What do you have a right not to know? Well, certainly you have a right not to know about the things you don’t know about – right? Well, I don’t think it’s as simple as that – because one of the things we know about is our own ignorance. In short: we know about a lot of issues insomuch as we fear that if we looked into them, what happens there would create moral demands on us.
This thought burned itself into my mind last night while seeing Earthlings, the documentary, for the first time. People who have not seen this film have some sense of it – I certainly had feelings about what I thought it would be about, and those feelings motivated me for a long time not to see it. Not because I’ve never seen films about the maltreatment of animals before, but because this film as reputation for being ruthless, and for converting omnivores and vegetarians to veganism. As someone who already eats vegan, I tried to justify to myself not seeing in on the basis that it would not motivate further dietary or political action from me. But after seeing it, I think that avoidance was wrong. Nothing gives someone the right to choose to remain ignorant of atrocities which one is directly involved in, and which one can do something about.
[An aside – don’t just go to Google video and search “Earthlings” and watch it because I’ve said so. The film is extremely disturbing, so begin by reading about it, and if when watching it you can’t cope with the severity or quantity of cruelty pause it and go back to it later. Do not watch this film if you are seriously depressed or if you are questioning whether life is worth living.]
The treatment of animals is a powerful example of something about which we might not have a right to remain ignorant, but I think there are others. There is the genocide against first nations people which was perpetuated by North American governments in many different ways over the 19th and 20th centuries. There is the conflict in the middle-east, which is particularly important since it is the ignorance of the North American populous which largely allows the conflict to persevere. But, dont’ take my words on any of these issues – go educate yourselves. The claim I am making is not meant to be “you have to educate yourself on these issues because I think they are important”, but rather, I think these are examples of the kind of thing which, having learned a little about, can place a moral demand on you to learn more. And, ignoring that demand is dangerous both for your own moral integrity, and for those who you otherwise might have helped if you had educated yourself and others about the issue.