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The Ethics Of Knowledge

by | Jun 5, 2000 | Futurist Thomas Frey Insights

Is there such a thing as inherently bad knowledge? Or is all knowledge value-neutral? These are the mind probing questions that I have posed to many seminar groups.The initial response typically is silence, as they mull over the options. They then begin to mentally test out extreme scenarios as a way to land in their own comfort zone. Most are very cautious in voicing an opinion, but eventually someone will say, “Well, I guess all knowledge must be value neutral.”

This question becomes important as scientists begin to probe into what has formerly been considered “forbidden ground”. Some say that there are some areas of science that should be off limits – we could destroy the whole human race if we screw up. It’s just too dangerous!

Again I ask the questions. Is there such a thing as inherently bad knowledge? Or is all knowledge value-neutral? We all know how to walk into a Wal-Mart store and steal merchandise. But does that make it inherently bad knowledge? We all know how to pick up a gun, aim it at someone, and pull the trigger. Again, bad knowledge? If researchers figure out how to build a new bomb that is capable of blowing the earth in half, is that inherently bad knowledge? Or maybe they figure out how to make HIV super contagious. To all of these questions, I think we’d have to agree that the knowledge itself is not inherently bad.

But certainly there is knowledge that we would be better off not knowing. As the Age of Innovation blazes new trails into the world of technology, we will undoubtedly be uncovering thousands of new ways to injure and kill our fellow human beings. Before the car was invented, we had no traffic deaths. Before airplanes were invented, we had no plane crashes.

So, is death and injury a natural byproduct of advancing technology? Some would argue that it is. Edward Tenner, author of the book “Why Things Bites Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences” has illustrated many examples of the down-side to technology. Video tapes of people making inflammatory remarks have been used to incite riots and mayhem. Audio tapes were used as a chief propaganda tool when the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran, and many died in the transition. Are video and audio tapes potentially bad technology?

The conclusion I have drawn is that there are two forms of inherently bad knowledge. The first form is incorrect knowledge. 2 + 2 = 17 is bad knowledge. Incorrect knowledge is our greatest enemy. It has lead to more death and destruction than all wars combined. “The plane is in perfect working order” is a statement that may lead to the death of its passengers if it is not correct. Experts have stated that it wasn’t until the 1920s when going to a medical doctor started to help people more than it hurt them. Incorrect knowledge is rampant in our society, and a very destructive force.

The second form of inherently bad knowledge is that which causes traumatic scarring on the brain. Scenes from a car accident where a baby is critically maimed, or witnessing the horrors of war are two examples. Knowing what it is like to be raped, or what its like to have your hand crushed in a milling machine are two more examples. With each example the pain of remembrance overshadows the practical benefit.

I ask that you not let my conclusions end this debate. As a society we are in a relentless pursuit of knowledge. And maybe the sheer volume of knowledge is, in itself, the single most destructive force. However, this is a very complicated philosophical issue, and a few paragraphs on the subject is certainly not the final word.

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