Ignorance of natural law is no excuse

It’s a commonplace: ignorance of the law is no excuse. The reason isn’t that everyone pretty much knows all the laws already. They don’t. Instead, it’s twofold:

  • It would reward people willing to lie about what the they knew, and
  • It would encourage people to remain ignorant of the law.

Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us that this legal principle goes back to the Greeks and Romans, who had a third reason: the law was merely a reflection of what was right and wrong, the true law. Ergo, one had a duty to know it. That seems a little strong in this postmodern age. But it gets close to something that’s a pernicious problem in modern American culture.

Ignorance is bliss

If you look at the recent financial meltdown, which has caused untold misery to a mind-boggling number of people, a lot of the key players claimed ignorance. Not of the law, but of consequences. One would certainly hope they were ignorant, because the alternative is that they were amoral monsters. But that’s not entirely believable. Surely, many of the participants were ignorant, at least to the extent that they didn’t understand the full consequences of their actions.

Some of them, however, must have figured it out. As Michael Lewis documents in his excellent book The Big Short, a number of people external to the sausage-making put the pieces together; it’s implausible that some inside didn’t. More broadly, many must have noticed local wrongness, even if they didn’t think through the global implications. And if many knew, many more must have suspected something, but ignored it. It’s a continuum of cluelessness.

Ignorance is strength

The problem is that although we’ve rigged it so that there is no incentive to remain ignorant of law, there is still a strong incentive to remain ignorant of the consequences of your actions. When the CEOs of financial companies say, “Hey, we didn’t realize we were doing things that almost destroyed the world economy,” we say, “Oh, well then. Fair enough. Keep your $100m bonuses.”

This is a problem that information technology can make incalculably worse. Telecommunications made it possible for us to be physically distant from the consequences of our actions. Software, acting as an informational filter, can make it easy to be more deeply unaware. The vast flood of appealing content available to us through TV and the web can drown out subtle thoughts. Combine this with our natural tendency to avoid thinking about unpleasant things, and to avoid being the bearer of bad news, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Ignorance is forbidden

I think the only solution is the one we took long ago for the law: ignorance might be an explanation, but it can never be an excuse.

That’s already true in in some areas. If you fail to properly maintain your car and an accident results, we see you as culpable, not blameless. One cannot say, “Brakes: I didn’t realize they mattered.” Even if you didn’t, it doesn’t absolve you of responsibility. This should be equally true of a CEO.

Executives have no problem claiming the credit for and much of the profit of the work their employees undertake. The must take an equal share of the blame when things go wrong. Power and responsibility, both legal and moral, must be closely linked. This should at least be enforced by custom, through both civil and business culture. But could it perhaps be made a legal requirement as well?

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One Response to Ignorance of natural law is no excuse

  1. Andrew Sarkarati says:

    very well written! you should do more!

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