Knowledge versus ethics

Kenneth asked:

Which is better, being knowledgeable or being ethical?

Answer by Paul Fagan

At first glance, the way this question is phrased seemingly begs a simplistic answer, but with some consideration a few differing answers may be uncovered and three are illustrated here.

Firstly, from an individual viewpoint very subjective answers may arise. If being knowledgeable is considered to be paramount to living a worthwhile life, then a person holding this opinion will tend to view being knowledgeable as being better. Of course, some will hold the opposite view.

However, from a second collective viewpoint, the question is intriguing as there seems to be a very strong relationship between being ethical and having knowledge. As an example, those living in the present age will generally be aware that climate change is occurring and that it needs to be tackled. But consider the following scenarios detailing how persons who are not equipped with the knowledge of how to tackle climate change may be perceived:

  1. A person without knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who inadvertently tackles the problem will be perceived as a person who lives a good life.
  1. A person without knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who remains inactive will be perceived as a blameless person.

In these two examples, those without effective knowledge would not really be judged as acting either particularly ethically or particularly unethically.

However, notice how the addition of knowledge into the mix intensifies the judgment that may be collectively felt:

  1. A person with the knowledge of how to tackle change and who tackles the problem will be expected to be held in high esteem.
  1. A person with the knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who remains inactive can be expected to be held in low esteem.

The introduction of knowledge into the equation allows persons to be perceived as more ethical if they act upon that knowledge, as in case 3: but it also allows persons who ignore that knowledge to be perceived as the most unethical, as in case 4.

A consensus of opinion is likely to give most praise to the person who is both knowledgeable and ethical, and supporters of such a view may argue that being knowledgeable is ‘better’ as the most ethical behaviour is dependent upon first acquiring knowledge.

However, a third point should be noted: being knowledgeable does not necessarily mean that you will act ethically, as in case 4. Certainly, human beings often act irrationally, are not perfect and may even make choices that are not in their own interest. Hence, some may argue that acting ethically for its own sake, as in case 1, should be valued as a better life as it has not been tainted by human failings; moreover, some may even encourage living such a life and following the person’s actions.

Overall, individual subjectivity, human collective psychology and reasoning may give different opinions as to whether knowledge or ethical behaviour is a superior good. Bearing these in mind, readers may be asked to arrive at their own opinion on the matter.

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