January 20, 2013
The Possession of Knowledge Carries an Ethical Responsibility “The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility.” The challenge in understanding this claim lies in its broadness. Stated as such without qualification, the statement has no real context and cannot be confirmed or disaffirmed with any solid justification. This is the nature of language: words in and of themselves do not come with a history behind their meaning, the various ways they have been used, and the context with which they are being used at the moment. Many of those qualities have to be surmised by the reader or listener. The word “gay,” for example, has at least two different meanings: the original definition of “joyful” and the more recent definition of “homosexual.” Despite the stark contrast in definition, one can infer the meaning based on the contextual cues, such as the sentence in which the word is used, or the person who said the word. The problem, however, lies in counting on the reader to interpret the meaning of a phrase or word as it was intended, since the reader’s interpretation is subject to error. Being half- Iranian, I understand that the cultural context behind a word also carries a lot of meaning. For example, the direct translation of “No, thank you” in Farsi is “ nah merci,” but the cultural context behind the phrase is different. If I were to say “No, thank you” when offered a piece of fruit, I would still end up getting a piece of fruit. That’s because in Iranian culture, saying “No, thank you” is just polite, but it does not actually mean “No.” The term “knowledge”, as with most words, also holds a lot ambiguity, as there are many different types of knowledge: artistic/aesthetic knowledge, scientific knowledge, spiritual knowledge, pragmatic/practical knowledge, and more—each with its own niche in society. It’s important to identify these different categories of knowledge, because they all carry a different amount of weight in our society. For example, just from walking through the streets of Tehran, seeing women dressed in head scarves and occasionally full-body cloaks, I can tell you that religious knowledge, specifically Islamic, carries a lot of importance in Iran. In America, religious knowledge also carries weight, which I learned from having to recite the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance every morning. Nonetheless, scientific knowledge is what carries the most validity and recognition in our Western culture. Having participated in Public Forum debate for the past three years, I can personally vouge for this statement. Any study presented in a scientific manner, with well-defined variables and reliability, always gives our team a tactical advantage. Not only does the category of knowledge (in this case, scientific) need to have credibility in society, but the source of that scientific knowledge has to have credibility as well. For example, in a debate on the pros and cons of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s), a study on the GMO’s cancer-causing effects cited in The American Journal of Science is going to have a much greater effect on the outcome of the debate than that same study cited in a blog. While in either case the study would probably not be looked at directly, the source of the study and the kind of knowledge it gives is likely to have some bearing on the course of the debate. So in terms of the claim that I’m evaluating, I will define “knowledge” as anything that is believed to be true by a given group, and that has the capacity to effect change. This definition of knowledge is highly important when evaluating the possession of knowledge in terms of ethical responsibility—because if one has a higher capacity to effect change, some might make the argument that they have a higher responsibility with that knowledge—“ with great power comes great responsibility”.
“Ethical responsibility,” however, is also an ambiguous term, as it does not...