Is Ignorance Bliss?
This age-old saying may be misleading.
This topic piqued my interest when I heard Emma Chamberlain talking about it in her last podcast episode. As it always goes with her podcast, the wisdom she brought to this seemingly mundane topic made me really ponder what I thought about it myself.
And after some thinking, I've concluded that the saying "ignorance is bliss" is probably poorly worded. If I could correct the phrase I would say "ignorance is sweet."Ignorance is something that feels nice while you're in the midst of it, but once you're on the other side, you'll realize there was always so much more waiting for you.
The biggest argument against the idea of "blissful ignorance" is that the more information you have at your disposal, the better your decisions will be. Therefore, having more knowledge (in a general sense) will always be better for you. And to prove this concept, think about situations that would certainly make you unhappy, but that you would much rather know about than not. Imagine you're being cheated on, or that someone you think is your friend actually gossips about you. While the truth may be uncomfortable, it is imperative to our pursuit of well-being.
Think about all the things you know and all of the wisdom you've gained as you've gotten older. That includes the good and the not-so-savory. Would you willingly abandon that? The reason you'd likely rather hold on to your knowledge is that knowing more means you have more choice over what happiness looks like for you. In my post, Higher Pleasures: What Mill Teaches us about Gratitude, I agree with John Stuart Mill's claim that it is better to be wise and miserable than it is to be ignorant and happy.
I might even go as far as to say that the more I know, the more blissful I am. When you are ignorant of the world around you, it's much harder for you to reason through problems and it is more likely that your actions will have unforeseen bad consequences.
Furthermore, we are all morally obligated to believe only so far as we have evidence to support. What you believe to be true matters, and so ignorance can even be considered unethical. I learned this idea from W.K. Clifford's essay The Ethics of Belief. As explained in Notes on W.K. Clifford and William James published by Queensborough Community College,
"[Clifford] wants to convince us that forming our beliefs in the right way is a matter of real ethical importance. Thus, he begins with an example where the connection between belief and ethical considerations seems very strong: the ship-owner knows that his ship might need to be overhauled. Before the ship leaves port, however, he talks himself out of his doubts. He reminds himself that the ship has sailed safely many times before. He reminds himself that he believes in Providence. And he persuades himself not to distrust the shipbuilders and contractors who have worked on the boat in the past.
The ship sinks in mid-ocean and all aboard it die.
Clifford insists: the ship-owner is morally responsible for the deaths of these people. And his failing is clear: he let his beliefs be guided by things other than the evidence. Further, Clifford insists, he would be just as guilty if the ship had never sunk... What makes actions wrong is not a matter of results. He had no right to believe that the ship was safe; it was wrong of him to hold that belief, even if he is lucky enough to have nothing go wrong as a result."
This shipowner committed the moral wrong of believing something that completely went against evidence and people lost their lives because of it. As it was mentioned in the excerpt, even if no one got hurt, he would have still been in the wrong even if he was afforded moral luck.
The point is, do your due diligence! Ignorance is not excusable. Seek more information in every aspect of your life in every possible way. The nature of our existence on earth means that none of our beliefs or actions exist in a vacuum. It's actually quite the opposite. So learn about the world around you and the humans you share it with. Learn about nature, biology, the land you occupy, your ancestors, why you do what you do, etc. Then proportion your beliefs only to the evidence you find. And when you don't have enough evidence or any at all, practice withholding your judgment. Say "I don't know" when you're not certain.