There is no singular definition of knowledge, but for the purpose of this paper; knowledge will be defined as the familiarity with a situation or fact. Ethics, on the other hand, is a set of moral principles that govern a person’s behavior. Simplifying the knowledge issue would be to state that: The familiarity of something (whether a fact or situation) entails compliance with ethical or moral obligations. In disagreement with the previous claim, I believe that the possession of knowledge does carry an ethical responsibility.
In a paper written by Steven Pinker, otherwise known as “The Moral Instinct”, he suggests that morality has a metaphorical switch. Stated as the “moralization switch”, Steven Pinker suggests, “Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. ” Much like light switches, moralization switches may be turned on and off.
When the moralization switch is turned off, the reasoning for doing something (moral or amoral) changes, rather than being a matter of virtue, it becomes a matter of practicality or personal reasons. Different people may have their moralization switches turned on or off in the same scenario. An example of this is “loving thy neighbor”. One may express his love for his neighbor because it is in accordance to the Ten Commandments, which he/she truly believes in; while another person may also express love toward his neighbor purely because there is something to gain from it.
Steven Pinker, in his paper, states that morality is under assault. This could be in line with a conclusion formulated by David Couzens Hoy, a renowned professor of philosophy, based on the works of Emmanuel Levina (a French philosopher) who believed that “responsibility precedes any objective searching after the truth”. David Couzens Hoy concluded that there has been an ethical turn. He now defines ethics as “obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable”.
Despite the fact that ethical obligations are optional, the general population comes to a consensus about moral concepts such as the difference between right and wrong. It was theorized by, anthropologist, Donald E. Brown, in his work “Human Universals” that things such as the concept of distinction between right and wrong have no exceptions in normal human beings. This, along with the concept of fairness, accounts for the decision of most people to maintain a certain ethical standard and responsibility.
The defiance of the ethical code of conduct that is universally accepted would either be recognized by the doer as wrong (and would most likely be punished), or would be a result of a mental disorder (such as psychopathy or moral blindness). This is why a person convicted of murder is given less harsh punishments if known to have a psychological disorder, otherwise known as being mentally unfit. The fact that they have mental disorders means that they are exceptions to this rule of thumb. The moral blindness does not allow for a coherent view with the universal morality that the rest of the world follows.
The reason why the world is in chaos is because showing ethical responsibility is a choice. Harvard Psychologist, Marc Hauser, argues that millions of years of natural selection have molded a universal moral grammar within our brains that enables us to make rapid decisions about ethical dilemmas. There is a universal perception of the difference between right and wrong, but the choice to do either right or wrong is situational. It takes something as simple as personal advancement or an impulse to do something immoral.
This is why the possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility. A cliche goes “with knowledge comes power”, which is why knowledge requires ethical responsibility. The same kind of knowledge may be used for great good or bad, and the choice of what to do with it lies in the hands of the one that possesses the information. This shows the possible threat that knowledge has. It could be used to harm humans. The moralization switch could spell the difference between life and death in the hands of the possessor.
Jon Stuart Mill’s Principle of Utilitarianism states the ethical theory that one should maximize the over happiness and satisfaction, and aim for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Exemplifying ethical responsibility, according to this principle, would entail using the familiarity with facts or information for the betterment of the majority. It is possible, however, that personal advancement is genuine happiness, and this could instantaneously shroud one’s moral mentality.
It is only the sense of morality that is universal, not being moral itself. Selfish acts, which are almost always immoral or amoral are means by which people could attain happiness for themselves. This could override the choices that one makes, despite the innate ability to tell between moral and immoral. An example of this is insider trading. In the world of finance, one can win big and lose big. Insider trading is a form of immoral acts that go against ethical responsibility by using knowledge for personal advancement, while simultaneously hurting others.
The end, which is money, would justify the means (which is unfairly using information for the advancement of oneself and the decline of others). Knowledge on matters may have little effects, and global effects. They may severely affect others while greatly benefitting a select few, or cause the happiness of majority of society. The end, or effect, would be a result of one’s choice on what to do with the knowledge that he has. It is therefore crucial for people to be moral. The effect of the exploitation of knowledge is limitless and can work both ways, which is why one must be ethically responsible and just.