The Duty to Accumulate Knowledge

Do individuals have an obligation to learn? Warning: epistemology and ethics inside.

Let’s talk about our duties to each other

In ethics, there is general consensus that humans have certain duties. One way of categorizing these is by stratifying them into positive and negative duties. Much like positive and negative rights, the idea is that a positive duty is something you have an ethical obligation to do, and a negative duty is something you have an ethical obligation to refrain from doing. The easiest example of a negative duty is not to murder—but in addition, I don’t know anyone serious who disagrees with the existence of a healthy number of negative duties, ranging from “don’t lie” to “don’t commit fraud,” subject to the usual exceptions.

There are interesting questions surrounding negative duties, of the sort where consensus is unlikely. For instance, is it ethically acceptable to kill someone in order to save an innocent life? What must your know or be aware of in order to be justified in doing so? If we want, we can quickly dive here into the trolley problem, which famously tends to have a different answer depending on how you frame the question. Ethics!

But most people outside the field of philosophy don’t have to worry about this, because a society’s culture and legal system (whether formal or informal) tends to sort out ethical questions neatly enough for everyday life. Some people take the obligation not to lie, cheat or steal more seriously than others, but by volume, most people agree on what is generally bad, and most people agree what an acceptable response to that bad thing would be, i.e. society clearly doesn’t think it’s okay to cheat on your spouse, and it’s clearly not acceptable to physically harm someone for doing so, but it’s probably okay to harm someone if they imminently attempt to harm you, except maybe sometimes, etc. etc. We can go as deep into this as we want and have an interesting conversation, but the fact that some negative duties exist are relatively uncontroversial.

Positive duties are another matter. What acts are you required to do, lest the passing philosophy professor can justly hang a sign saying ETHICALLY UNACCEPTABLE PERSON from your neck?

Well, nobody knows! Unlike negative duties, the existence of any positive duties whatsoever is pretty hotly contested. It’s not obvious that you have an obligation to intervene if you witness an emergency, for example. Perhaps you are walking in a city and see someone getting mugged. If you intervene, you might prevent harm that would otherwise be inflicted on another person, but you might be harmed yourself. In general, acts of self-preservation are considered ethically acceptable, so declining to intervene is, on its face, ethically acceptable.

Let’s take a softer example: say you’re out at dinner with two friends. One of them has just lied to the other about something, and you know this. Do you have an obligation to speak up about this lie? If you answered anything other than “it depends,” either you’re a philosopher or I don’t believe you.

Governments compel us to perform certain actions, but their application to ethics is a bit weak. For instance, do you have a moral obligation to fill out a tax return? If the government owes you something, probably not; that’s your choice to forego the tax refund due to you. If you owe the government something, maybe I guess? It’s good to pay the government so it be solvent. But you can make a lot of arguments: perhaps you believe the money is more useful to you than to the government, and so you want to keep it. Perhaps you believe taxation is theft or something. Perhaps, if you file, you won’t be able to afford a good meal for your children that evening, so the risk of having the tax collectors later come is outweighed by the very important act of feeding your family.

Also, you can argue that whether you pay your taxes is not an ethical decision, but a purely pragmatic one. In this view, the government presents you with a series of trade-offs, and you’re able to research these and make an informed decision about whether to file. Perhaps you assess the possible benefits and risks of each choice, and you decide not to file. If the government notices, you’ll accept the penalties, and if they don’t, you don’t. Is there really an ethical dimension here between your available choices, or is it just a matter of picking which set of trade-offs you prefer?

Now, all that said, I happen to think that positive duties do exist, but not many of them. I think cooperating with a just government, or with just rules within any government, is probably a minor duty because you are helping it operate more efficiently and, ideally, at a lower cost to taxpayers. Similarly, I think people have a duty to participate in the economy such that they generate at least as much value for society as they consume.

I believe we have perhaps a dozen more positive duties that would take some care to articulate properly, but let’s focus on a particularly strange one: the duty to accumulate knowledge.

First, a quick digression. There’s a common concept in moral philosophy called the is-ought problem or is-ought gap. The idea is that it’s not really possible to make statements about what ought to be simply by discussing what is. Humanity is fundamentally imperfect, and the actions we do undertake don’t really have any bearing on the actions we should undertake. To make an argument that violates this principle is often referred to as “crossing the is-ought gap,” and such arguments tend to receive much greater scrutiny.

My discussion here sort of treats this gap pretty casually, but the important parts are probably on the ought side. It’s obvious to me that most people either don’t believe a duty to accumulate knowledge exists or don’t act on that belief. That’s fine, but I’m going to explain why I think you should believe this and act on that belief.

Accumulating knowledge helps you make decisions that improve the world

If you’re well-informed on an issue, then you can interact intelligently with that issue and potentially improve the world as a result. I think this is intuitively true: consider how much the world would improve if everyone was at least reasonably educated on the topics that you consider to be most important?

More rigorously (and darkly—sorry!), I also think it’s necessary. Consider the following argument:

  1. As humanity develops, our politics, international relations, and technologies that inform the structure of the economy and of society become progressively more complicated

  2. Humanity has an extremely interconnected economy, wherein an incident on one side of the world can impact the other side of the world, and this interconnectedness has been increasing over time

  3. Humanity possesses the means to destroy itself, such as bioweapons, nuclear weapons, etc.

  4. Therefore, the management of the world economy, and of related international relations, is increasingly complex and increasingly delicate

  5. Therefore, we need increasingly knowledgeable citizens, both in positions of power (to manage the world economy) and among the general population (to productively navigate the world economy).

I think this is a decent summary of why I personally want to understand the world as well as I can: to navigate it better, minimize risks to myself and maximize the extent to which I can provide for my family, keep them safe, etc. I think the benefits of this approach are pretty obvious: wages among knowledge workers tend to be much higher than wages among other sorts of professions. Speaking from experience as a software engineer, the knowledge base required to do my job well is constantly increasing in scope. I have no doubt that managing the current US government is a much harder job than it was a century ago, although (thankfully!) I have no direct experience with this.

My numbered argument above points at this fact: I only trust progressively more knowledgeable people to manage progressively more complicated economies and diplomatic situations. That’s just me. I think this is increasingly important because of humanity’s potential to attack itself—and we have nuclear weapons! This is inherently a macro-argument, but I think it works on smaller scales too: we all must navigate a world of increasingly complex technology. To me, the proper response is to work to understand the world as well as possible, or be left behind by it.

Consider the alternative: to not work to accumulate knowledge. Most of my peers are in their mid-to-late twenties, and graduated from college recently enough to remember a good deal of the content from those courses. For the sort of work most of us are doing (software development), most of that content isn’t all that necessary. But if we learned nothing in particular for another ten years, we’d probably be increasingly good at software development, but increasingly bad at understanding anything else going on in the world. Accumulating knowledge is an instrumental goal, pursued in the interest of improving our decision-making in the future.

More solidly, consider also that progressively accumulating knowledge is a hedge against falling into bad groupthink such as political partisanship and cultlike behavior. It’s an insurance policy against being blindsided by a political or economic event. The more people who do this, the more dynamic our economy can be and the more interesting coffee shop conversations with strangers are. It seems to me that a certain critical mass of society must work to be well-informed, else we lose competitive advantage relative to other countries making better decisions or otherwise make a mistake that costs us dearly, either in our personal lives or on the national level.

I believe everyone has a responsibility to help each other be more informed in general, about whatever is relevant or interesting, in the interest of improving our economic and social outcomes when we come across new situations.

I encourage everyone I know to read broadly for this reason. I’m currently reading a series of books about Islam, which I began doing after realizing the other day that I know next to nothing about one of the world’s fastest-growing religions. I doubt I’ll need this knowledge much in the short term, but perhaps one day it will help me understand the Middle East better. Maybe it’ll be important one day if my life develops in an unexpected direction.

For now, I’m content reading books in my office in Texas. In the future, I’m excited to know what particular accumulated knowledge becomes useful.