Knowledge & Moral Motivation: Getting Closer

What should our work be, here and now, as producers of knowledge? Can intellectual or academic conversations really help us figure out how to make a better world, how to be better people? Can ethics? Political theory? Can science? What does it mean to engage in the activity of knowledge production with integrity? And can philosophy itself help us answer these questions?

Most traditional philosophical views assume the relationship between knowledge and responsibility to be straightforward. When we know of a clear causal connection between our choices and harm to others, there is a direct, self-evident duty to alleviate that harm and to refrain from causing further harm. Utilitarians, deontologists, and virtue theorists agree: rationality demands that, if we want to do the right thing, and there is not much of significance competing for our attention, the right action will be obvious and attractive. In the ideal case, when we want to do the right thing, facts alone provide moral motivation. When facts show that something we value is harmed, and that our actions are contributing to that harm, knowledge is supposedly sufficient to motivate us to act so as to stop causing harm, to do the right thing.

This is why statistics on global warming are presented as though the facts themselves imply direct responsibilities on the part of offending industries, societies whose economic prosperity depends on polluting forces, and consumers of fossil fuels. The assumption is that if we know the harm that fossil fuel consumption causes, and we want to promote a healthy environment, the course of action is obvious: we will reduce our consumption. When environmentalists (including environmental scientists) inform the public about the relationships between CO2 emissions and climate change, they hope to ignite a sense of moral responsibility in consumers, industries, and governing bodies. 

Why, then, do facts about global warming appear grossly inadequate to provide the moral motivation to significantly change consumer habits or demands, even among environmentalists? When the harm in question is not direct harm to existing humans, but diffuse effects on nonhuman species and communities, or future generations of humans, or when it is impossible to map a clear causal relationship between actions and harms, even to humans, a direct relationship between knowledge (about harms) and actions (to alleviate or refrain from causing further harms) sadly does not emerge.

Work in feminist ethics has made evident how ethical theory has historically neglected some of the most fundamental aspects of human moral life. The flawed moral imagination is woefully inadequate to address the intricate webs of relation created by global capitalism, postcolonial realities, and the fact that the environment has no borders. We are preposterous prosperous moral beings with a litany of responsibilities that seem nearly impossible to know, let alone enact… But what are the qualities of the knowledge we need now?

I propose that we engage, or recommit ourselves, to the project of getting closer. The project of getting closer involves attempts to bridge knowledge and action by bringing us closer to the worlds affected by our actions and inaction. This project requires research that brings us closer to land, and closer to each other, in a nonromantic, epistemic, and affective sense; that helps us know more about our interdependencies and that enables us to care for what we care about. Knowledge producers of all sorts can work to capture and address the real textures of our lives, to make it possible to live well without wreaking havoc on the world around us. 

One of the main obstacles to knowledge projects that aim to get closer is a stance that begins with arrogance (as discussed by feminist philosophers María Lugones and Marilyn Frye), and that bolsters the state-sponsored arrogance of economically privileged actors. Getting closer requires curiosity and caring across chasms of ontological and cultural difference. It requires openness to truths that are virtually unimaginable without the perspectives of those who are considered outsiders, and can only be engaged with an awareness of its own partiality, and the fact that it is always incomplete. Knowledge projects that aim to get closer are aware of their own limits, and of the vulnerability of any knower, and of any knowledge. 

Perhaps most naughtily, knowledge producers who aim to get closer abandon the dream of scientific progress which seeks absolute knowledge in the service of enlightened mastery and wealth, working instead for knowledge that acquaints us with the particulars of the world we affect. Arrogant inquiries accept a comfortable distance between knowledge and life, and hide their limits and inadequacies behind an epistemic (knowledge-making) posture that proclaims a unified route to knowing, a route that necessarily follows traditions of privilege and exclusion. If we want to get closer, it is easy to know that academic arrogance comes not only from a lack of humility, but also from a mistaken picture of our place in the world.