The Responsibility of Knowledge

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Sep 06, 2014

“Most of us can read the writing on the wall; we just assume it’s addressed to someone else.”
Ivern Ball

For over 30 years Jim Maza has been our college attorney. He has been one of the most valued persons who have helped us successfully navigate a host of complex institutional issues. Every time I am with him I feel like I am sitting in on a graduate legal seminar. 

In one of those meetings he used a term that caught me by surprise. He spoke of “dirty knowledge” and he illustrated it this way. If you are coming down a set of stairs and the railing is loose and you choose to do nothing about it, you are liable for what could happen because you have been instilled with that information. He called that “dirty knowledge.” 

It was Senator Howard Baker who will be forever remembered for asking this question during the Watergate hearings, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Behind that question was not just what the President knew and when he knew it; he was really trying to discover the responsibility of the President once that information, or dirty knowledge, was known. 

Which brings us to our topic today: what is our responsibility to act once we know? The question that Stephen Garber asks over and over in his “Vision of Vocation; Common Grace for the Common Good” (2014) is, “If you knew, then why didn’t you do?” 

Garber observed, “Knowing and doing are at the core of every examined life but putting the two together is the most difficult challenge we face. At our best we long for integrity, for what we know and what we do to be coherent, because we believe they belong together intrinsically. Why else do we care about what someone knew when?” 

Garber was deeply challenged by Hannah Arendt who wrestled with this topic in Adolph Eichmann’s life and the role he had in the Holocaust. In her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” (1965) Arendt described a man who was physically removed from the horror and, when challenged, he said he was simply obeying orders; he was just doing his job; he was obeying the law. 

Even though his own hands did not actually kill anyone, his role was central to it all. Arendt said, “Corporate evil does not begin with the gas ovens. It begins, more often than not, processed in triplicate.” She tried to describe her impressions of Eichmann and the court room scene to capture the moral meaning of his actions and the only word Garber found in her writings to describe him was “thoughtlessness — he did not think things through, he was not thoughtful about what he did and what it meant.” In Arendt’s words, “ … he (Eichmann) never realized what he was doing.” She also knew, in reality, he knew exactly what he was doing and he went ahead and did it anyway.

If Eichmann could do that … (how does one complete this sentence?). We could ask him, “What did he know and when did he know it?” And if he knew, why did he keep on doing what he was doing? He was responsible because he had dirty knowledge. 

Is it possible that such delusion could happen to us? Vaclav Havel, the brilliant Czech playwright and politician understood this human condition when he said the “secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” 

We come back to the primary thesis in Garber’s book, “Knowing what I know, what am I going to do?” So we look around and we see a world (in general) and people (in particular) that desperately need help. We understand what Stanislaw Jerzy Lee said, “No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible.” 

But once you and I know, everything changes. As Garber said, “Knowledge means responsibility and responsibility means care.” 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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