Disclaimer: Some thoughts on reason, ethics, and teaching. There is probably more refined philosophy on this somewhere, but I figured I would write down my thoughts. This post might be subject to change in the future. I might also move these types of posts to a separate feed/blog to separate it from computer science stuff.
Consider the following ethical problems. Forget about possible sidetracks and just answer yes if you think it is morally right and no if you think it is morally wrong.
First problem: You have a button, when you press the button it gives you a minor happiness, but at the same time it causes a lot of unhappiness for someone else. Is it morally right to press the button?
I think most people would answer no in this first question, You could rephrase it as question whether it is right or wrong to steal from someone. Now consider the same question, but without the bad part.
Second problem: You have a button, when you press the button it gives you a minor happiness. Is it morally right to press the button?
Obviously it does not matter morally speaking, right? If we assume full knowledge of consequences then there is no wrongdoing. From a utilitarian standpoint it would be a good thing to press that button; our utility would go up. However, what if the consequences aren’t actually that well known, and this is your perception whenever you push that hypothetical button? Out of curiosity, you pressed the button one day to see what would happen. It gave you that minor boost of happiness and had no other effects to your knowledge.
Third problem: You have a button, when you press the button it gives you a minor happiness. After a few turns of having pressed the button, you learn that every time you press the button someone is killed. Is it now morally right to press the button?
No, right? You might be forgiven for having pressed the button before, but now you don’t have the same excuse for doing so. Killing someone for a minor gain is hard to justify morally.
I would argue that the knowledge of the consequences very much depends on the ability to reason and our perception. Do we hold someone liable when they don’t know what they’re doing is wrong? In many cases, no. However, we could say that negligence is wrong, and that the person should have known that there were bad consequences to his actions. The knowledge of the bad consequences will likely make you reason that continued pressing of the button is bad.
Fourth problem: Your friend has found this same button and has started pressing it to get happiness. However, she does not know of the bad consequences. Should you inform her of them?
I think yes. If we go by the reasoning from the previous problem, then we help our friend understand that what she is doing is wrong and so she will likely stop pressing the button.
So finally, where am I trying to get with this? I find the flux between knowing and unknowing interesting. It opens up for further questions. What is your responsiblity for knowledge within your field? Obviously, for someone like a doctor knowledge might impact lives more directly and therefore a doctor has a higher responsibility than say a mailman. Another question, which was supposed to tie into the title of this blogpost, is when are we responsible for informing others? Clearly there is some limit to this, depending on your own self confidence and what not. If we went about informing everyone about every single little wrongdoing they might be doing then we would quickly lose friends. Unsolicited advise is gets old quick.
However, going by this logic where knowing the consequences seems to give a higher moral responsibility, there are some nice conclusions. Learning and teaching become good things.
Show people the consequences of their actions and perhaps they are more likely to do the right thing. In this sense teaching/learning feels like it is an instrumental way to goodness.