Suppose S satisfies all clauses (i*)-(v*), but is unaware that she does. Is she still willfully ignorant? Consider clauses (iv) and (v*) in particular. Together, they state that S does not consider p because this is inconvenient for S. Importantly, for S to satisfy these clauses, is it not enough that S does not consider p and that considering p is inconvenient for S. For some sort of connection need to obtain between these clauses, namely there has to be a causal relationship between the fact that considering p is inconvenient for S and the fact of her omission to consider p.Footnote 20 The question in the following will be whether we need more than this. Particularly, does the agent need to be aware of this connection, i.e. of the fact she does not consider p because this is inconvenient for her? In my view, the answer here is negative. But in order to show this, I need to tackle the following puzzle:
On the one hand, if S is fully unaware that she is avoiding information, then it is unclear that S is willfully avoiding information. This raises a paradox: how can S unconsciously choose not to know some inconvenient truth? For if S does so, it seems she is not really choosing not to consider whether A is wrong.
On the other hand, if S is aware that she is avoiding information about A, then it’s not clear that S is really ignorant. At least S seems to know that there’s a serious risk that A is wrong. This raises a paradox: how can S consciously choose not to know some inconvenient truth? For if S does so, it seems she is not really ignorant, but rather suspects its truth.
This puzzle has recently been taken up by Lynch (2016: 509), who favours a solution along the following lines (which is in large part inspired by Husak and Callender 1994). According to Lynch, willful ignorance about p entails a suspicion that p is true. This suspicion covers a subtle attitudinal space. First, this attitude is weaker than a belief that p is true. For if you believe that p is true, you are not ignorant that p is true. Second, the attitude is incompatible with a belief that p is false. For if you believe that p is false, you do not have a suspicion that p is true. Third, the attitude is incompatible with the absence of such a suspicion. For if you do not even have a suspicion, your ignorance cannot be willful or intended. You’d just be ignorant, and the fact that you are avoiding information would not be your choice.Footnote 21
The four cases by Moody-Adams might indeed involve such a suspicion (cf. also Levy 2003: 154). The torturer may suspect that her methods are wrongfully violent (even though she may tell herself that they are justifiably violent). The banker may suspect that her firm uses illicit methods to gain profit. The mother may suspect that her son is a drug dealer. And the university administrator may suspect harassment. This may not mean that they have a clear attitude with a well-defined propositional content of the form ‘I could and should inform myself about the given action A, but I am avoiding relevant information about A because this is convenient for me’. But it does mean that they have a vague suspicion that p might be true (and that A might be wrong).Footnote 22
Suspicions come with a certain awareness. If you suspect that p is true, you are aware that p might be true (that there’s a certain risk that p is true, so to speak). As just noted, the content of suspicions can be more or less well-defined. The mother might only be aware of the fact that something is wrong with the presents of her son. But she might also be aware of the fact that he’s a drug dealer, and that she does not want to know more about it. And, as Lynch adds, suspicions can be stronger or weaker. The mother might strongly suspect her son is a drug dealer, or only weakly suspect this. What matters on his account is that the suspicion amounts neither to a belief in the given content nor to a disbelief in it.
In my view, though, we need not add a suspicion or awareness requirement on willful ignorance. The latter is compatible with suspicions, but there’s also willful ignorance without them. Hence, my view is more liberal than Lynch’s: it considers the class of willful ignorance to be larger. In my view, what matters for willful ignorance is not so much a specific attitude of the agent, but the fact that she is avoiding inconvenient information, though not due to external barriers (as I put it in §1). But if this is so, both horns of the puzzle are mistaken. Let me consider each in turn.
Horn (A) suggests that willful ignorance seems incompatible with full unawareness. Contra (A), I need to show that if S lacks any suspicion and awareness, then it might still be that she is willfully ignorant in a relevant sense.
First, consider the two applications from §4. I can imagine that there were many slaveholders who had no suspicion that their slaves were suffering. Clearly, there are many consumers today who have no suspicion that the products they buy are made in slavery-like conditions. Yet they can be willfully ignorant. After all, they are avoiding inconvenient information, and their ignorance is not due to external barriers.
In fact, assuming that only people with suspicions are willfully ignorant has counterintuitive consequences. Arguably, consumers who care about working conditions are often suspicious of the products they buy, while consumers who do not care typically lack such suspicions. Would this mean that only the concerned consumers are willfully ignorant? That’s counterintuitive. After all, the external barriers to obtaining more information about working conditions are exactly the same for both kinds of consumers.
The same applies to interesting versions of Moody-Adams’ cases. Suppose the mother or the school administrator lacks any suspicion. The mother might even disbelieve that her son deals drugs, and the administrator might disbelieve that there is harassment in her school (and I will assume that these disbeliefs do not go together with suspicions to the contrary). Would that mean they are not willfully ignorant? Surely not. Their ignorance is still due to their own will rather than to external barriers, given all the available evidence to the contrary.
If this is right, one may be fully unaware that one is willfully ignorant. Lynch may be right that in such cases the ignorance is not intended, in a relevant sense. But, it seems to me that not all willful ignorance is essentially intentional or the upshot of a clear plan. What matters is that it’s not the upshot of external barriers. If you satisfy (i*)-(v*), then your ignorance is, in the sense of these conditions, still up to you. Let me defend this from two objections.
First objection: if one has no awareness clause, then one might avoid information for the wrong reasons, that is, for reasons that have nothing to do with the inconvenience of the information.
Suppose someone calls you, but you do not know what it is about, and decide not to pick up the phone because you do not like phone calls (or perhaps you think it’s all-things-considered better to do something else with your time). Suppose the person calling had inconvenient information about the permissibility of your behaviour, though you had no idea, and not picking up the phone had nothing to do with it. Hence, you are avoiding inconvenient information. You could have picked up the phone (which means that clause (iii) is satisfied), and on the assumption that you had an obligation to pick up (so that clause (ii) is satisfied as well), you seem to be willfully ignorant on my account.
In response, I do not think it’s clear that this follows. First, clause (iii) is satisfied only temporarily, and hence you are not systematically avoiding information. To address this, we might suppose that they call you each and every day and that you never pick up. Again, we would not want to call this willful ignorance so long as you are motivated only by your aversion to phone calls. Still, my account would not consider this a case of willful ignorance unless there is a causal relationship between your repeated failure to pick up the phone and the fact that the information is inconvenient for you, and this is unclear in this case.Footnote 23
Second objection: “Willful ignorance requires some awareness that the ignorance is convenient. For sometimes we are lucky to have ignorance that meets the other conditions (i*)-(v*). After ignorance is corrected we might look back and say, “Wow, good that I was ignorant. It was convenient for me.” But, this shows that the ignorance wasn’t willful.”Footnote 24 So if you were unaware that you were avoiding inconvenient truths, then afterwards you might be glad that this happened to you. And if you are glad in this way, you seem to acknowledge that you did not really choose to be ignorant.
The objection may seem sensible, but my account can respond to it. Namely, if you fulfil the inconvenience clause (vi*), then you cannot say “Wow, good that I was ignorant”. After all, the ignorance was convenient, and the information one receives is inconvenient. The information might reveal that one can no longer do A (forward-looking self-interest), or it might affect your image (backward-looking self-interest), or it might reveal something about someone you care about (other-interest). Furthermore, if you cannot be happy that you were ignorant, you are not committed to acknowledge that you did not really choose to be ignorant, as the objection has it.
Horn (B) suggests that willful ignorance seems incompatible with a certain awareness. Contra (B), I need to show that willful ignorance is not only compatible with a certain unawareness (as I just argued), but also with various kinds of awareness.
First Case S has a very weak reason to suspect that A is wrong, and decides in full awareness not to consider further information about A’s wrongness. Suppose you know that 10 % of this company’s products are made in slavery-like conditions, but do not know whether this specific product is made in such conditions. Despite your weak suspicion that buying it may be wrong, you decide not to consider further information and just to buy it.Footnote 25 This seems to be a clear case of willful ignorance.
Second Case S has a strong reason to suspect that A is wrong, and decides in full awareness not to consider further information about A’s wrongness. Suppose you know that 90 % of this company’s products are made in slavery-like conditions, but do not know whether this specific product is made in such conditions. Despite your strong suspicion that buying it may be wrong, you decide not to consider further information and just to buy it. This also seems to be a case of willful ignorance (and the same would apply to any further variant of these casesFootnote 26).
Final Case S not only has a strong suspicion that A is wrong, she also believes it. Suppose you rightly believe that all products are made in slavery-like conditions. Still, this information is inconvenient for you, and you suppress your belief by masking your consuming behaviour (just as the torturer masks her violent methods) and by avoiding information which would bring your belief to the center of your awareness. You are not fully aware that your purchase is wrong, but you do believe that it is deep down. In such a case, I think you might still be called willfully ignorant.
All in all, given that on my account willful ignorance is about avoiding inconvenient information, it does not really matter what attitude the agent has, and willful ignorance is compatible with awareness and unawareness of various kinds. In my view, the only attitude incompatible with willful ignorance is full awareness that one is doing something wrong. For if one is fully aware of this, one is simply not ignorant.Footnote 27