Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What Can I Know? Should I Know?

“In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, […]

In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.” — W.H. Auden

(Via Alan Jacobs.)

I mentioned the other day the late Roger Shattuck’s great book “Forbidden Knowledge,” an erudite inquiry into the question Auden raises in that quote: Where is the line between what we can know, and what we should know? Shattuck argues that the idea that there are some things we are not meant to know was constant in Western culture (think of Prometheus, Pandora, the Hebrew Bible…) until the Romantic Era, when it came under attack. Is there knowledge that must not be democratized because we are not to be trusted with it? How to build an atomic bomb, for instance, or germ warfare. What about knowledge of the human genome — is there any point at which we should say, “Stop — we can go no further. It’s too dangerous, given human nature”? The question itself is risible, in the sense that we are all perfectly aware that in this day and age, if something can be known, and done, it will be known and done, or at least the attempt will be made, regardless of any moral consequences. As Auden understood, we have lost the sense that there ought to be any limits on knowledge.

Most conservatives understand that some things are not meant to be known — yet how many of us would put limits on what the state can know in its pursuit of national security? How many of us would be willing to say, “Yes, this knowledge might make us safer, but the state doesn’t have a moral right to that information”? Catholic moral theology deals with this elegantly, through the concept of “mental reservation.” If the Gestapo shows up at your door and asks if you have any Jews in your basement, you are not morally bound to tell the truth, because the Gestapo doesn’t have a right to the truth. It’s easy to see how this concept can be abused, but still, it’s an important one.

As I mentioned here the other day, many, many liberals are ardent in their defense of Science’s Right to Know — but they adamantly don’t want to know genetic information that would undermine their convictions about human equality (and, given what was done in the name of eugenics in the 20th century, it’s hard to blame them). Still, it’s worth marking how for many liberals, their defense of the Right To Know ends at the point at which it threatens their sacred principles.

Shattuck comes up with six categories of forbidden knowledge. Most of them will be familiar — for example, the idea that there are certain things we may not know because the act of learning them violates human dignity (this is the principle upon which the right to privacy is based); also, the idea of “dangerous knowledge” — things that, if known, could result in a catastrophe (e.g., how to make a killer flu virus in a test tube). I think the most interesting of his categories is what he calls “knowledge double-bound.” The idea is captured in the French proverb, “To understand all is to forgive all.” It means that we cannot fully know something both objectively and subjectively. If we were to fully enter, with sympathy, into the consciousness of someone who has committed a certain act, in an effort to understand why they did what they did, we run the risk of “going native” — of being so caught up within the subjective experience of that which (or whom) we seek to know that we lose the ability to apply objective standards to them.

Shattuck, who was a literary critic, discusses this principle as laid out in Camus’s novel The Stranger. He observes that many people — including Camus himself, in the introduction to the 1955 edition of his novel — engage in “moral myopia” by sympathizing with the narrator, Meursault, who is tried and condemned for killing an innocent Arab on the beach. Shattuck writes that the novel “offers the most convincing version ever written, I would say, of the sincerity plea made in exoneration of an incontrovertibly criminal action.” Shattuck cites lines from his own students taking Meursault’s side — which is, of course, horrifying.

Yet in the pursuit of justice, we must undertake at least something of a sympathetic journey into the mind of the accused, to consider the circumstances under which he committed the act. We quite rightly do not view the actions of a woman who plotted and carried out the murder of her husband in cold blood to get insurance money with the same degree of sympathy as we do the battered wife who finally has enough of it, and murders her abusive husband in his sleep. The banker who embezzles $10 million is not in the same category as the man who robs a gas station to feed his family. And so forth.

We have to seek this kind of subjective knowledge to render a just verdict, but there’s danger here, Shattuck says, because we may come to share the accused’s view that any reasonable person under those conditions would have done the same (or, as Shattuck puts it, “we tend to interpret that person’s behavior as caused by some form of fate or determination”). In other words, to seek knowledge empathically might not clarify our understanding, but rather obscure it by removing “individual agency and responsibility for one’s actions.” Here’s Shattuck:

G.K. Chesterton called this attitude ‘the devil’s sentimentality.’ Under carefully controlled conditions, as in listening to the ‘sincere’ and seductive narrative voice of The Stranger, our empathy for another person can be stretched very far. We can vetnure too close and lose our perspective on hnumanity. Once we understand another life by entering it, by seeing it from inside, we may both pardon and forgive a criminal action. We may not even recognize it as criminal. We are all gulty in some way. How can we ever judge anyone else, punish anyone else?

In Shattuck’s reading — correct, as I see it — “To understand all is to forgive all” is a caution about the danger of empathy. In other words, not all knowledge leads us to truth.