Virtues and Vices

They say that ignorance is bliss. I think that this is true, not because ignorance itself is particularly virtuous, but rather because knowledge imparts two heavy burdens. I say two, but perhaps they are more like the opposing faces of the coin than entirely independent things. The first is responsibility. The second is power.

Let us consider this for a moment in terms of a painfully first world problem: ethical clothing choices. The average American wants cheap clothing, and to get it, we've turned a blind eye toward inhumane practices and the relatively poor quality of the goods we're so eagerly consuming. It's awkward when we find out that our shoes were produced in a sweat shop in Cambodia. Why should someone suffer so I can wear name brand kicks? And yet... How can I even begin to care about someone I've never met and will never meet, care about them more than my competing priorities for social status?

Even if the factory conditions are fair and the workers are being treated well, there's a second issue to which I have already alluded: the cheapness of the clothing manifests itself in poor quality, leading us to always be purchasing new things and often to wasting the old. It's a huge culture of waste and consumption that basically requires low quality in order to ensure its continued existence.

In a world of newsfeeds, it's so much more comfortable to check out and disengage from these difficult realities. And they demand something effortful from us, something we don't want to give. So yes, given our bent toward inertia, we do find ignorance to be blissful. But it's also naive and utterly unsustainable.

It's naive to think that this culture can go on forever without returning the harm to us. It's unsustainable to consume and consume without consideration for our future selves and others who will share our world. 

Kierkegaard was a rather melancholic philosopher and in his Sickness Unto Death he argues that knowledge and specifically self-knowledge are incredibly depressing, but that awareness, for all its pain, is better than ignorance.

When we obtain knowledge about something, we also gain a responsibility to act in accordance with the dictates of conscience and, such as it is, truth. At the same time, we gain a certain measure of power over the thing in question, even if we don't always see it in that light.

For example, I personally don't have the power to change the clothing industry to make it more humane and less wasteful, nor, arguably, do I have that responsibility. What I do have is the responsibility and power to change my own habits of consumption and to urge my friends to do likewise. 

One person can only do so much, save by the strange machinations of history and social events, but it is still better to see the iceberg and to do one's part than to ignore it entirely and go on dancing through life merely to spare one's peace of mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment