COMMENTARY

Epistemology is the philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge; it is the question of how one knows what one knows and whether or not that knowledge is reliable.

Responsibility is the quality of being the causal agent of a particular effect; it refers also to the ethical burden incurred by causing effects.

Epistemic responsibility, then, is the ethical obligation to act on reliable information and to be honest with oneself and others.

Political ideology and political action ought to be, as all ideologies and actions ought to be, reactions to concrete knowledge about the world. However, when ideology is allowed to become an end in itself—a cause—as though it were knowledge rather than belief, the result is the delegitimization of the actions it motivates. Ideology is interpretation: it is necessary but not sufficient.

Attending to the reality of things is imperative in order to produce intentional results. When American politicians act upon ideologically selected facts, they act without legitimate intentions, forcing unjust consequences upon people and betraying their duty as representatives in a democracy. And yet, this betrayal is what has happened and what continues to happen with no apparent consequence.

The candidates of both major parties, historically and presently, have lied to the public as a matter of political expediency. Is it any wonder that a protest candidate won the election, even given his own egregious proliferation of falsehoods?

Donald Trump is the natural conclusion of a politics devoid of epistemic responsibility; he won by playing up the fears, worries and even hatreds of a vulnerable group of people. That he could be seen as a legitimate head of the American government is a reflection of the system as a whole.

As further evidence of the need for epistemic responsibility, consider global warming. Trump and plenty of others deny the science and perpetuate policies and behaviors that pose an existential threat to the human race. Worse yet, Trump has pledged to eliminate the environmental protections already in place.

The token worry of a Trump presidency thus far has been the possibility of nuclear war. This fear is nothing compared to the certainty of an earth made uninhabitable by global warming or the guarantee that, as the Earth becomes uninhabitable, millions of people—primarily people in developing countries who bear no responsibility for the pollution—will be displaced by the effects of climate change. All this destruction in the name of profitable industry.

To know is to be responsible for knowing. As college students and as citizens, we have an obligation to hold ourselves and our government accountable for what we know, to live with a minimal impact on the environment and to insist upon facts as the basis for policy decisions. If the environment is destroyed, it will be us who allowed its destruction; we will be responsible for the suffering of millions.

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