I am presently working on a paper that deals with the problem stated in the title of this post. I am presenting a brief outline of the main argument below and would welcome any comments. In so far as I do not know how to post the entire draft, if you would like to read it, please let me know and i will email it to you. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Once while watching the Matrix with my son Micah, he commented that he thought that Neo would be acting unethically if he exposed the reality of the Matrix to others without their consent. Even though doing so would expose the illusion that they actually live in a world as it appears to them and act as they think they act, he thought that people have a right to choose to remain ignorant and that Neo’s proposed actions would violate this right. When I teach an intro to philosophy course I use the Matrix in discussing the nature of knowing and skepticism. I ask my students to write a short paper on which pill (the red for knowledge or the blue to remain ignorant) they would take and to explain their reasoning behind their decision. Inevitability about 1/3 of the students will choose the blue pill to remain ignorant. The reason most often given to justify their position is that they are happy with their worldview and lives and they do not want to consider the possibility that they may not be correct regarding the truth status of their beliefs about the way the world is and what constitutes happiness. For them, remaining ignorant of possible viable alternatives is the preferable alternative. They simply do not want to investigate their core beliefs and have them challenged. This is an understandable position in that core beliefs are these that form the foundation upon which we build our conceptual frameworks. It can be very difficult for us to put these beliefs under critical scrutiny. If a foundational core belief turns out to be false, then a major portion of our framework crumbles and we may be left “dazed and confused” without a concrete reference point to regain our intellectual bearing so that we can continue to knowingly and freely move forward in our lives.
According to Hope May, the Socratic method is designed to expose two types of ignorance; definitional ignorance where we do not end up with an acceptable definition for what is being investigated and inconsistency ignorance where the definition that we are investigating leads us to conclusions that are inconsistent, or contradictory, to what was originally stated. Consequently, there is an important normative, as well as pedagogical question that confronts us as educators; “should we force our students to accept what we believe to be true if doing so could radically change the way they view and live their lives?” Neo thinks that it is permissible to force the truth on others and is going to proceed to expose the existence of the Matrix to others without their consent. There is an alternative approach exemplified by Socrates. While agreeing that we should expose ignorance, he would act differently; he would simply offer us the opportunity to uncover the truth for ourselves through critical reflective dialogue around an important issue, but would not force us to learn the truth regarding that issue without our first giving our consent to follow where the argument takes us. Socrates would allow people to enter into, or remain in, the dialogue as they choose. Assuming that it is part of our duty as philosophers to expose ignorance (and I think that it is), if we, as educators, decide to follow the example of Neo, do we violate any ethical parameters that should define the pedagogical role that the teachers of philosophy should play in exposing ignorance?
It is interesting to note that Neo would fail to give others the very choice that Morpheus, the true Socratic figure in the Matrix, gave him when he was first confronted with the opportunity to discover the truth concerning the nature of our existence. Socrates’ approach represents a more passive and nuanced approach then Neo’s in exposing ignorance because it rests on the belief that others do not have to participate in the dialogue, or can even leave the dialogical process, if they so choose. In fact, for Neo there is no dialogue, there is simply exposure to the truth, no quarter given to those to whom he would force the truth upon. However, there is an important moral constraint in the way the method functions when utilized by Socrates: it is not forced upon anyone. Those engaged in the dialogical process must consent to be part of that process even if they are bystanders. Socrates never gives an argument for not forcing people to learn the truth in undertaking his investigations, he simply incorporates it into the way he conducts his investigations. Although he is committed to exposing ignorance and discovering the truth about important issues, he never forces anyone into a discussion, or into remaining in a discussion. At any point in the dialogue we, like Euthyphro, are free to end the discussion and walk away. In fact, we are free not to enter into a dialogue. Even if we make a statement that was to catch the interest of a Socratic-like investigator, we do not have to answer the question posed by that person. Socrates believes that we will suffer a great harm by not investigating the truth of important issues, namely we will never arrive at a firm foundation for making the correct decisions on how to live our lives so that we can find true happiness, but we are free not to know and to be harmed by not knowing.
Neo, on the other hand, is like a freedom fighter. He knows that we are living in slavery and that slavery is an undesirable state of existence if people are to be self- determining moral agents. Neo assumes that there is a contradiction between being self-determining and choosing to become a slave. He must believe that no self-determining agent would knowingly and freely choose to become, or remain a slave. If people choose to become slaves, or to remain ignorant if the opportunity for knowledge is presented to them, they must be somehow being compelled or tricked into making this wrong life altering decision. How can we be morally responsible for our lives if we do not control them? How can we control our lives if we are in a dream-state like existence with our experiences simply being the result of a computerized program designed to deceive us into believing something to be true which is in fact false?
Socrates seems to be arguing that we must know in order to be free, while Neo is arguing that we must be free in order to know. This might be the real issue, the right to be free versus the right not to know. Neo sees the evil of the Matrix, not as a limitation on what we can know, but on our freedom to choose and to act as self-determining moral agents based on those choices. Socrates has a different agenda then Neo; he wants to expose ignorance to arrive at knowledge while Neo wants to expose ignorance to arrive at freedom.
The question we have been discussing is not an unimportant one. To bring in an example that you might face (in one way or another) in real life: suppose that you are a physician and that you have a patient who is suffering from an incurable terminal illness that will kill him in one year. The patient doesn’t know that he has this illness; but you know that the patient’s knowing that he has this illness will not help him recover (nothing will) and will bring him a great deal of misery for the remaining year of this life. Are you obligated to tell the patient? What if the patient is also your friend?