Tok Essay. Knowledge and Ethical Responsibility
The possession of knowledge has no effect on humanity in and of itself; however, it is the
decisions made using knowledge where one can potentially have a significant impact. Here is
where there is an ethical responsibility invested into the possession of knowledge. In order to
properly understand and discuss the inherent ethics, it is imperative to define ethical guidelines
as well as what constitute as knowledge.
Ethics is simply a differentiation of what is right and what is wrong, philosophy on
morals. .There are two major ethical philosophies, Kant and Utilitarianism. Kantian thought
suggests a list of rules, loosely based on doing onto others what you would have done onto you.
In any given situation, the ethically justified action is the one that adheres to these sets of rules,
with no room for deviation. The means is not justified by the end. For utilitarian school of
thought, an individual strives to do the most good, even at the expense of others. In some cases,
the benefits and the harm caused is measured quantitatively against a pleasure principle, where
one attempts to satisfy the most amount of people. In strict utilitarian ethics, it is morally
justified to torture a child till the brink of death everyday if it were to create a utopia. The means
are justified by the end; “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” (Star Trek II:
The Wrath of Khan 1982).
From these two different views of ethics, a modern ethical guideline was developed.
Modern ethics attempt to combine these viewpoints into one. General speaking, the morally
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justified, or right, action is to cause the most benefit while avoiding harming others. It is a more
realistic than Kantian thought, while being less strict that utilitarianism. An overview of modern
ethics is able to be applied to the possession of knowledge. As previously mentioned, the sheer
state of being in possession of knowledge does not in and of itself carry ethical responsibilities,
but the actions one takes using that knowledge is where an individual must be conscious of
ethical implications. There are morals in both how one distributes their knowledge, including
perhaps deliberate false statements, and how one acts using that knowledge.
Perhaps the clearest ethical duty of any person with knowledge, is their responsibility to
avoid misleading the community. In society, experts are highly specialized in their field and
often times their work is trusted by the larger general population in a form of authority worship.
While the public should be mildy skeptical to anything they learn from experts, experts must also do their best to avoid creating misconception. One example would be a anthropologist that
studies indigenous tribes, intentionally biases the result, and reports their findings. Furthermore,
it is unethical for someone to suggest anything form of knowledge without having evidence,
unless the lack of evidence is explicitly stated. This is one of the responsibilities invested into
anyone with a possession of knowledge; a duty to respect public trust invested into that person.
In some situations there are more extenuating circumstances that poses a dilemma, where
simply sharing knowledge may cause harm. Nuclear research is one of the modern example
of ethical responsibilities that is inherent in the possession of knowledge. Unlike a biologist
that may seek to share their discoveries, a nuclear researcher is more disinclined to sharing the
secrets to enriching uranium. The prevention of these secrets becoming common knowledge may
discourage nuclear warfare, but there is also a risk that a belligerent country uses this weapon or
perhaps even a terroristic organization. The ethical solution is irrelevant and appears to be the
withholding of such information, though it is still debated. The importance of this example is that
it highlights an ethical responsibility that one may have when in the possession of knowledge, in
this case the process of enriching uranium.
It is important to consider that knowledge is not limited to formulas or scientific
processes, but should be regarded as a justified true belief. This would suggest the witnessing
of a murder would create a knowledge about that event. In this scenario, there is an ethical
obligation of the witness in possession of this knowledge to report this crime. Not only legally,
but ethically, the witness is nearly responsible for this crime if they were to remain silent.
Moreover, the witness in reporting this crime must attempt to most accurately attempt to recall
the event without exaggeration or withholding of certain details. Here there is an issue of what
this witness thus considers is morally correct to say. Assuming they explain as truthfully as
possible, they cannot fully replicate their experience and must convey their experience through
language, which in and of itself has challenges such as word choice. The witness must then
choose the words to describe the event as well as explain details that they feel are relevant, based
on ethics. It would be unethical to describe an accidental death while failing to mention any
clues that would suggest the death was accidental; murder is very different from manslaughter.
This example demonstrates that non-academic knowledge carries obligations as well as morals
involved when anyone attempts to distribute their knowledge.
As seen from the previous example, science is often an area where there are more
significant ethical responsibilities than other areas of knowledge. Science provides the
knowledge that can make the world better or can cause great harm onto others, the difference
of these two results stems from the decisions and actions made by those with the possession of
this knowledge. One could devote their efforts creation of improvised explosives or one could
use their knowledge for more productive purposes. Here morality comes not from just knowing
how to make a explosive, but the decision of the knowledge bearer on how they utilize their
In most cases, it would appear that the right course of action to be taken whenever
one is in the possession of knowledge is to share their knowledge, provided that the isn’t any
immediate harm in doing so. In terms of humanity, the reservation of knowledge to a few is
not only counterproductive, but morally unjust. Experts of their field must generate knowledge
and proceed to share that knowledge. If a student has a firm understanding of a historical event
and know a peer is struggling, then in a strict ethical analysis would be immoral to protect their
knowledge to themselves. Regardless of whether these two individuals have a close relationship,
being a person of knowledge means that they are must be a source of knowledge for others.
The ultimate ethical guidelines for anyone in the possession of knowledge is to distribute
and share the knowledge as long as the situation permits. Furthermore, there is a duty of that
individual to act morally just when utilizing that knowledge. From a modern ethical standpoint,
the obligations of those people must be to attempt to create as much benefit, to satisfy the most
amount of people, while still attempting to not harm people. People have innate rights that one
cannot infringe on, but there are cases in which individuals are encouraged to give up these
rights for the benefits of others. In general, people have a tenuous right to knowledge, without
being mislead, but there are circumstances in which this right may be revoked and the people
possessing this knowledge must utilize their knowledge ethically. With their knowledge comes
power and responsibility.