25 February 2021

Ignorance is bliss - are ignorant people happier?

Ignorance is bliss


Topic by Sara and Ines (originally presented as: are ignorant people happier?)


Essay by Lawrence


Even though there is a slight difference between the original title “are ignorant people happier?” and “ignorance is bliss” the implications are not that serious. “Ignorance is bliss” implies we are happy when we don’t know about something. Whereas “are ignorant people happier” implies when someone has issues about their intellectual capacities.


Irrespective of which version we concern ourselves with we can interpret ignorance in two ways: 1) we assume that there is an X that can be known but we don’t; 2) we don’t know that we can know X that is knowable. Basically we can describe these as “not knowing” and “not knowing that we can know”. For example, we know that there is a synonym we can use instead of “ignorance” but we don’t know what it is or maybe even remember the word: oblivious. The other option is that we don’t even know that “ignorance” as a word can have a synonym nor that “oblivious” is a synonym of ignorance.


A standard definition of ignorance is lack of knowledge or information (Google: dictionary). In a previous essay (Wisdom*) I distinguished two types of knowledge: nice-to-know type of knowledge and necessary-to-know type of knowledge. This distinction is relative to what our needs might be at the time. For example, it is nice to know that my local supermarket closes at 9pm every day. However, it is necessary to know that the local supermarket closes at 9pm if I urgently need to buy some supplies late in the evening.


Hence, with passive knowledge or what I call nice-to-know knowledge we can easily be neutral, neither happy nor anything else, even if sometime in the future we might need such information. It is when we need to know something to achieve an objective that ignorance matters. How many times have we had to book an on-line form for a plane ticket and didn’t realise that the form is two pages long and not just one page we can see on the screen.


Imagine our emotional desperation and disappointment when we discover that we had missed a whole page of information on our form. So before discovering our error we were all happy that we finished a hateful task of form filling, but this was a short lived happiness once we knew the truth. There is no doubt that this is a real case of ignorance is bliss.


It might be argued that there is a difference between not knowing and should have known. Indeed the context should have given us a clue that there is something missing when we were not asked to fill in the details of the return date. An argument might be that since it is necessary to know the standard procedure for booking a flight on line we ought to have been more attentive filling in the form. Alternatively, we should not call this a case of ignorance is bliss but maybe something like, stress is a cheater: or maybe not.


But let’s take an extreme case. Let’s consider two people Person A is by all standards an ignorant person, and Person B is by all standards a very intelligent person. Person A knows nothing about back pain nor does Person B, but both suffer from back pain. It would be absurd to imagine that these two people are ignorant and they ought to be happy: even after taking into account that they are the ones feeling the pain. If the objective is to stop the pain, there is not much they can do about it for the simple reason that it takes a certain type of necessary knowledge to treat back pain successfully. Hence, absence of knowledge does not necessarily justify presence of ignorance.


It seems we might have to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity to establish when it is correct to apply the proverb. Hence should ignorance-is-bliss be understood as stupidity-is-bliss? Lack of knowledge is different from lack of intelligence or common sense to learn (Google: dictionary for stupid). And even the latter definition is subject to having the opportunity to learn and maybe also the cognitive background to learn what we generally consider intelligence.


In Western culture, for example, intelligence is usually measured by the skills developed in some profession. Somehow we don’t hold a person who trains as a car mechanic at the same regard of intelligence as someone qualifying as a medical doctor. There seems to be an inherent social prejudice against one activity and not another. For example we believe that the doctor is more intelligent than the car mechanic, yet both people have the same responsibility to keep us safe and not cause us any harm.


Sometimes it seems that ignorance might be one of those things that happens to people; and sometimes even if we know that a situation requires some kind of information or knowledge we still cannot get to that knowledge when we most need it. But when we embark on an endeavour we do seem to have the responsibility to find out what is required for the endeavour to succeed.


Stupidity differs from ignorance in that stupidity betrays an element of lack of thinking. Ignorance has a high element of what information we have and what we can know. Basically it is not always our fault that we don’t know. But since stupidity involves an absence of thinking or disregard toward thinking then that is a different situation. And the difference we may argue is at the moral and rational level.


In pain of being boring, the debate on whether to wear a mask or not during the pandemic is a good example. We are all familiar with the debate about wearing masks so I won’t repeat it here, suffice it to say that wearing a mask proffers more benefits to society and us than not wearing a mask; as for the freedom argument to wear such a mask is not even an issue.


On the balance of probability if we all wear a mask some people won’t catch the virus. The “ignorance” element for our topic is given a situation, how many people won’t catch the virus and what percentage won’t catch the virus because everyone is wearing a mask? I am sure this information is available or can be made available but it is not necessary to know at this level of knowing.


Stupidity is being indifferent to the debate and what matters is the opinion of the person who refuses to wear a mask irrespective of whether that opinion is based on fact or fiction. The stupidity part for the debate is the failure to think whether that opinion is based on fact on fact or fiction. For the sake of the argument I am excluding the possibility that someone refuses to wear a mask out of malice towards society.


Ignorance as in not knowing does not mean that we are being irresponsible or uncaring people. However, not knowing because someone is indifferent whether they know or not is something that at the very least is negligence and most certainly moral irresponsibility.


*Essay on Wisdom: https://www.philomadrid.com/2021/02/wisdom.html


Best Lawrence




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