Ignorance, Enlightenment, and a Thought Experiment
Ignorance, Enlightenment, and a Thought Experiment

We often field questions about enlightenment. It is a lofty yet vague thing, with context being everything to any answer. One thing I can offer is a thought experiment - one used by Chairman Meow - which may illustrate what could help one achieve enlightened thinking and with it, a more just society.

Swirl paw

Meowpolis, Purristan – Thursday 15 October 2015

Though the ignorance is bliss idiom resonates, an enlightened society cannot exist if a large part of it is willfully ignorant. Any who intentionally avoid learning and growing intellectually will only stymie society as a whole. Willful ignorance may be one of the most destructive efforts, and it does take effort, thwarting the advancement of humanity. Ignorance itself, however, rather than the willful kind, is the reality of sentient beings, and thus embracing it is critical for achieving enlightened thinking.

In most contexts, humans view the term "ignorant" as a pejorative. It tends to be used as if it were synonymous with stupidity, though it only means one has not yet been made aware of something. Many humans like to think they know everything, or worse, many are critical of those who simply have not yet been made aware of something. This is when the term finds use as an insult. However, one of the most revolutionary and enlightened events in history was the Greek philosopher Socrates making a simple, and at the time unimaginable, admission, now called the Socratic paradox: I know that I know nothing. He declared to his fellow Athenians that the only thing he knew for sure was that he did not know anything. That may come across as a bit of an extreme admission for most readers to make themselves, so for something perhaps a bit more relatable, there is the saying that all I know are but grains of sand on the infinite beach of human knowledge. In short, everyone is ignorant of most things, and therefore, there is no shame in ignorance. You can never hope to eliminate it, and if you acknowledge this reality, you can begin a life of endless learning.

There are many things, as sentient beings, that everyone knows. You likely know that you exist. You probably know your gender, your age, your ethnicity, where you are, when you are (e.g. the time), and so on. These things you know, along with your life experience, likely informs much of how you see the world, as you see the world from the only perspective you have complete confidence in: yours. However, wise humans know their experiences are unique to them. They also know when they do not know, having no shame in recognizing their ignorance, like Socrates before them. These humans are willing to defer to and learn from those who are informed. If attempting to understand another, these wise humans may even practice empathy. Empathy is you placing yourself in the shoes of another. You can feel what the other feels with understanding, as you are seeing the world from their perspective. It is a fine skill, a rare one, and needed. It is an especially important one when considering issues relating to society, for society is a social environment, being that is exists as a collection of others. Every issue facing society is, ultimately, a political decision.

It is unreasonable to expect every human to be wise in all cases and at all times. Emotions play a fundamental role in human behavior, and it would be inhuman to avoid them and unfair to expect others to do so. That said, if you sit down with the freedom of thought, you could critically examine and rationally deliberate almost any topic of your choosing. This is an option available to you as a human being. It is one that you must take advantage of, if ever you wish to help your society achieve anything approaching enlightened politics.

Embracing ignorance

The first step toward enlightenment is the Socratic paradox

Enlightenment is not the knowing of everything. Rather, enlightenment is rooted in ignorance. By that, I mean, the first step toward enlightenment is the Socratic paradox. If you accept the reality that you do not know most things while also being absolutely guaranteed never know most things, then you open the door to becoming humble and growing wise. The wiser human tries to understand things, listening and asking questions, while inaugurating a life of learning and thinking critically. A wiser human, if having had an argument, takes the time to think about what the other had to say. The wiser human might start from a place of not knowing why the other held their view so passionately, to eventually achieving empathy with them. This is not agreement. This is understanding. You cannot know something until you understand it, and you cannot move a society forward until you understand the perspectives of others.

Many humans have a very difficult time admitting when they do not know. Western culture is built around penalizing those who do not know while celebrating hubris. Many humans try and some succeed at "faking it" until they "make it". Notice, also, that some of the most celebrated and successful humans double as some of the best bullshitters. Simply put, few like an ignorant person, in spite of all being one (heck, the Athenians eventually killed Socrates). Because you live in the real world, you will have to play this game too, but while doing so, you can also strive to become wise.

Rational Self-Interest

In addition to all being fundamentally ignorant, most humans engage in acts motivated by rational self-interests - including "faking it" until "making it". Like most humans, you likely do, or at least try to do, the things that you want. You try to maximize the things you enjoy, and minimize those things that you loathe. No one is perfectly rational all the time, but as a rule, these acts rooted in rational self-interests are the norm. With that in mind, it may serve rational self-interests to be empathetic. To understand others has its benefits. To help understand rational self-interests, it may be worth considering its opposite: altruism. Where the empathetic are rare, the altruist is perhaps the rarest. Altruism is something often used in the context of religion, but what it means is to act in completely selfless ways, or again, the opposite of rationally self-interested behavior. The altruist does something that benefits others, at a cost to them - their time, their resources, their pleasure, or even their survival - with neither the desire for nor expectation of thanks or reward. If a person of religious faith feeds a starving person, this may present the illusion of altruism, yet often the motivation of this generosity is their rational self-interests. They may feed this hungry human because they have been told or "commanded" to, and they may do so because they genuinely believe if they do "good" things, they will be rewarded, either immediately with praise from their peers, or in an afterlife. Going further, philanthropy and altruism often go hand in hand. However, if a wealthy person gives money to their former school to build a library and either (or both) the school names the library after them or the donor takes a tax deduction from "giving" that money, this act of philanthropy is more of the self-interested variety. Similarly, if a wealthy family creates a charitable trust named after that family, it is not altruism, it is branding. These examples can keep coming, though the idea is not to slam generosity (in spite of it often being a fundamentally selfish act), but rather to highlight how rare true altruism is, and thus why any proposal to help achieve a more enlightened society must come with rational self-interests in mind.

The Veil of Ignorance

A former human servant of His Imminence, Chairman Meow, was the late philosopher John Rawls. Rawls imperfectly laid out what may make for a just and fair society, however he did succeed in conveying some of the wisdom the Great Leader imparted upon him. The veil of ignorance is one of these concepts. This is a foundational idea on how using ignorance strategically may help in achieving a just society. Attempting to discern what is just, while also knowing you know nothing, may seem like an enormous, if not impossible, challenge. In fact, the veil of ignorance asks you to know even less than you do. It asks you to forget yourself. It is a curious idea, but effective if you understand it.

It is extremely difficult to get humans to come to an agreement on most issues. Personal experience informs perspective, and perspective informs decisions. The veil of ignorance asks you to engage in a thought experiment, where you forget who you are, or even when you are, and whatever else you knew you knew, when considering important questions. The lone thing you retain in every context is that you are a human within a society - a human among a sea of other humans. This thought paradigm is where Chairman Meow, and with Him, most Purristani's, often try to go when deliberating most issues, though from a feline perspective rather than human. This is why, when Chairman Meow reaches a decision, it almost always enjoys universal agreement, as it is usually the same decision most others would rationally reach - whether they privately like its result or not. What this means is that, if a decision is one a feline would not have wanted, from their personal self-interests, they still agree with the decision and accept whatever consequences it has for them because they too would reach the same decision as a rational actor.

The Thought Experiment

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few"

The best use of this thought experiment is when presented with a proposal that will effect society in some way. Let us consider a proposal to introduce slavery. With it being 2015, most humans likely will automatically oppose any proposal reintroducing human bondage. However, it serves as an easy proposal to help convey this thought experiment. The way this thinking works is imagining throwing a veil over your eyes as you deliberate this question of slavery. You know you are a human in a society made up of other humans. However, you imagine this veil blocks out everything else; you do not know your gender, age, ethnicity, religion, health, economic class, and so on. You do not know what year it is or even what nation you are in. Then you consider the question from this framework. Should this society of humans institute slavery? More specifically, should it institute the enslavement of a particular ethnic group? Now the experiment begins. Perhaps the thinking that produced the proposal is utilitarian, the Star Trek view that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one)". Perhaps having some slaves could benefit the whole of society better than having no slaves.

Not knowing about yourself, nor when or when you are, you may think it possible that when you lift the veil of ignorance, you will discover that you are a wealthy business owner, not of the ethnic group considered for enslavement. In this context, rational self-interests, and in fact, business interests may lead you to consider slavery a net benefit, or even a business necessity. Being wealthy, you can afford to acquire slaves, and if doing so, you know you will amass greater wealth. Even if you are morally opposed to the idea, you may think you will have to, as your business will fail to compete as other firms begin using slave labor. You may consider it possible, that when you lift the veil, you will discover slavery has been in effect for a century, and you have inherited a great plantation. Maybe you will assuage your moral concerns by thinking it possible that slavery means a greater amount of cheap food will be available to the society at large, ensuring fewer will starve. In fact, you may even consider that position morally superior, in spite of some having to suffer. Slavery, therefore, may prove a tremendous benefit to you and your family, and perhaps your society. You continue deliberating this perspective until you understand it. This is empathy.

Once you have considered this view, you may then begin thinking it possible that when you lift the veil of ignorance, you will be a working class human, though still not of the ethnic group considered for enslavement. You may think, then, it would be hard for you to land a good job, reasonably fearing slaves will fill most jobs. Perhaps if you lift the veil, you might see that a working class human is destitute in this society, because slavery has been in effect for a century. You might then feel that slavery is unjust, because you may have to compete with slaves for work, and that kind of competition is hard to beat. Yet you may alternatively consider the abundance of cheap goods and food to come from slavery. You may be poorer, but at least no one is starving. Regardless, you continue deliberating this perspective until you understand it.

You may then consider that, when lifting the veil of ignorance, you are of the ethnic group considered for enslavement. That chance, alone, may be enough for you to cease the thought experiment and choose to reject the proposal. Some perspectives will support, others will oppose. Eventually, you will reach a point of knowing, deep in your bones, which position is most just, most fair, and has the best outcome for the majority of perspectives considered. The objective is to continue rationally deliberating and researching an issue while considering it from myriad perspectives, until you reach a point where you can say that you either support or oppose the proposal, and do so justly while understanding why you rationally made that choice.

If the thought experiment goes well, and if when lifting the veil you discover that you are, indeed, a wealthy business owner, you will accept the outcome of the choice you made: the rejection of this policy proposal. You will accept this in spite of its rejection possibly going against your rational self-interests as a business owner, because you too had rationally rejected the proposal while ignorant of yourself.

You likely will never face the question of slavery. You face questions regarding the poor, taxes, healthcare, immigration, war and peace, disaster relief, and so on. Should public spaces be accessible to those in wheelchairs? Should prostitution be legal? Should your community permit oil drilling on public land? You may have opinions, but they may not yet be informed and just answers to those questions. When beginning, it may take some time for you to reach your answers. However, after conducting this thought experiment many times on many issues, all while assuaging ignorance as you will learn a great deal about many things, the process will become easier and faster, until it eventually becomes yet another one of the ways you think about things.

The Caveat of Legacy

Every nation has a history. Having achieved an answer, and lifting the veil of ignorance, you will rediscover yourself, your place, and your time. Yet the answer you reached through this thought experiment, though unquestionably just, would now need examination from within the current context you are actually living in. It is likely most humans will rationally reject slavery, lift the veil, and, in the context of 2015, say "no shit". Other issues may force a change in your fair and rationally reached answer, when applying the context of place and time. The fair and just answer, when applying the legacy of the society you currently live in, may prove unjust and unfair. This is a complicating part, but as you get better at the thought experiment, this too becomes easier.


This thought paradigm is one that can help produce wiser decisions regarding issues facing your society, as it compels you to remember you are not an individual actor, but rather, one of many. Western culture, especially that of the United States, idolizes independence and self-reliance, while society is secondary. Humans internalize these tropes to the point where many often find it hard to see that much of their successes in life did not originate from them being geniuses (they are, after all, ignorant of most things). Rather, much of their success originates from the help of others. In short, your society has everything to do with who you become. An example of the benefit to your rational self-interests being satisfied, yet coming from a collective decision within your society, is it likely pooling resources together to construct, train, hire, and make available to you the institutions, resources, and professionals of education. To put it another way, you did not learn how to read on your own, and thus all the success found from any independence and self-reliance is rooted in this help from your society. To help make the collective decisions, which are always political, such as providing universal education, it helps to practice empathy, with ignorance of self being an effective way to get there. No matter how much you may want a better society, it helps to remember most humans are not altruists, willing to self-sacrifice if necessary for the betterment of others. The veil of ignorance thought experiment is one that uses ignorance to its advantage, while accounting for rational self-interests. It is worth noting that, though we like this thought experiment, it is neither perfect nor required for achieving a more enlightened society. As a tool in your intellectual arsenal, it can certainly help, especially if you master its use. Regardless, there are many ways to learn how better to think critically and comprehensively, while reaching just decisions. The key points we consider helpful is embracing your ignorance and considering issues facing your society from the position of empathy toward your fellows. The more involved the issue, the more perspectives to consider. The more perspectives you consider, the more you will understand.

Privacy Policy |  Contact Us |  Built on with and Objectivist C