This post is by Kevin Lynch, currently a Research Fellow at University College Dublin (pictured above). His research focuses on understanding self-deception and similar phenomena, and also has research interests in psychoanalysis, issues in metaphysics and epistemology, and the philosophy of information. Here he summarises his recent paper 'Willful Ignorance and Self-Deception' published in Philosophical Studies.
What is willful ignorance? The following passage from the memoirs of the high-ranking Nazi Albert Speer is often quoted as a good illustration of it. Here Speer recounts an occasion where his trusted friend and colleague, Karl Hanke, after visiting a concentration camp (probably Auschwitz), reportedly advised him never to accept an invitation to inspect one under any circumstances.
'I did not query him, I did not query Himmler, I did not query Hitler, I did not speak with personal friends. I did not investigate – for I did not want to know what was happening there … During those few seconds, while Hanke was warning me, the whole responsibility had become a reality again … For from that moment on, I was inescapably contaminated morally; from fear of discovering something which might have made me turn from my course, I had closed my eyes. This deliberate blindness outweighs whatever good I may have done or tried to do in the last period of the war … Because I failed at that time, I still feel, to this day, responsible for Auschwitz in a wholly personal sense' (Speer 1971).
The suggestion here is that Speer was willfully ignorance of the fact that inmates were being exterminated in the concentration camps. This looks like an authentic example of willful ignorance, but what would a definition of it look like? In my paper I defend the following analysis of willful ignorance. A subject, S, is willfully ignorant that p (where ‘p’ stands for a proposition) if and only if:
1) p is true.
2) S has a warranted suspicion that p.
3) There are some actions, v, such that were S to do them, he would find out whether p, or there are some actions, u, such that were S not to do them, he would find out whether p, and S knows this.
4) Neither doing v nor not doing u would be exorbitantly demanding for S, and also, v and u are not instances of act types that it would be exorbitantly demanding for S to consistently do/not do.
5) S avoids ving, or S does u, because he does not want to know that p.
6) S should know that p, or it is arguable that he should.
The few philosophers who have discussed willful ignorance tend to assume that it is a kind of self-deception. I argue that willful ignorance and self-deception are distinct psychological kinds. I do this first by showing that none of the main theories of self-deception give any support to the idea that willful ignorance is a kind of self-deception. Furthermore, I give an argument that willful ignorance is not self-deception that is independent of these theories.
In brief, according to this argument if willful ignorance is a kind of self-deception, then it is a kind of deception. If it is a kind of deception, then it should display appropriate similarities to cases of ‘deception proper’, that is to say, cases of interpersonal deception or other-deception. Without such similarities, these could not help constitute a single kind, namely, deception. However, I try to show that there are no noteworthy similarities between willful ignorance and other-deception. Therefore, willful ignorance is not a kind of deception (hence it is not a kind of self-deception).