Getting Closer: Thoughts on the Ethics of Knowledge Production


Chris J. Cuomo
University of Cincinnati


What do we need to know in order to move toward a better world? How can those of us who are paid to produce knowledge orient our work, direct the fruits of our labor, toward our best values?


Along with dramatic strides toward global democracy, our historical era is marked by a mind-boggling amount of human suffering, and the destruction of the nonhuman world. Producers of knowledge ought to take this state of affairs to be a crisis that calls for focused attention and the development of useful tools.

As our moral reach has grown wider and increasingly impersonal, theory has grown less useful, less interested in being useful to people who do not make their living reading and writing theory, less interested in being useful in our own lives outside the work of spinning theory. Concerning “ethical agency,” the distances between theory and everyday life is too wide, and we ought to question our own comfort in this distance, especially our professional comfort in this distance.

Within a diverse community of knowledge producers, there is a wide range of desires concerning our work, knowledge, and the ethics that shape our lives. Yet in the midst of all of this difference, perhaps there is a strand of resemblance from which we might wonder whether our work is sufficiently contributing to the world we want, and if it’s not, whether there is anything we can do about it.

What should our work be, here and now, as producers of knowledge? Can academic conversations really help us figure out how to make a better world, how to be better people? Can ethics? Political theory? Can science? What does it mean, here and now, to engage in the activity of knowledge production with integrity? And can Philosophy itself help us answer these questions?

I am aware that I ask about the ethics of knowledge production from the privileged position of a tenured academic, within an institutional economy that is increasingly profit-driven, in which the bulk of sustaining labor is done by underpaid service workers, by graduate student teachers, and by adjunct professors who lack job security and benefits, and who have little incentive or time to work on research projects of any sort.

The systems of scarcity and exploitation that shape academic life and educational institutions in the United States are probably the first things we need to address when thinking about the ethics of knowledge production. If we have not already lost the battle, academic professionals need to get much more involved in local struggles against the corporate university if we hope to work with integrity, and within institutions that we do not despise.

But if I agitate against the exploitation of graduate students and adjunct professors, does that mean I have to give up my excellent job, with my comfortable teaching load, money for travel, and time off to do research and to write?

That unappealing question brings me back to the topic at hand: how to bridge what sometimes seems to be an incredibly distant relationship between ethics and action, between knowledge and life.

I want my knowledge-producing labor to be in the service of a better world, the good life for all, a smarter society, a more healthy planet, a more sensual, arousing culture, a live loving, peaceful, happy, clearheaded, okay world. Yet, I must admit that even as a professional ethicist, and as someone with an overdetermined tendency to want to do the right thing (having been raised Catholic), it is often terribly difficult to follow my own best philosophical advice.

This dramatic disconnect makes me wonder if my labor, especially my theory making labor, is severely misguided, if I’m asking the wrong questions, looking in the wrong places, speaking the wrong language, seeking out the wrong co conspirators.

This problem is far too big to address here. But perhaps it would be helpful to focus on a particular aspect of my own moral failure: a form of moral distance. More and more, as members of global postindustrial economies, we are in close ethical proximity with people, communities, nonhuman species and ecosystems that are very distant from us, geographically, affectively, and epistemically. Our current lives are so enmeshed with the lives of distant people, places, plants, and animals, that it is ridiculous to even pretend that we have an emotional or epistemic connection with our moral worlds. We are members of economic and environmental communities too large, too diverse to even imagine.


What might it mean to promote the good of a community you cannot even hold in your imagination?

Some of the most pressing, vexing ethical issues that face privileged folks right now are those in which, if we are to do the right thing, we must stretch across enormous epistemic chasms. If we take this distance seriously, we find several areas where traditional conceptions of ethical life fail us:

1. Problems that result from developments in technology, population growth, and world of pollution gone haywire, especially as these play out on the more than human world: the problems addressed by “environmental ethics.”

Because harms to nonhuman entities are often not analogous to typical human centered concerns, any claims of harm are subject to significant skepticism. It follows that “facts” about harm to nonhumans is not usually inherently persuasive as cause for moral concern. Although the fields of environmental ethics and the environmentalist sciences attempt to address these ontological and epistemic questions concerning how to “count” nonhuman interests, accompanying shifts in understandings of moral agency have not been fully explored.

Also, environmental ethics as it is currently conceived tells us quite a lot about how bad things are, but does very little to investigate the fact that changes in behavior require extraordinary amounts of motivation when a network of forces benefit from the maintenance of destructive practices and ignorance. To what does “environmental ethics” refer even when our ecological agency is less like a vector and more like smoke?

2. Problems that result from histories of people exploiting other people in the name of Europe, or in the name of men, or whatever state or corporation or network of powerhouses have benefited and continue to benefit from the extraction of life, labor and material goods from the darker, femmier, “dumber,” less technologically advanced, poorer people. We might lump these together as the problems of “postcolonial ethics,” or the politics of social embodiment—what might be optimistically considered the concerns of twenty-first century feminism.

Concerning these problems, evidence that humans are harmed by seemingly democratic practices are subject to unique forms of skepticism, and can always be argued away by some other appeal to human rights or interests. For example, consider procapitalist arguments for exploitation in the interest of increasing “jobs,” a move that seems to justify nearly any form of harm these days. Again, knowing the “facts” about harms is not enough.

In general (and I take feminist philosophy and critical race theory to be exceptions here), Philosophy has not really taken seriously the question of how we can be responsible to histories that we are not responsible for, although this is one of the most important moral and political questions of our day. Philosophy also has not adequately acknowledged the fact these questions are inevitably addressed from specific locations within massive, diverse, deeply segregated moral and political cultures.

3. Problems that result from the global economy.

Contemporary moral agents are embedded in economic relationships with people we cannot even imagine. Our money, and therefore our desires and our work, are mobilized in the service of the exploitation of people all over the place, from midtown Manhattan to Malalaling. The people who make our clothes, grow our food, are so far away from us, there is no way it can be meaningfully said that we “have a relationship” with them, though we are related in complicated webs of interdependence. Sartre’s mid-twentieth century problem of dirty hands was nothing compared to this.

This problem is not just a result of physical distance. It might be also be argued that the people who do our dirty work right in front of our faces are even farther away than ever before. Think of how much you know about who washes the toilets where you work. In the university where I teach, the custodial staff works mostly at night, so professors and daytime students only occasionally even see them in passing.

For all of these problems, it is not possible to clearly map causality, so “blame” is not a useful way to motivate a sense of moral responsibility, or alternative strategies. Even when we know who to “blame”—whose fault it is, or who is benefiting knowingly or unknowingly, there are not obvious ways to turn knowledge into action. This is why we often feel so impotent and ethically confused. Even when we want to do the right thing, it seems as though the world is conspiring against us.


More profoundly, knowledge about facts—even facts about clear harms, is not enough to motivate ethical responses.

You may “know,” because you are an unusually aware person, that it is nearly impossible in the United States to buy food in a grocery store without supporting multinational supercorporations. You may believe corporations fix prices, exploit farmers and farmworkers, and are currently fighting for the right to include genetically engineered products in virtually everything you eat. Even if you “know” you are supporting a harmful industry when you go grocery shopping, few people know exactly where their food comes from, who grew it, and whether the workers were exposed to dangerous chemicals in the process, if the seeds from which it was grown were stolen and patented by some corporation, or any of the other socioeconomic and environmental details embedded in the production of what sustains us.


But is it even enough to know where our food comes from, and what is in it?

Most traditional philosophical views assume the relationship between knowledge and responsibility to be straightforward. When we know of a clear causal connection between our choices and harm to others, there is a direct, self-evident duty to alleviate that harm (when such remedies are possible), and to refrain from causing further harm. Utilitarians, deontologists, and virtue theorists agree: rationality demands that, if we want to do the right thing, and there is not much of significance competing for our attention, the right action will be obvious, and attractive. In the ideal case, when we want to do the right thing, facts alone provide moral motivation. When facts show that something we value is harmed, and that our actions are contributing to that harm, knowledge is sufficient to motivate us to act so as to stop causing harm, to do the right thing.

It is not surprising, then, that popular and academic environmentalist discourses assume a direct, reliable relationship between knowledge and morally-motivated action. This is why statistics on global warming are presented as though the facts themselves imply direct responsibilities on the part of offending industries, societies whose economic prosperity depends on polluting forces, and consumers of fossil fuels. The assumption is that if we know the harm that fossil fuel consumption causes, and we want to promote a healthy environment, the course of action is obvious: we will reduce our consumption. When environmentalists (including environmentalist scientists) inform the public about the relationships between CO2 emissions and climate change, they hope (among other things) to ignite a sense of moral responsibility in consumers, industries, and governing bodies.

Why, then, do “facts about global warming” appear grossly inadequate to provide the moral motivation to significantly change consumer habits or demands, even among so-called committed environmentalists? When the harm in question is not direct harm to existing humans, but diffuse effects on nonhuman individuals, species, and communities, or future generations of humans, or when it is impossible to map a clear causal relationship between actions and harms, even to humans, a direct relationship between knowledge (about harms) and action (to alleviate or refrain from causing further harms) simply does not emerge.

Traditional ethical theory, as well as most commonsense postEnlightenment understandings of moral life, provide very little to help with these difficult dimensions of contemporary ethical life. I for one feel I know almost nothing about how to be a good postcolonial global citizen, how to be a person with integrity (and not an insanely obsessed crusader) in the face of these kinds of moral problems. Am I a complete failure as a human being, or is there some deep and problematic disconnect between theory and reality, between “ethics” and life?


The ethical matters I address here challenge traditional understandings of ethics in at least the following ways:

    1. They involve forms of moral agency that are diffuse and far-reaching, and that rarely involve direct rational choice.
    2. The consequences of actions, values, or behaviors are difficult or impossible to know.
    3. These problems involve entities, such as ecosystems and “dying cultures,” that are not easily accommodated by ethics that value people, utility, sentient beings, or communities of people.
    4. These problems involve past and future generations, and therefore the cultivation of a sense of responsibility on the part of people who are not directly responsible for postcoloniality (although those people contribute, in large and small ways, to oppressive regimes).
    5. Our options are severely limited, or overdetermined, by forces beyond our control, and so in most matters we seem forced to choose from among a set of relative evils.

What are the ethics of knowledge-production in this moral world? What is the philosophy that this world needs? What do we want to create with our labor? How can we, as knowledge producers, be in the business of getting closer, instead of farther away, from the world that forms our substance?

This argument is not meant to imply that we have solved our regular old moral problems, or that ethical knowledge was adequate until we became a high tech global village. Work in feminist ethics has made evident how ethical theory has historically neglected some of the most fundamental aspects human moral life.

But the endlessly flawed twentieth-century moral imagination is woefully inadequate to address the intricate webs of relation created by global capitalism, postcolonial realities, and the fact that the environment has no borders. We are prosperous/preposterous moral beings with a litany of responsibilities that seem nearly impossible to know, let alone enact. The sense that one need be not only a saint, but also either insane or very rich in order to do the right thing is more evidence of the extent to which our ethical choices are overdetermined by corporations, profit-motivated scientific research, and free trade agreements that conspire against our making even simple moves in the right direction. The fact that doing the right thing too often seems tantamount to buying the right thing (e.g., solar panels, memberships in environmental organizations, locally-stitched organic cotton clothing) or not buying the wrong thing (e.g., grapes, plastic baby diapers, toxic underarm deodorant) is an indicator that there are some interesting and important questions in ethics for philosophers to work out in a discourse that includes the public sphere.


The Proposal

I propose that we engage, or recommit ourselves, to the project of Getting Closer. The project of getting closer involves attempts to bridge knowledge and action by bringing thinkers, knowers, and actors closer to the worlds effected by our actions and inaction. This project requires research that brings us closer to nature and closer to each other, in a nonromantic, epistemic, and affective sense; that helps us know more about our interdependencies and that enables us to care for what we care about.

Philosophy is only one discourse that might assist us in determining what it means to be variously positioned, historically-located moral agents, and whether it is possible, or what it would mean, to be responsible participants in a global economic community. Knowledge-producers of all sorts can work to capture and address the real textures of our lives, to make it possible to live well without wreaking havoc on the world around us.

For example, we might give more attention to the various factors that shape ethical efficacy, including how knowledge production in general is implicated in our failure to find the moral guidance and motivation that we so desperately need, and how scientific and technological projects which are beholden to private interests, or to a vision of progress that is killing us, manage to thrive in our universities.

One of the main obstacles to the knowledge projects that aim to get closer is an academic stance that begins with arrogance, and that bolsters the state-sponsored arrogance of economically privileged actors. Getting closer requires curiosity and caring across chasms of ontological and cultural difference. It requires openness to truths that are unimaginable without the perspectives of those who are seen as “others,” and so can only be engaged with an awareness of its own partiality, and the fact that it is always incomplete. Knowledge projects that aim to get closer are aware of their own limits, and of the vulnerability of any knower, and of any knowledge.

Perhaps most naughtily, knowledge producers who aim to get closer abandon the dream of scientific progress that seeks absolute knowledge in the service of enlightened mastery and wealth, working instead for knowledge that gives us all a “feeling for the organism” (to use Barbara McClintock’s phrase), that acquaints us with the particulars of the world we effect. Science and technology, in particular, can help us get closer by creating alternatives to our present habits.

Arrogant inquiries accept a comfortable distance between knowledge and life, and hide their limits and inadequacies behind an epistemic posture that proclaims a unified route to knowing, a route that necessarily follows academic traditions of privilege and exclusion.

If we want to get closer, it is easy to know that academic arrogance comes not from a lack of humility, but a from a mistaken picture of our place in the world.


Copyright © 2001 Chris J. Cuomo.
Reprinted with Permission.