Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Ethics of Information

by Dominick Dodgson

Currently, there are tens of thousands of human rights violations taking place throughout the world. At the same time, there are over 1.5 million non-profit organizations registered in the United States alone, most raising money for a good cause. I don’t need to know about all of them or their individual missions and concerns. Nor do I need to be involved with the vast majority of them. In fact, if I’m honest, I just don’t really care about most of them.

As finite humans, there is a limit to just how much we are able to care. And because of that, I question many of my friends’ ethical mandates to constantly “be informed.” We can cherry pick the issues we choose to engage until we appear to have a well-rounded portfolio of activist concerns, but we can never be fully informed on every issue that confronts peace and well-being. We can only ever “be informed” about the narrowest of slivers or the cause du jour.

But woe to us, if we are not! I voiced this concern once, wondering why someone’s moral standing was dependant on how much news media they ingested, and my concern was met with rabid rebuttals. “How can we,” they asked, “if we aren’t aware of the world’s atrocities, be sure to avoid them in our own community?” We can’t be sure. But history has shown that awareness of horrors is no vaccine to prevent their recurrence.

So I voice the concern again. I question the mandate to consume news as an ethical duty; the need to know all of the bad things happening around the world. And I certainly question the name-calling and shaming that implicitly happens when we assume that being informed equals a higher level of ethical living, something I have experienced with my more “progressive” and “liberal” friends.

In full disclosure, this conversation is personal for me. My wife doesn’t watch the news. She makes it a point NOT to be on the Internet to find out what’s happening in the world. She doesn’t even have a Facebook account for crying out loud. “What!?” you might be saying, “No Facebook? No Jon Stewart or Colbert? But what about the children?! Surely we must do something to protect the children!” But in spite of all her lack of information, my wife is one of the most caring and ethical people I know. She is concerned about our community and we strive to be actively involved in making it a better place. Somehow she missed the memo that said it was her duty to know what’s happening in the world. And yet, she seems to be doing quite alright, morally speaking.

So, with that in mind, here are my more concrete concerns with an overemphasis on being informed:

1. The very word “Informed,” like most words, is a slippery term wherein a person’s definition typically says more about the person than the term. How much information does a person need to consume before they pass the threshold from “uninformed” to “informed”? Do you know about the anti-gay agenda in Uganda? Okay, here’s your “informed” certificate. Oh wait, you don’t know about the religious violence in the Central African Republic? I’m going to need that certificate back. And who is in charge of those certificates anyway? What makes them the “informed” authority?

Based on the amount of information we now have access to I would hazard a guess to say almost every 5th grader in America is more “informed” about current events in the world than almost every person born before the invention of the printing press. And somehow I don’t think that means every 5th grader in America is less prone to unethical behavior than every person born before the invention of the printing press.

Which leads me to point number two:

2. An overemphasis on being informed can lead to equating the ethical life with simply knowing what is happening, which seems dangerous. Because of the rise of “Causes” on Facebook and the ability to flaunt our enlightened opinions online, it seems many people genuinely think that the greatest test of our ethic is measured by (a) how “disgusted” we are at people who do bad things and (b) how dramatically we can talk about our disgust publicly. The more we know about bad things going on in the world, the more we can verbally condemn them, ergo, the more ethical we must be. Sounds like flawed calculus to me.


3. Knowing about more injustices than we can possibly do anything about is depressing. It seems cruel to keep shoving more information about problems in our world into heads that can only care so much. We already know more about the world’s ills than we could possibly integrate into our immediate lives, so to keep heaping it on just seems to increase our anxiety and fear; it inspires a feeling of helplessness. Dr. Mark Warr, a sociologist from the University of Texas, says it this way: “People are bombarded with information about crime from the media, which makes them believe the world is a much more dangerous place than it really is. This creates a climate of fear that can negatively affect the way we live, the way we go to work, the times we shop and the precautions we take for our families and children.”

So, if the way to a more ethical culture is found only through the crucible of fear, then by all means, keep the articles and graphic images flowing. But I’m inclined to think a better society comes through love, not fear, what with Paul’s “perfect love casts out fear” and all.

Now, in order to pre-empt those among us who like to swing pendulums from black to white, I am not advocating anti-intellectualism or non-engagement of the issues we face. I am not advocating an ignorant love of feel-good clichés and puppies. I’m not suggesting we bury our heads in the sand. I am simply calling for nuance.

If you feel the need to keep up with all the problems in our world in order to be a part of the solution, I commend your effort. But I ask you not to claim that only such a posture is morally high ground. Perhaps not all of us feel that need. Perhaps there are other ways to be part of the solution and we need to make room for those ways. 

Dominick Dodgson is a professor of philosophy & ethics who consumes pop-culture and pretends it's "research." You can follow him on Twitter @dedodgson and read more posts at 

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Image Credits:
Image #1 via Will Lion 
Image #2 via Jeff Maurone 
Image #3 via Sharon Pruitt 
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