eventual outcome. In other words, although the person predicted the correct outcome, he or she did not have the correct knowledge to do so. This proves that to simply believe that something is true, and to be able to justify those truths, the person may still not have any knowledge on the subject(Gettier).

Based on the information presented in this paper, one can therefore argue that the possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility. If a person can establish that he or she possess knowledge, then they must be able to prove it to be true, while simultaneously offering good reason for that belief. In addition, the person must also be sure to be able to prove that those supposed truths are in fact true and relevant to the knowledge which he or she claims to own. Doing otherwise would prove to be ethically irresponsible. For example, a man may witness an assault. He sees that Bob is beating Sam. Bob is relentless in his beatings and Sam finally crumbles to the floor. The witness knows the beating to be true, because he saw it. He justifies that Sam is the victim because he could hardly manage to get a punch in. He therefore calls the police and tells them what he saw. However, he does not know that Sam just raped Bob’s wife and Bob was retaliating in an effort to redeem his wife’s calm. The witness, therefore, did not know all the truths surrounding the event and cannot therefore claim to know it. His assumed possession of knowledge is therefore not ethically responsible because he does not know the correct truth to make the events truly known.

Conclusion

Each person is ethically responsible for his or her decisions. As such, personal decisions are dependent on one’s definition of morals and ethics. There is a general understanding of the differentiation between right and wrong, and each person bases their decisions on those definitions. However, despite a person’s personal moral and ethical standards, their decisions, based on knowledge that they believe to be true, may still be unethical. In other words, a person may have very strong ethical and moral standards, and may act on those standards based on their perceived truths; however, those truths may be false and the person’s consequent actions may therefore be unethical. The witness who saw the assault felt morally obligated to report the incident to the police. He reacted on the knowledge of what he knew to be true. Unfortunately he did not have the whole truth and now Bob will be charged with aggravated assault and Sam will be perceived as the victim, even though the truth is that Sam is not a victim at all. Claiming responsibility for the knowledge one assumes to know is a difficult task. It is therefore crucial to examine all aspects of a case prior to claiming that one knows it. It is true that something must be believed, be true, and be justifiable before it can be labeled as knowledge; however, it is also true that not all truths are always the whole truths. It therefore remains the ethical responsibility of each person to ensure that the complete truth is known before they claim to have knowledge of something.

Works Cited

Audi, Robert. Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 2010. Book.

Descartes, Rene. The Philosophical Writings of Rene Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Book.

Gettier, Edmund. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Analysis 23.6 (1963): 121-123. Document.

Huemer, Michael. “Is Critical Thinking Epistemically Responsible?” Metaphilosophy 36.4 (2005): 522-531. Document.

Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Perception: An essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford, India, 1986. Book.

Pojman, Louis P. The Theory of Knowledge: Classic and Contemporary Readings. New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 2002. Book.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1967. Book.

Santayana, George. Scepticism and Animal Faith. Chicago: Dover Publications, 1955. Book.

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