An epistemological understanding of ethics has always been unnerving. As Bertrand Russell put it, “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.” Indeed, while ethics is similar to mathematics in that it follows a structured, formal system based on ‘moral axioms,’ these axioms ultimately come from our emotions, having no reasonable basis. As we go about our lives, we can rationalize any immoral behavior. What we consider our responsibilities are the behavioral obligations that logically stem from these ideals.
Surely then, knowledge automatically becomes wrapped up in ethical dilemmas, because what conscious behavior can be performed without the individual’s knowledge of it? However, we must be quick to distinguish knowledge from information and unconscious behavior. Information exists physically, independent from beings. Knowledge is the conscious possession of information in a way that can be assessed by its owner. But even given these assumptions, the ethical implications of knowledge lead to several questions. The quantity and variety of knowledge is vast; surely the importance of some facts outweighs others. What kinds of knowledge carry ethical responsibility? How do we even know what that responsibility is? If the quote is true we must also consider its converse. Does ignorance absolve us of responsibility? In regards to these questions, I as a ‘knower’ have come to the following conclusions:
Knowledge always carries an ethical responsibility, but the extent of that responsibility changes proportional to the gravity of the potential consequences of its use. Furthermore, our responsibility can either be to disseminate or withhold knowledge, depending on which creates the greatest long term good, for the greatest many (where ‘good’ is a measure of collective happiness).
It is hard to judge whether or not knowledge itself carries ethical responsibility. Certainly knowledge is an enabling agent that allows us to act ethically, but to say this is an association, rather than an inherent characteristic. The quote is only absolutely true in ethical systems that explicitly denote knowledge as a virtue; otherwise knowledge's ethical significance just logically stems (by enabling opportunity) from ethical axioms that do carry inherent responsibility. Whether these steps in logical progression can be independently isolated is a matter of belief, and carries no practical value.
Semantics aside, it is more important to assess the extent of knowledge's importance in fulfilling ethical duties whether it's implicitly ethical or not. In school we learn many things, yet surely not all those things carry moral weight. Yet hypothetically, any situation can be construed in which even the most trivial knowledge bears significant consequences. Accordingly, all knowledge has ethical potential, but some knowledge is more potentially important. Food packaging companies have an ethical responsibility to label if their food contains peanuts, because the consequences are life-threatening.
Still, what system should we use? There’s a vast quantity of cultures and religions with widely varying ethical axioms. In response, moral relativism deems ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as ultimately subjective. Yet in terms of value judgment, if anything can be moral, then nothing is moral. Ethics as a meaningful concept must be universally relevant. In ninth grade we read Plato's Republic. The character Thrasymaccus proposed that justice is ultimately determined by the mightiest individual, because they have the means of enforcing their will. This natural approach is called social Darwinism. Yet ethics still exists. The truth is that as a social species we've developed ethical guidelines in order to coexist. By...