Good Intentions Can’t Redeem Voluntary Ignorance | Sojourners

Good Intentions Can’t Redeem Voluntary Ignorance

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One of the most terrifying features of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that we cannot see it coming. That’s true of almost all diseases, of course, but it’s been made worse in this case by the warnings that people become highly contagious two days before they show any symptoms, and might be contagious even if they never show symptoms at all. Anyone could be a carrier. Everyone is a potential threat.

If everyone is a potential threat, then I am a potential threat — and so are you. No matter how careful I am, it’s nearly impossible to know I am not silently spreading the disease to others. And since this virus has killed almost half a million people in the last six months, the moral stakes of my not-knowing are incredibly high.

We might say something similar about anti-Blackness: Its carriers rarely know they are carriers. This disease — ancient and no less lethal — spreads in part by hiding in plain sight, masking itself as the natural order of things. White people like me internalize the habits of anti-Blackness, and we reproduce them unwittingly.

The protests that have arisen in response to the calloused asphyxiation of George Floyd have jolted many white people awake to the magnitude of racist violence. But being awake to the abstract power of anti-Blackness is still not to know our own anti-Blackness. As George Yancy says, the white racist self is inescapably opaque: We can never see through our own racialization. Despite our best efforts, we are ignorant of the depths of our own complicity.

We usually think that we are morally responsible only for the things we do on purpose. If I do something without meaning to, it was an accident — surely, I can’t be blamed for something I did on accident. We want to be judged on the quality of our intentions alone.

Our intentions mark out our moral orientation in the world and are thus a good measure of the kind of people we aim to be. But they are not always a good measure of the kind of people we actually are. I may intend to play a Chopin nocturne on the piano, but if I don’t know how to play, my efforts won’t amount to much. Loving my neighbor is no different.

Our intentions are only as good as our understanding of the world. According to theologian Thomas Aquinas, it’s our reason that grasps a thing as good, and then proposes that good to our will as something worth choosing. If our reason is wrong about what’s good, our will is bound to be wrong too. And of course, our reason is wrong all the time. I underestimate the danger of a virus. I fail to recognize the extent of police violence against Black people.

We are responsible for our failures of knowledge no less than our failures of will. We obviously can’t know everything. But we do have a moral duty to try to know what’s necessary to act well. Aquinas speaks of “voluntary ignorance” — not knowing because we don’t want to know, or because we’ve neglected to learn something we could easily have learned. Good intentions can’t redeem voluntary ignorance.

Many of the moral failures afflicting us now stem from voluntary ignorance. Leaders of organizations who will struggle under a strict application of public health guidance would rather not know how their operations will contribute to the spread of COVID-19, and so they forge ahead with half measures. White professors (like me) endlessly postpone the work of studying the racist history of their own disciplines, and so they continue to perpetuate it. We cannot hide behind intentions here. We have to “bear the burden of reality,” as Ignacio Ellacuría put it.

But the experiences of this year reveal a deeper problem: Our ignorance is always greater than our understanding. There is no way to navigate this pandemic with perfect knowledge. There is no way to penetrate what Yancy calls “the sheer density of internalized white racism.” Aquinas’s neat distinction between the voluntary ignorance we are responsible for and the involuntary ignorance we aren’t quickly falls apart in the face of challenges like these. We are implicated by an ignorance we can never overcome.

In Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler reframes responsibility in light of the moment of being addressed by another. When someone addresses me, I have to give an account of myself in reply — and in giving an account of myself, I discover my own limits. I learn new things about my own past and present, about the person I am facing, about the world I am inhabiting. I confront my ignorance afresh.

Many people are addressing us right now: people dying at the hands of this virus and at the hands, or knees, of the police, families who have not been able to bury their loved ones, millions who suffer the slow violence of fear and anxiety. The moral question is not what we meant to do to these people. The moral question is how we will respond now to those who address us, and what we will learn about ourselves as we do.

As Jesus died, he prayed for his murderers: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” He asked their forgiveness not because their ignorance excused them, but precisely because it didn’t. It’s a prayer we should all hope for.

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