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.
Who is morally worse, person A or person B?
According to Maxim I, person A is morally worse. Not only does she perform actions that are morally bad (or at least do little good) but she is fully aware of the moral implications of her conduct. Meanwhile, while B’s actions are no better than A’s, B does not ‘know better’ and therefore seems less reprehensible than A. Here moral cognizance serves to impute and exacerbate moral badness (in terms of blameworthiness).
In contrast, according to Maxim II it is person B who is morally worse. Unlike person A, person B lacks the virtue of moral cognizance: she is insensitive to moral issues, does not care enough about justice to even bother to inquire about the ills of the world, is unconcerned with the moral nature or effect of our actions, and is generally morally unreflective and ignorant. Here moral cognizance is a virtue that ascribes moral goodness.
This ‘clash of the maxims’ plays into many everyday dilemmas producing conflicting prescriptions as to moral cognizance. For example, for many years I avoided (at least partially unconsciously) the moral question of vegetarianism vis-à-vis the bleak reality of the meat industry. I think I understood that reflecting on, knowing and understanding these issues would either force me to give up eating meat – something I did not want to do – or would make me into a worse person for continuing to eat meat after having been exposed to the negative moral implications of my conduct. Still, I think I was morally tainted by my lack of attention to and reflection on what many seemingly moral people believed was an evil practice. The years past and finally Peter Singer – one of the world’s leading moral philosophers writing on vegetarianism – rolled into town. Somehow I felt that I could not attend his lecture and continue to avoid the whole issue of whether or not carnivorism is immoral.
As a consequence of attending the lecture I finally came face to face with the evils of the meat industry. And, I felt a better person for it. To an extent it seemed to have cleansed me of my previous moral obliviousness, making me more cognizant of the moral implications of my everyday actions. Ever since, I have been attempting (with intermittent success) a conversion to vegetarianism. Under Maxim II I am now a morally better person than I was, because I am no longer oblivious and “blissfully ignorant” and am more aware, concerned and reflective about the moral issue of meat consumption and of everyday moral dilemmas in general. In other words, my character is now more virtuous than before. In contrast, under Maxim I I am now a morally worse person than I was because I still occasionally eat meat even though I am now fully aware of the evils of my conduct. In other words, I still perform the same actions I once did, yet now I am more blameworthy and morally culpable than I was before my transformation into a more virtuous person. So, am I now a morally better or worse person than I was?
Assuming that changing oneself is difficult enough, let alone changing the world, and considering that awareness of moral reasons for actions often does not suffice for triggering action, should one who desires to be morally better aspire to more or less moral cognizance? Being less morally cognizant seems prima facie lacking in moral virtue, yet in practice it seems that moral cognizance often makes people morally worse in terms of moral culpability and blameworthiness.