They know and they ignore that knowledge

It’s interesting how people know lots of information now, especially info about health, but people don’t always act in accordance with this knowledge. They know, but they don’t act like they know. They know and they ignore that knowledge.

I submit that’s because that person is making a choice, a choice based on value. I believe there is a conscious choice there. Example—nearly everyone who’s in college now knows that smoking is bad for their health. They’ve heard it from many sources: ads, parents, health class, etc. So they aren’t ignorant. They may even believe it—in the long-term , smoking will hurt me. But I won’t smoke that long—smoking won’t hurt me in the short term. So they discount that health knowledge, and it is outweighed in the values scale by something else, some other belief—maybe that claim is “I like smoking, the experience of it,” or “Smoking helps me cope with stress,” or “It’s fun to smoke while drinking,” etc.

The formula: value of information vs. value of other belief

And I say this valuing that supersedes raw information is within the realm of ethics. (I think this is J___’s argument, as told to me by G__.) That you can teach people information—about health, pollution, whatever—but unless you also tell people the value of that information, the student cannot be expected to act in accord with the info. This isn’t to say teaching values is easy or always successful—if the teacher says X has value, and the peer group negates that, the student can’t be counted on to do X. Belief formation is influenced by the beliefs of those people who have the most influence on us, people whom we judge to be Important. Their attitude matters to us. If I don’t believe school is important, a teacher’s approval or disapproval won’t be very compelling.

Teaching values isn’t easy. But info is just raw data, useless, unless the teacher also teaches how to use the information, and the importance of the information. My philosophy prof this semester says ethics can be defined as the process of deciding what’s good and what’s not good—of all the choices, which is the best one. And this is important to tell kids.

“Pollution is bad because …”—Unless they can see an immediate danger, like imminent or certain death, you must explain the dangers. Kids can intuitively understand why not to step in front of a moving car. It’s less easy to see how eating too many fats for 30 years can lead to a heart attack. It’s especially hard for kids to see this, because they are young enough to feel invincible. They don’t have the experience, the sense of all the possibilities that can happen in a moment.

[From journal of 21 Sept. 2000, Journal 29, pages 7-9]

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