Rational Ignorance and Political Morality*


  • *

    We presented earlier versions of this article to the philosophy departments at Bowling Green State University and Tulane University, and to the law schools at Florida State University and Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires. We thank all these audiences for their valuable comments.


People frequently advance political proposals in the name of a goal while remaining apparently indifferent to the fact that those proposals, if implemented, would frustrate that goal. Theorists of “deliberative democracy” purport to avoid this difficulty by arguing that deliberation is primarily about moral not empirical issues. We reject this view (the moral turn) and propose a method (The Display Test) to check whether a political utterance is best explained by the rational ignorance hypothesis or by the moral turn: the speaker must be prepared to openly acknowledge the bad consequences of his political position. If he is, the position is genuinely moral; if he is not, the position evinces either rational ignorance or posturing. We introduce deontological notions to explain when the moral turn works and when it does not. We discuss and reject possible replies, in particular the view that a moral-political stance insensitive to consequences relies on a distribution of moral responsibility in evildoing. Finally, we show that even the most plausible candidates for the category of purely moral political proposals are best explained by the rational ignorance/posturing hypothesis, if only because enforcing morality gives rise to complex causal issues.