Willful ignorance and self-deceptionby Kevin Lynch

Philos Stud




Self-deception and the ethics of belief

David Wisdo

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Ronald B. de Sousa

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Ellen Fridland

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Andre Gombay, Mike W. Martin


Willful ignorance and self-deception

Kevin Lynch1  Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Abstract Willful ignorance is an important concept in criminal law and jurisprudence, though it has not received much discussion in philosophy. When it is mentioned, however, it is regularly assumed to be a kind of self-deception. In this article I will argue that self-deception and willful ignorance are distinct psychological kinds. First, some examples of willful ignorance are presented and discussed, and an analysis of the phenomenon is developed. Then it is shown that current theories of self-deception give no support to the idea that willful ignorance is a kind of self-deception. Afterwards an independent argument is adduced for excluding willful ignorance from this category. The crucial differences between the two phenomena are explored, as are the reasons why they are so easily conflated.

Keywords Willful ignorance  Willful blindness  Self-deception  Deception 

Culpable ignorance  Ignorance 1 Introduction: some examples of willful ignorance

Consider the following well-known passage from the memoirs of the high-ranking

Nazi, Albert Speer. 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 & Kevin Lynch kevinlynch405@eircom.net 1 Woosong University, Daejeon 300-718, South Korea 123

Philos Stud

DOI 10.1007/s11098-015-0504-3 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 1970, p. 376).

It is disputed that Speer knew only as much as he was letting on in this passage, but let’s take him at his word for argument’s sake. What Speer seemingly wants us to think is that although Hanke’s remarks revealed to him that awful things were going on at the camps, they did not disclose exactly how awful they were. In particular, they did not reveal to him that the worst was true: that they were extermination facilities (Speer always denied having known about the Final Solution, though let’s suppose he heard rumours about it or heard it being discussed at senior level). So

Speer couldn’t tell for sure that this was true on the basis of that and perhaps other evidence, since Hanke, a ‘man of sympathy’ (Ibid.), could have advised him similarly had he just witnessed awful living conditions of detainees let’s say. But he also didn’t want to discover that they were extermination facilities if they were (he then would have had to question ‘his course’), so he refrained from inquiring further. Thus he ended up not knowing for sure but nevertheless suspecting that atrocities were occurring at the camps. Or so he’d have us believe.1

Let me present a similar, invented example of less moral gravity. Consider

Burke, who believes he is in good health, but who one day develops some abnormal physical symptoms. He knows that these symptoms can be caused by condition A, which is harmless, or by condition B, a mostly fatal disease. So his having these symptoms would normally justify a visit to the doctor, though condition B is incurable. Let’s also suppose that these developments are not innocent at all.

However, Burke doesn’t go, because he’d rather not know that he has condition B if he does.

These are two cases of what we would call willful ignorance (also called ‘willful blindness’). Indeed, the Speer passage has become a stock example of this, frequently cited to illustrate it.Willful ignorance is an important concept in jurisprudence and has received significant attention by legal thinkers (whose thoughts I draw on in this article). It has received less attention in mainstream philosophy, but when it does get mentioned it is regularly assumed, without much ado, to be either identical to selfdeception or more usually, to be a kind of self-deception. Kathie Jenni, for instance, thinks that the Speer passage illustrates self-deception (2003, p. 283). The psychologist Albert Bandura would agree, who says that ‘[i]n genuine self-deception people avoid doing things that they have an inklingmight reveal what they do not want to know’ (2011, p. 16). So would Nancy Tuana, for whom ‘willful ignorance is a systematic process of self-deception, a willful embrace of ignorance’ (2006, p. 11). 1 It is uncontroversial that he at least knew about the terrible conditions of slave labourers at the munitions factories under his direct command, for which he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

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D. H. Jones is also in this camp, who writes that ‘[t]he most prevalent form of selfdeception… is purposeful evasion of unwanted truths or information… If successful, [this] results in a state of willful ignorance which allows the person to avoid subjective distress’ (2001, p. 782; also see Archer 2013, p. 272; Burrell and Hauerwas 1974, pp. 107–108; Martin 1986, p. 7). I have also noted this tendency from conversations with colleagues; the idea that willful ignorance is a kind of self-deception seems to have prima facie plausibility. The relation between these two things needs to be examined more carefully however, and here I will attempt to disentangle willful ignorance from the category of self-deception, arguing that these are distinct psychological kinds. The tendency to conflate these phenomena will persist unless appropriate analytic work is done.