The Moral Perplexity of Moral Cognizance
By Ori Herstein
Consider the following two maxims of morality:
· One who performs a morally bad action is morally worse – in terms of blameworthiness (moral culpability) – if one is aware of the wrongness of the action. Call this Maxim I.
· It is morally better – in terms of virtue – to be morally cognizant, i.e., reflective, informed, caring, inquisitive and sensitive to moral facts and dilemmas, than it is to be morally oblivious and ignorant. Under this maxim the moral value of being morally cognizant is intrinsic and not purely instrumental (cognizance of the good is more likely to lead to good actions). Call this Maxim II.
The two maxims appear to clash in the following case:
Person A is highly cognizant of the world’s evils and moral issues. She reads human rights reports, watches ‘real news,’ is informed about world famine and genocide, notices homeless people and panhandlers on the sidewalks and is generally reflective about moral issues. Person B is mostly oblivious to such matters. She is unaware of the ills of society, unconsciously avoids the news, is disposed to focus on ‘the positive’ and is not inclined to reflect on or inquire about questions of social justice and other moral issues and dilemmas. The actual actions of both A and B are of equal moral worth: neither person is especially active in terms of promoting good, avoiding doing bad, or doing what is right.