Saturday, October 11, 2014

Better Not to Know

When is it better not to know, rather than to know, something? Given that knowledge is often held to have intrinsic value or to be intrinsically good (take the well-known aphorism that “knowledge is power,” for example), can there be cases in which it is better not to know, rather than to know, something?
      Perhaps in some cases it is better not to know something, if there is nothing to be gained (or lost) by knowing (or not knowing) that thing. Unless one holds that all knowledge is intrinsically valuable and that there is always something to be gained by knowing something, then there may be cases in which one doesn’t lose anything by not knowing something. Indeed, there may be cases in which one loses something merely by attempting to know about something, if that thing is useless, pointless, and of no value to know about. There may be cases in which it is better not to know about something that is irrelevant to one’s particular field of (moral, scientific, professional, social, or intellectual) inquiry, if that thing is potentially distracting or misleading.
      It may also be better in some cases not to know about something, if knowing about it will lead one to expend unnecessary efforts or submit to unnecessary interventions that will ultimately be detrimental or of no benefit. Thus, for example, submitting to medical tests in order to diagnose whether one has cancer may in some cases be needlessly burdensome and medically unnecessary, if knowing that one has cancer and having it treated will not produce any benefit with regard to one's life expectancy or quality of life.
      It may be better in some cases not to know about something, if knowing about that thing will be harmful or detrimental to the knower. Unless a person has a moral right to know about something, regardless of the fact that such knowledge may be harmful to that person, or unless a person has a moral responsibility to know about something, or unless the well-being of others depends on a person’s knowing about something, then there may be cases in which it may be better for that person not to know about that thing.  If only harm, and no good, can come from a person’s knowing about something, then it may be better for that person not to know about that thing (although there may be a serious question as to who has the moral right to decide what knowledge about a given thing will be harmful, and to whom such knowledge will be harmful).
      Who has the moral right to decide for another person that it is better for him or her (or that it is in his or her best interest) not to know something? Must this right (if there is such a right) be reserved solely for a parent, family member, or legal guardian? How about a friend or advisor? An attorney? An elected public official? Does a government ever have a right to decide that it is better for a society not to know about something?
      Whoever decides that it is better for someone not to know about something may be exercising a form of censorship or paternalism with regard to knowledge about that thing. Judgments may therefore need to be made about whether such censorship or paternalism is justified or unjustified, necessary or unnecessary (and in what context it may be justified or unjustified, necessary or unnecessary).
      There may be cases in which it is better not to know something, if one is emotionally or psychologically unprepared to deal with the possible consequences of knowing that thing. Discovery of unknown or unsuspected facts, occurrences, or events may in some cases have unanticipated consequences for the emotional and psychological well-being of the discoverer.
      It may perhaps be better not to know something, if such knowledge will cause an unnecessary and unwarranted change in the attitudes and behavior of the knower. If knowing about something will have a significant adverse effect on the attitudes and behavior of the knower, even though the thing is actually of little significance, then knowing about it may be detrimental to the well-being of the knower (as well as to the well-being of those in his/her family, social group, or community).
      There may be cases in which it is better not to have known something than to have known it and have acted without proper attention to, and regard for, its significance.
      It may perhaps be better not to know about something, if one will be held morally or legally culpable for knowing about it. At the same time, however, one’s moral or legal culpability (or lack of it) for knowing about something may depend on whether one has wrongfully gained that knowledge or whether one has wrongfully acted or failed to act upon that knowledge (even if one has not wrongfully gained that knowledge). Similarly, one's culpability for not knowing about something, if one has been expected by others to have known about it, may depend on whether one has wrongfully failed to know about it or whether one has merely innocently failed to know about it through no fault of one’s own.
      It may be better not to know something, if knowing that thing will lead one to have false hopes, expectations, or preconceptions about that thing. Knowing something may in some cases lead to frustration, disappointment, or denial if one’s hopes, expectations, or preconceptions about that thing are not fulfilled.
      It may perhaps also be better not to know about something, if one knows that one does not know, and that unknown thing (entity, fact, event, etc.) turns out to be relatively unimportant, but investigating it leads to the discovery of other things (entities, facts, events, etc.) that are much more important and that one would not have discovered, had one not known that one did not know about that thing. Another way of saying this is: it may be better not to know about something, if knowing that one does not know produces much greater knowledge than would otherwise have been attained.


      

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Positive and Negative Intentions


Can we express an intention to perform an action when we actually have no intention of performing that action or when we actually have an intention not to perform that action?
      Perhaps in some cases we may actually desire to deceive or mislead others regarding our intention to perform an action. Perhaps in other cases we may not actually desire to deceive or mislead others, but we may feel obligated to express an intention to perform an action, even though we may not feel inclined to perform that action.
      How is having an intention not to perform an action different from having no intention of performing that action? Perhaps the difference consists in the presence or absence of intention. If we have an intention not to perform an action, then we may have consciously decided against performing that action, and we may actively try to avoid performing that action. If we have no intention of performing an action, however, then we may not have consciously decided against performing that action, and we may not actively try to avoid performing that action.
      If we have only a negative intention regarding an action (an intention not to perform that action), then how can we express a positive intention (an intention to perform that action)? If we have a negative intention, then must we also have a positive intention in order to be able to express an intention to perform that action?
      A possible answer to the latter question may be that in some cases we may be ambivalent or morally uncertain about our past, present, and possible future actions. Our intentions regarding the performance of an action may change over time. We may initially have an intention not to perform an action (a negative intention), but later develop an intention to perform that action (a positive intention), and vice versa.
      We may intentionally or unintentionally express our intentions, and we may intentionally or unintentionally act on our prior intentions.  We may also in some cases try to convince ourselves that we have intentions that we don’t actually have. We may in some cases undeservedly credit ourselves for having honorable intentions, and we may in other cases undeservedly discredit ourselves for having less than honorable intentions.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Caveats Regarding the Expression of Intentions


A distinction must be made between those actions that are both voluntary and intentional and those that are voluntary but not intentional. Not all voluntary actions are intentional, in the sense of being based on, derived from, or guided by, prior intent. We may in some cases voluntarily perform actions that we did not previously intend to perform (or have a prior intention of performing).
      We may in some cases express an intention to perform an action even though we know there is little likelihood that our intention to perform that action will be fulfilled. Indeed, the action may be one that is very difficult or nearly impossible for us to perform, even though we have expressed an intention to perform it. We may also in some cases unknowingly deceive ourselves as to our ability to perform an action, and we may also unknowingly or knowingly deceive others as to our ability to perform that action.
      We may also in some cases say that we intend to perform an action that we in fact have no good reason to perform. In such cases, there may be a lower degree of likelihood that we will fulfill our intention to perform the action than in cases where we have good reason to perform the action.
      We may also in some cases not be able to identify all the reasons for our intentions. We may also not always be able to explain our intentions to ourselves and others. We may lack adequate insight into the nature of our intentions. Other persons may have difficulty interpreting or understanding our actions when our intentions are unclear or unexplained (to them and even to ourselves).
      We may also in some cases express an intention to perform an action even though we have little or no intention of performing that action. We may fail to recognize or admit our true intentions, and we may unconsciously or consciously ignore, deny, or refuse to acknowledge them.
      Thus, we may in some cases make unintentionally false or misleading statements about our true intentions, simply because we have failed to recognize or acknowledge them.
      Can we actually be mistaken about our own intentions? If we fail to examine them when they are unclear, when they appear to be logically or morally inconsistent, or when they appear to be in conflict, then perhaps we can be mistaken about them.
      We may also in some cases deceive others (and ourselves) about our true intentions. We may conceal, disguise, or misrepresent our true intentions.
      We may also in some cases have morally wrong and unjustified intentions (e.g. if we wrongfully intend to harm, injure, offend, annoy, inconvenience, harass, or humiliate other persons), and our statements about those intentions may also be morally wrong and unjustified (e.g. if we make intentionally false, deceptive, or misleading statements about those wrongful intentions).
      Our having expressed an intention to perform an action may, however, provide additional motivation for us to perform that action, by requiring us to demonstrate our truthfulness and sincerity. Our expression of an intention to perform an action may entail some degree of responsibility on our part to confirm or verify that intention.
      We may in some cases, however, intend to perform an action without knowing all its possible consequences, and thus the action may be intended and intentional but have unintended or unanticipated consequences.
      Regarding the question of whether a distinction should be made between an “intended” and an “intentional” action, the distinction may consist in whether or not the action is actually performed. If an action is intended, then the intention to perform that action may or may not be fulfilled (the action may or may not actually be performed). If an action is intentional, on the other hand, then it is actually performed—intentionally, on purpose, or deliberately. It makes no sense to say that an action that was “intended” but not performed was “intentional,” although its being intended may be a manifestation of its “intentionality.”
      Some examples of sentences expressing an intention to perform an action include “I intend to do that,” “I have every intention of doing that,” “I’m going to do that,” “I plan to do that,” “I’ve decided to do that,” “I’ll be sure to do that,” “I won’t forget to do that,” “I’ll remember to do that,” and “I’ll make every effort to do that.”
      Other examples of sentences expressing an intention to perform an action include “I promise to do that,” “I feel a duty to do that,” and “I feel obliged to do that” (assuming in each case that the speaker of the sentence does in fact intend to perform the action in question).
      Such phrases as “with the intention of,” “in order to,” and “for the purpose of” may also express intention. Examples include “I telephoned the manager with the intention of making an appointment,” “I’m studying Bergson’s philosophy in order to learn how to think intuitively,” and “For the purpose of getting a new outlook on life, I decided to buy a new pair of glasses.”
      Some examples of sentences expressing a lack or absence of intention include “I don’t intend to do that,” “I have no intention of doing that,” “I never had any intention of doing that,” “I don’t plan to do that,” and “I’m not going to do that.”
    

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Propositional Signs


In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein says that propositional signs are signs through which we express thoughts (Prop. 3.12). Does this mean that we need propositional signs in order to express our thoughts, and that such signs constitute a language (or medium of expression) of thought? Are all thoughts propositional in nature? Do propositional signs express or signify thoughts only insofar as those thoughts are propositional? Are there non-propositional signs that express or signify non-propositional thoughts? Do propositional signs themselves constitute propositions or do they merely stand for or signify propositions? Do all propositions consist of propositional signs? Are propositional signs the basic elements or fundamental constituents of all propositions? Is there a proposition wherever there is a propositional sign, and is there a propositional sign wherever there is a proposition? Does every propositional sign have some symbolic purpose or function, and are all propositions symbolic in one way or another?