Knowing Better: Motivated Ignorance and Willful Ignorance

Hypatia:1-18 (2024)
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Motivated ignorance is an incentivized absence of knowledge that arises in circumstances of unequal power relations, a self-protective non-knowing which frees individuals from having to reflect on the privileges they have in virtue of membership in a dominant social group. In philosophical discussions, the term “motivated ignorance” gets used interchangeably with “willful ignorance.” In the first half of this paper, using Charles Mills’ (2007) white ignorance as the defining case, I argue that this is a mistake. A significant swath of cases of motivated ignorance are non-willful, or deep, following Rik Peels (2010). But in all cases, benefits accrued to some in virtue of their social position are gained and maintained at the expense of harms to others. In the second half of this paper, I argue that these harms are what ground attributions of culpability in cases of motivated ignorance and drive the normative requirement that the subject know better, so long as the facts in question are ordinarily and easily knowable (in a sense to be specified). Willfulness is not a necessary condition for culpability, even if it is a sufficient one.

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Karyn L. Freedman
University of Guelph


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