What will I do with what I know? There is nothing more primordial than the responsibility of knowledge, and it is our glory and our shame. As Havel argued so forcefully, our responsibility is the heart of our humanity. We are able to respond, responsible.
Mysteriously, profoundly echoing out from the Garden and the strangely-named Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we live in a moral universe where we assume that if we know, then we are responsible; perhaps more probingly, that because we know, we are responsible.
All day long, in whatever we do, wherever we are. Think about it.
And so when I read the headlines in the newspapers this morning about Halliburton admitting that they destroyed records of their complicity in the Gulf oil spill of 2010, I shake my head but am not surprised. That is what we do, that is the human condition.
We will choose almost anything to avoid taking responsibility for what we know. It is why I have described the Tree of the Garden as “an epistemological temptation with a moral heart.” In thousands of ways, small and large, we cry out, “But I didn’t know!” Meaning of course that I am not responsible. In family dynamics and courtroom dramas, from the most personal relationships to the most public responsibilities, we assume that knowledge implies responsibility. And so the other question, the most perennial of all questions, “But didn’t you know?” assumes that because we know, we are responsible—from the Garden on, from Watergate to Benghazi, in your life and mine.
Nothing works very well for selves or societies when we resist, refusing to admit that what we know implicates us. The most ancient wisdom calls this suppression, viz. suppressing what we know to be true because we don’t want to be responsible. A contemporary has called this “the wound of knowledge,” and I am sure he is right. What we know can wound us, even as it can heal us. To choose responsibility brings human flourishing; to resist means that we choose against our humanity, against our flourishing.
Yes, always and everywhere, it is our glory and our shame.