WIPS - Responsibility and Cultural Ignorance

Cameron Evans, Washington University in St. Louis

Abstract: When an agent's ignorance on certain matters can be explained by cultural influences -- like shared beliefs and social practices -- who's to blame? Literature about cultural ignorance tends one of two ways: to write off these influences as exculpating, "bad luck" circumstances; or to maintain that the agent could and should have known. The latter camp, represented by scholars like Michelle Moody-Adams, argue that cultural ignorance is really willful ignorance in disguise: the agent could and should have known, but doesn't because they are motivated to avoid the truth. I argue this extreme position fails to account for deceptive and coercive forces that preserve certain worldviews. While an accurate explication of cultural ignorance may lead us to question whether agents really could have done any better, the position that the culturally ignorant are mere victims of bad luck fails to account for the fact that we typically have some influence in shaping our culture. Building on my analysis of cultural ignorance, I argue for a "middle ground" approach to responsibility that reevaluates the moral and epistemic obligations we face in light of the ways social systems can hamper our epistemic success.