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Knowledge and Ignorance

One of the most significant factors affecting moral responsibility is what we know, or could know, in a given situation. Humanitarian agencies and humanitarian workers can only really be deemed fully responsible for a decision on the basis of what they knew when making that decision or what they could have found out at the time. Knowledge is a central issue in questions of moral responsibility and blame. So too, therefore, is ignorance. It is morally negligent to be ignorant if you could have discovered important information about a situation. Because of this, moral philosophers have traditionally distinguished between vincible ignorance and invincible ignorance in calculations of moral responsibility. Vincible ignorance is a state of ignorance that can be conquered or overcome. Sufficient information is reasonably available to a humanitarian agency so that it can become better informed and overcome its lack of knowledge of the likely risks and impacts resulting from its decisions. Invincible ignorance is a lack of knowledge that is impossible to overcome at the time when decisions need to be made, strategies designed and operations implemented.

For example, if a humanitarian team wants to design a food distribution strategy that is culturally acceptable, nutritionally effective and poses no new security risks to a particular community, then they are duty bound to explore options with the community, gather as much relevant information as possible and to analyse protection threats. The members of the team need to know as much as they can. If this kind of information gathering is easy to do, then they have a responsibility to do it. Their current ignorance is vincible and can be overcome. If, however, there is extreme time pressure, a lack of easy access to the community and no immediate possibility of knowing the intentions and patterns of violence in the area, then, in the circumstances, the agency may be judged a victim of invincible ignorance that it could not reasonably overcome. It must try to get whatever information it can and then proceed on the basis of low information. Its responsibility for any negative consequences will be diminished by its inevitable lack of knowledge.

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