Ignorance is defined as not knowing something. Ignorance is not necessarily bad, because no one can know everything, so everyone is ignorant of something. While lacking knowledge may cause issues (and is hence sometimes bad), the general sense of being ignorant of something is too hard to avoid with what we know about reality, so there is at the moment no point in trying to learn everything.
That does not mean though that there is no point in learning things. The point is not that ignorance is unavoidable, it is that some degree of ignorance is unavoidable. It is not whether or not you are ignorant, but how ignorant you are that matters. People often use the word “ignorant” as an insult or judgment without denoting the degree of ignorance, or also important, the area in which the person is ignorant. Most people are ignorant of quantum field theory because it is a very specific and complicated field of physics, and since it is so specific, and not useful to most people, it is completely acceptable for most people to be ignorant in that field.
When Ignorance is not Bad
Ignorance really matters in specific situations. One can say that someone is ignorant in general, meaning that they do not know much total information. One can say that someone does not have varied enough information, or that they do not know enough about what is considered important. These three claims are very subjective, as there is no real metric to say how much total information is enough, how much variety is needed in what you know, or what information is important and which is not. Even if we did have metrics for these things, there is no clear reason as to why we want or need so much total information, variety of information, or information on important subjects. These judgments of ignorance are meaningless unless they are founded in proper reasons.
An example would be to judge someone as ignorant because they do not know about different types of alcohol or because they do not know a specific language. While having information on such things might be useful in specific circumstances, it strongly depends on whether or not the person is likely to experience those circumstances and how important those circumstances are to them. Having knowledge of types of wines and their qualities is important mostly to fit in with people who care about wines, and is rather useless information otherwise. Knowing a specific language that someone considers important is also useful, if you will ever need or want to speak it. Of the thousands of languages in the world, it is almost impossible and certainly impractical to learn them all, so while learning any language will benefit you, you have to consider which languages you want to learn and use, and which will be the most useful to you.
While you don’t know what information you will need in the future, and should therefore be prepared by learnings things that you may need, this should not be taken to irrational extremes. Of all the information that exists, there is too much to learn all of it, so if you want to prepare yourself by learning things pre-emptively, you must select which information to learn and which not to. As a result, people give importance to some information over others on a subjective basis. Judging someone as ignorant for not knowing something you care about is irrationally imposing your subjective views as objective and telling other people that they should believe as you do.
When Ignorance is Bad
There are however times when ignorance is bad. Willful ignorance, extreme ignorance, and ignorance of things you need are examples of this. As stated above, the key in determining when ignorance is bad is knowing what information is really important. One cannot simply generalise their own beliefs as objective important unless they objective and universal. Nor can one say that something is important without giving valid reasoning.
An engineer working on an aircraft needs to know about the dangers of the machinery. While an electrical engineer might not know how combustion or aircraft engines work, if they are working on an aircraft then their ignorance of aircraft safety is objectively bad for two reasons:
- Since they do not know what is dangerous, they will not know what to avoid doing. As a result, they might do something dangerous that can cause damage and harm other people.
- Harming other people should be considered objectively and universally bad as it causes them pain and injury. Pain makes the person suffer and injury may put their life at risk or cause them permanent body damage. Neither pain, damage, or death are things that people want, and regardless of whether or not they want them, doing such things disrespects their bodies and their free will.
This is not a complete argument, and should not be taken as dogma. It is however the type of reasoning that should be applied when accusing someone of being harmfully ignorant.
Another reason ignorance is bad is when you are willfully ignorant. Willful ignorance is the rejection of truth as a virtue and instead limiting what you know on purpose. This is done by avoiding the truth, and lying to yourself. These things are irrational, but are often done to avoid pain. They are generally more harmful than reasonable and accidental ignorance, since they actively try to be more ignorant and therefore deny the person of even more information which might be useful or necessary. The less information you have, the more likely you are to not have the information you need.
Lastly, extreme ignorance is perhaps what most people think of when calling someone ignorant. This is when someone knows so little about anything that they lack basic information needed for basic things, such as a willfully ignorant person. The use of the word “basic” here is not accurate, as this is a subjective view of what is considered basic and what is not. What I mean to say here is that a person who knows so little will be very limited in what they can do. Without sufficient knowledge of the things in the world, you will be cut off from choices you could have otherwise made. Someone who loves making stories but does not know what film or television are would be limited to the options they do know about, which could be writing books or oral storytelling. If the person knew what motion film was though, they would be able to choose the type of storytelling media that they enjoy the most or that they think is best. By limiting your knowledge, you limit your options.
These arguments have largely been about utility. Information gives people choices, as “knowledge is power”. However there is a more noble aspect to information, that of learning out of interest. There is a virtue of enjoying and wanting to learn because you are interested in things and want to know how and why they work. Such a discussion would require its own essay though, but it is a mistake to disregard the more human aspects of learning in favor of the technical and utilitarian aspects, as utility is dictated by what we want, which is ultimately a human field.
Being ignorant is not an insult, as we are all ignorant of something, but we must not want to be ignorant, as that will harm us. Rather it is better to want to learn, both to give us as many options as possible as well as to make us grow as human beings.