Please forgive me for using the term "moral imperative" somewhat loosely in the title of my question. A friend and I were discussing how it is in some sense tragic that many people don't actively seek a better understanding of the world, despite having vast accessibility to resources which might allow them to do so. By "understanding of the world," I mean ideas arising from actions like learning how to read and to write, studying mathematics, music, literature, a trade; etc; some broadly-defined set of voluntary intellectual activity which is not biologically necessary, not necessary for immediate survival, not conducted for the sole value of entertainment, etc.

It seems plausible to me to consider the notion that a person with sufficient resources and intellectual capacity must even have some degree of social responsibility to seek knowledge.

Despite having this intuition, I feel like it would be tricky to construct a strong argument that it is morally wrong to pursue a life of anti-intellectualism, even if I would consider it tragic and socially detrimental. I would be interested to learn about the implications of such an argument, and any resources exploring the idea.

  • See Virtue Epistemology on SEP:"Virtue responsibilists (e.g. Code, Hookway, Montmarquet, Zagzebski) understand intellectual virtues to include refined character traits such as conscientiousness and open-mindedness" plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-virtue – Conifold Sep 28 '16 at 0:23
  • There is a moral duty to develop your gifts of nature as best as you can for Kant, so I would definitely say yes. Probably I will look the passages up eventually, but first I have to get some sleep and a presentation to be held ;) – Philip Klöcking Sep 28 '16 at 0:27

Plato has a concept called "The Philosopher King" in his book Republic. The idea is since morality is subjective, seeking knowledge and wisdom is crucial to forming the best moral system for yourself, your family and a stable healthy society. The wise man would therefore infuse a love of knowledge into his moral system as a supreme good. The followers of his belief system would thus lead meaningful, content, and far safer lives than the people who followed the foolish and anti-intellectual person.

The foolish person would likely create a moral system that was destructive for himself and a danger to others. His lack of understanding would make him blind to the folly of his system and not understand when negative consequences arose from it. Likely, this person would lash out in anger at the others around him, who are likely as dim witted as him. Eventually humanity would devolve into an dog eat dog hellish society where people lived brutish short lives, much like Hobbes described as the original state of humans.

Love, friendship, freedom, altruism, etc. are almost universally viewed as good and can be achieved by seeking wisdom and facts --this is moral. Idiocy and apathy and what they lead to could be viewed as evil in of themselves.

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    I think this is a great answer, but it was very hard to read in its original form --it was practically one long sentence. I broke it into smaller sentences and paragraphs, but tried to leave your core content as much the same as possible. FYI, if you create an account and use it consistently, you should be able to edit your own posts without waiting for approval. You also might be able to get a moderator to merge your two accounts together. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Sep 28 '16 at 20:14
  • Content-wise I do have one quibble --are you conflating knowledge and wisdom? Plato's moral imperative is to seek wisdom, it's far from clear he thinks knowledge is the same thing. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Sep 28 '16 at 20:20

What courses of action are most moral has been widely discussed by philosophers ranging from a personal responsibility irrespective of the gain like Kant (as mentioned above) through a rule-based assessment of the gain to society as some of the Utilitarian philosophers arrived at, to the extreme altruists who believe (broadly) that each action should be judged on its merit to society. Similarly what constitutes knowledge has been widely discussed (also above).

Neither of these studies will aid you much, however, in your assessment of the social responsibility of undertaking the actions you mention. The problem is with the definition of "seeking". Even as far back as Bacon, a few philosophers have recognised that any form of knowledge seeking is prone to what is nowadays known as cognitive biases (Bacon did not use the term), the most significant one being confirmation bias. The evidence base for it's prevalence is huge but you might consider starting with the work of Fischhoff.

Essentially the moral imperative for seeking knowledge and the actual act of seeking knowledge in the activities you mention are two different things, the one can be calculated by moral philosophy (although such philosophers themselves will be subject to the same bias), but the other is largely an exercise in seeking confirmation of ones own pre-existing beliefs, and so the moral imperative in terms of utility may well be to refrain from such activity where it could easily lead to a re-enforcement of ones own views.

I note in your question you mention Literature and Music. I presume you are referring to the philosophical or sociological insights from these, as neither contain any verifiable knowledge. Using an Extreme Altruist approach, there are lots of branches of philosophical or artistic studies which are unlikely to yield any useful answers in the short or medium term. The very question of moral obligation itself is a good example. It is one that has been discussed for at least 2000 years and not only has no definitive answer been found, but almost every position that one could rationally hold is still held by one or more philosophers, no positions have been eliminated other than those that an ordinary person would consider it irrational to hold. Many other philosophical or artistic investigations fit this description. It could therefore be argued by an Extreme Altruist that one could achieve a far greater good by doing some activity known to benefit society, than by spending the same time engaged in an academic study of questions which all the evidence so far shows probably cannot be solved.

In order for there to be any moral utility of engaging in "intellectual activities", one would have to do so in such a way as to minimise cognitive biases, particularly confirmation bias, and would have to engage only in those activities the results of which were demonstrably likely to yield some benefit to society greater than that which could be achieved by carrying out some non-intellectual activity which is of more demonstrable benefit.


I suggest not, by giving a counterexample in a valid ethics with which other ethics should probably find common ground. (So I am disapproving of the superficial reading of Kant, with Kant: True duties do not ultimately conflict.)

Consider the generations of women who were just fine with not being allowed to learn to read, and who were fully invested in simply making their family and community function well, without theorizing about it or seeking guidance from farther away, instead relying upon their husbands and their civil authorities to do so. Do you consider their position immoral?

Even if you see this as oppression and not a choice, this becomes "blaming the victim". But it is not obvious this is oppression at all, at a certain level of cultural stability (even if that level is stagnation). However feminist one wishes to be, traditional female roles should remain an option as long as they do not put others into roles they would not choose. So it may be laudable to expand the self, but to make it obligatory is disrespectful.

If you look at things from a care-based ethics, such as Gilligan's, self-improvement only matters if it renders you better able to support those interdependent with you or to help you care more for yourself.

In a complex and quickly changing world this means that you need to handle information as it becomes relevant. But it places no obligation on you to reach out and find ways to be different, much less 'better' in this specific way, unless it is obviously productive.

It is fully reasonable, in an interdependent situation, to farm out the theoretical work that will defend your community against being overtaken or outstripped by other communities. Someone has to do this, but it can be part of a given role, which you do not need to serve. (And at some level it remains such: we do not all need to really understand even the most basic aspects of the physics that makes our nuclear arsenal work. It is just fun.)

Since it is implicitly a form of defense, it logically falls into the male role when the gender-role structure is traditional, and in many very traditional societies if is only a role for men of the potentially managerial classes, or particularly for the class of men who will advise others. (To the degree this is still our society, we have physicists.)

In a modern society driven by Enlightenment principles, we are all, theoretically, members of the single, potentially managing, class. But that is largely a formal pretense. From a more post-modern, multicultural point of view, it is logical to cultivate various subcultures and for each of us to choose a balance between the theoretical standards of the dominant society, and the known standards of your own.

So any part of our society is free to act in traditional ways, as long as they do not endanger the whole. This traditional role of only applying knowledge and not developing it is, therefore, open to us, and should not be disparaged.

  • I feel there's a good answer hidden in here, but the way it's framed is a bit off-putting, and the way it's developed is confusing. Maybe the Amish would make for a less controversial example? – Chris Sunami supports Monica Sep 28 '16 at 20:18
  • @jobermark You present an interesting point about tradition; I'd like to attempt to defend my position and avoid 'blaming the victim'. Of course I don't consider their position immoral. I might question their freedom in making the choice, however. It seems reasonable to me to suggest that it is in all cases morally wrong to enforce traditional roles in society if they limit the free will of an individual to seek knowledge, even if one possible end result is 'cultural stability.' There are plenty of examples of socially 'stable' societies which were / are upheld by reprehensible human behavior – Wes Doyle Sep 28 '16 at 22:29
  • I will need to contemplate the notion that someone might autonomously choose any particular traditional role in their own best interest, particularly if such a role included "not being allowed to learn to read." it seems unlikely to me that this behavior would emerge without being rather enforced. And, if it were a position chosen autonomously (again, I can't imagine it), than I would be fine to consider that an immoral choice. – Wes Doyle Sep 28 '16 at 22:30
  • I don't find it reasonable to suggest that that some real or hypothetical class of individual should rely on authority for moral guidance or that the knowledge for informing such guidance could justifiably be 'farmed out.' If it is no particular individual's responsibility to better understand the world, by what means are such duties assigned? By force? Just some thoughts. I would love to hear your thoughts to better understand your argument. – Wes Doyle Sep 28 '16 at 22:32
  • Well, you absolutely reject ethics of care and want to enforce modern values on everyone. That is not unusual, but it is oppressive. By whom are the Hasidic oppressed more? (They have a traditional value system closer to an ethics of care than most.) They fight far more actively against having Enlightenment values shoved down their throats than they fight among themselves over the obvious differences in gender roles. Are they fools? Why is that your call? – user9166 Sep 29 '16 at 15:52

In today's pathological society, it is immoral not to seek knowledge amidst such troubling consequences of inadequate leaders, pollution and degradation of natural resources, high-school suicide, loss of other irreplaceable value.

That's the key idea: loss of irreplaceable value due to inaction and ignorance. You mentioned ethical reasons, I'm giving you a moral one. Animals species can't defend themselves against industry. Children can't armor themselves against political ideologies and battles for power.

As for ethical reasons, I'd say no, the pursuit of knowledge is an aesthetic choice to a large degree.

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