Virtue and the Pursuit of Ignorance

Frank Gehry BP Pedestrian Bridge. Photo by Chris Smith.


A venerable tradition in philosophy, associated primarily with Aristotle and Plato, maintains that having knowledge is virtuous, while ignorance is a vice. Accordingly, no trait can be a virtue if having that trait requires being ignorant of certain facts. Julia Driver argues, however, most fully in her 2001 book Uneasy Virtue, that certain virtues require ignorance: modesty, blind charity (seeing only the good in people), trust in certain people even in the face of contrary evidence, impulsive courage, and forgiving-and- forgetting. [1] Although I would contest her inclusion of modesty and I see issues about some of the others, I believe that not only is drawing a connection between certain virtues and ignorance fundamentally sound, but the connection extends far beyond Driver’s examples. She has advocated for something very important.


Let’s distinguish two questions about the connection between ignorance and virtue. One is whether being in a state of ignorance is required by certain virtues, and the other is whether it is virtuous in some circumstances to cultivate ignorance, to deliberately be ignorant. In Driver’s examples, one may be ignorant of the value of one’s achievements, or of another’s faults, or of evidence that would cast aspersions on the truthfulness of a longtime friend, or of dangers, but not in every case should that be through choice of a policy not to know certain things. In fact, in some cases (like modesty, in Driver’s view of modesty) it would be odd to cultivate ignorance.[2] She draws a nice distinction between commending and recommending.[3] One might commend someone for trusting another person despite contrary evidence, or for being clueless about another’s faults because one accords everyone the benefit of a doubt, yet not recommend this course to anyone. And in many cases, we have the opposite–being ignorant is not crucial, it’s the pursuit of ignorance, the decision not to find out, that reflects a virtue. It is sometimes tricky to identify and name that virtue, albeit it is fairly easy to say that refraining from learning information in certain cases is “virtuous.” And, further, as my colleagues at the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life project suggested, in some cases “ignorance” is not the best term; “nescience” is better. But for now I will stick to the term “ignorance” in light of the growing use of the term “virtuous ignorance” even outside philosophical and academic circles. [4]


There are at least three sorts of grounding for virtuous ignorance: pragmatic, conceptual, and normative. In the pragmatic category, knowledge can produce harmful effects. A different case for affirming virtues of ignorance is conceptual: it is part of the definition of the virtue of ignorance that the person possessing the virtues that Driver names is ignorant (or, if you prefer, nescient) of certain facts. Finally, in some instances we might regard some ignorance as virtuous because certain norms require such ignorance.


Here is a partial inventory of cases where the pursuit of ignorance or the ignorance itself is virtuous. I will leave it to readers to sort out which case is which, as well as to figure out whether the grounds for discouraging investigation into truth are pragmatic, conceptual or normative. Additional distinctions may be drawn.


  1. It is virtuous not to pry into other people’s lives—medical records, salaries, sex life– except in cases like police work, congressional probes, and appropriate investigative journalism. In addition jurors may be obligated not to listen to news, peer reviewers should not try to find out who authored the paper they evaluated, and students should not inquire into each others’ grades.
  2. According to a Rawlsian approach, people voting on a policy should try to put themselves behind a veil of ignorance (albeit in most circumstances the veil is perforce imaginary or hypothetical).
  3. Sometimes, refusing to seek further information about a question is beneficial and wise. Thus, inquiring into one’s genetic makeup may result in distress, despair, and immobilization. There is of course a cost to cultivating ignorance as well.
  4. Knowing the future could preclude or diminish choice and responsibility.
  5. In the Kantian tradition, seeking to know metaphysical truth is doubly vicious: it shows foolishness (trying to do the impossible, especially if there are no metaphysical truths!) and arrogance (thinking that one can know certain truths when one actually cannot).
  6. Science tries to combat ignorance and establish knowledge. Surely a widespread and long-standing critique of science is that with knowledge comes power and with power come abuses of power. Are there perhaps areas where science shouldn’t go?
  7. Religion provides several examples of the pursuit of ignorance. In some religious traditions, for example, people are told not to read certain mystical texts until a certain age, or, not at all, save for the elite. Shunning these texts shows the virtue of fidelity to and respect for tradition (the tradition that disallows the reading), as well as humility, since one might recognize that one’s cognitive ability or ability to handle certain material is limited.


To take another example from a religious context (I have Judaism in mind), some argue that it is wrong to inquire into God’s reasons for commandments. The argument goes that (a) we can’t fathom God’s reasons and (b) Although the reasons for particular commandments are knowable, if we come to know them, we might violate them by dint of thinking the reason silly, or inapplicable to the times, or inapplicable to oneself. But the most significant religious example of the virtuous pursuit of ignorance involves theodicy — more precisely, an approach called antitheodicy.[5] As I use the term here, antitheodicy is the position that it is irrational and/or unethical and/or pointless and/or otherwise inappropriate or wrong for theists even to seek theodicies. This position has generally been advanced (when it has been advanced) by authors steeped in Continental philosophy, where metaphysics is eschewed.


The foregoing cases make up a motley crew, but that is precisely the point— if we adopt certain views about particular sorts of cases, the virtuousness of pursuing ignorance proves to be widespread. As I mentioned, certain distinctions have to be drawn among these different cases, for example, between being ignorant and pursuing ignorance and between different groundings for the judgments of vicious and virtuous that figure in these cases. But we can at least say this: Ignorance is not always bliss, but it is remarkable how desirable a commodity it and/or its pursuit may be in the nurturing of virtue. At times it or its pursuit may be morally imperative; but the examples need much further analysis and investigation.


[1] See Julia Driver, Uneasy Virtue (New York: Oxford UP, 2001); “Response to My Critics,” Uitilitas 16 (2004): 33-41. Driver argues for this view about ignorance as part of a larger attack on the notion that virtue per se or virtue across the board requires certain internal, psychological states.

[2] See also Michael Slote, “Driver’s Virtues,” Utilitas 16 (2004): 22-32, at p. 24. Slote adds some interesting cases to the discussion. For example, he argues (25-26) that sometimes it is “a mark of virtue or moral goodness” for an agent to feel guilty about having done something that, unbeknownst to the agent, is in fact not wrong. It speaks well of the agent to be incorrect. Here it is being ignorant that would be virtuous, not cultivating ignorance.

[3] Driver, Uneasy Virtue, 38-39.

[4] Indeed, “virtuous ignorance” has hit a big market.: Googling the term on September 12, 2016 turned up over a million hits for “virtuous ignorance” and “virtues of ignorance” many of them from the social science. (There’s overlap, but the total number is nevertheless striking.) Notably, in the Oscar-winning movie The Birdman, a critic reviews a play by using the phrase “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” In fact, it’s part of the movie’s official title. She meant that Michael Keaton’s movie character’s performance in a play violated convention but was of high quality nonetheless. Sometimes the term is used to commend avoiding learning what experts say (which often is another way of saying that the experts aren’t really experts).

[5]John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Houndmills; Palgrave, 1985), 6-11.

David Shatz is the Ronald P. Stanton University Professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religious Thought, Yeshiva University and a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.