Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 2
Catchy quotes and sayings — “chestnuts” — can undergo slight mutations over time.
Sometimes, those chestnuts are proverbs or rules. And sometimes, those gradual mutations can modify those proverbs or rules so much that their original wisdom is completely destroyed, converted into non-wisdom.
Last time in this 2-part series, we talked about “The Ends Can’t Justify the Means.” Today, we’ll talk about “Ignorance is No Excuse.” Both of these are false chestnuts.
“Ignorance is No Excuse”
Let’s say you’re a manager who delegates many of your responsibilities to your subordinates.
One day, one of your subordinates mails a package without including a special serial number, and it causes problems for your team. You call him into your office.
“You’re in trouble,” you say. “You mailed a package off to finance without including the sorting number.”
“But I had no idea I was supposed to do that!” he replies.
“Ignorance is no excuse,” you say.
The thing is, it was your responsibility to train him, a week ago, in applying proper serial numbers on special packages. You know that you failed to do this; you cut the training short to pick up your dog and didn’t get to the part about numbering packages. You knew this would leave a gap in his ability to make right decisions according to your company’s processes, and yet you did it anyway, and didn’t bother to fill him in later.
The reason I transferred the responsibility for this mistake to you is because it most obviously alleviates the subordinate’s responsibility. Clearly, ignorance was a perfectly valid excuse.
How can you act upon what you did not know, and couldn’t have known?
When Ignorance is Blameworthy
Here are some alternative versions of the above thought experiment.
- You (the manager) stayed for the whole training, but the subordinate left early, and never followed-up to get the information he missed.
- The training hasn’t happened yet, but it was expected of the subordinate to ask a superior or experienced coworker to make sure that new-to-him tasks are done properly.
In these cases, the subordinate’s ignorance was catalyzed by his own blameworthy behavior — here, negligent behavior.
Ignorance that was not catalyzed by blameworthy behavior is called “invincible ignorance.” Invincible ignorance is a legitimate excuse.
I myself am not a Catholic, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church correctly identifies this brand of ignorance (1790-1791, 1793a):
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
If — on the contrary — the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.
When Ignorance Cannot be Respected
Even though invincible ignorance is a legitimate excuse, there’s no way for one human to know for certain that another’s ignorance is invincible.
Humans lie all the time, and will (if given a cultivating environment) pretend that their blameworthy (usually by way of negligence) ignorance is invincible.
We will, in fact, lie to ourselves to alleviate guilt of this kind. “I couldn’t have known,” is a common self-encouraging mantra, when we often could have known, if only we had practiced some due exploratory diligence.
(The trick, here, is not to “overcorrect” into paranoia or worry — that is, excessive and deleterious bet-hedging and consciously-made anxiety. Diligence is a “too cold,” “too hot,” “just right,” Goldilocks issue, like with many virtues.)
Humans Can’t Verify Invincibility… but God Can
Of course, verifying invincibility isn’t a problem for an omniscient God.
This is why the judgment to which we Christians look forward judges the secret thoughts of everyone. A person’s thoughts will at times accuse them, but at other times excuse them.
They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
… But, Again, Humans Can’t
Many practical human-to-human systems will have “ignorance is no excuse” as an official position because of the impracticality of verifying invincibility.
This position, though not how morality “works,” is a decent practical rule to account for the failings of human weakness (that of one party to lie, and that of the other party to be unable to verify).
The previous article in this series, if you remember, ended similarly. And this gives us a cool pattern in the abstract against which to evaluate those funny moral chestnuts. It tells us that just because something is a classic chestnut, and is a popular rule, and is a useful rule very often, doesn’t mean it should be considered fundamental when we’re talking meta-ethics — that is, how morality “works” underneath.