The Value of Knowledge

There are some sorts of “elitism” that most people find wholly unacceptable, like ranking people on the basis of race or sexual preference. There are other kinds of elitism that we may describe as semi-acceptable. We might, for instance, admire athletes or musicians greatly for their abilities, but we usually do not base our “total” assessment of that person on those specific abilities. Thus, most people would agree that an athlete who obviously outperforms everyone else is at least a better athlete than everyone else, and that is something one is “allowed” to admire.

It takes a lot more, however, to judge someone to be a better person than another. Perhaps there are a few in this world who refuse to judge anyone, but many would probably say that someone who rapes and murders children is a worse human being than those who refrain from this behavior. On the other hand, someone who always goes out of their way to help people we could call a better person than most of us (as long, of course, as this help is not of a misdirected and ineffectual kind).

But could we say that people who have much knowledge should be admired in the same way that we admire a morally upstanding person, and, vice versa, that an ignorant person should in some way be blamed for this shortcoming? Is, in other words, an “elitism” based on wisdom and knowledge an acceptable form of elitism?

There seems to be at least one sense in which we can call that kind of elitism justified. If we believe that it is our duty to do what we can do make the world better, being ignorant about how this can be done certainly does not help anyone. Even if we think that doing good can be left to professional people, we still need some knowledge to hire the right kind of professional do-gooders. This is especially important in a democracy, which is why there might be some grounds to truly blame a voter (with normal intellectual capacities) who chooses to remain ignorant about political matters (the case would obviously be different with someone who has, for instance, some cognitive deficiencies).

Of course, there are some cases where we might argue that more knowledge is not valuable. Sometimes, for example, people hide the truth from you to spare your feelings. In these cases knowledge about the truth might be worse than being ignorant about it. But these are probably rare cases. Most of the time it is valuable to know more rather than less about whatever you are doing.

Does an “elitism” about knowledge have any practical implications? Certainly, the implication should not be that present intellectual or academic elites should be favored even more than today. Political creativity should, rather, be directed to making sure that more people become interested in furthering knowledge, and not necessarily as a career. Especially important is probably to encourage young people who one would not expect to educate themselves to become interested in intellectual matters. Perhaps more generous scholarships and the like directed at poor neighborhoods could be one measure to take. Another measure could be to redirect some of the public spending that goes to, for instance, associations devoted to sports or religion to associations devoted to the advancement of learning. My own government spends a lot of money encouraging the youth to get healthy bodies and healthy “souls”, but not to get a healthy intellect.

But there are probably limits to what politics can achieve if there is no broader social acceptance of the worth of knowledge. I don’t really think that people in general admire scientists very much today; the feeling is probably something more like well-meaning indifference. I think they simply take for granted that scientists will keep working in the shadows to make sure that constant technological progress is delivered. When it comes to scholars in the humanities I think most people have no idea what they even do at work (which leads to complete indifference towards them). And some of the “intellectuals” that appear in the media are probably viewed as buffoons (or worse), rather than people to be admired (although it might be technically correct that some so-called intellectuals are buffoons, I believe most people dismiss them for the wrong reasons).

In short, it is important to discuss the consequences of people’s ignorance about the world, because one person’s ignorance usually has consequences for other people as well. When people refuse to learn about the suffering that goes on and the methods to alleviate it, the suffering will simply continue (or get worse). Even if one believes that suffering is best alleviated by doing less, this is a conclusion that should follow from serious reflection; it must not simply be a rationalization of one’s unwillingness to learn anything.


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