The Difference Between Ignorance and Willful Ignorance

Ignorance just means you don’t know something. For example, I’m ignorant about the names and accomplishments of many famous athletes and the rules of the sports they play.

At any point, if I want to learn more about these athletes and sports, I can. Ignorance doesn’t have to be permanent. It can change if I want it to, and if I have access to the relevant information.

Willful ignorance is different and worse than regular ignorance. With willful ignorance, I don’t know something, but I act as if I’m knowledgeable. I act as if I know what there is to know. I resist learning anything more, even if that’s what I need to do to share my opinion, teach a topic, or make a decision.

Let’s return to the sports example. If I were willfully ignorant, I would launch into a confident-sounding commentary about a game. I would share some strong opinions about the athletes’ techniques and strategies. If anyone were to tell me, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I would argue that what I’m saying is reasonable, valid, relevant, and sufficiently well-informed. Just by watching a sport for five minutes, I can learn what there is to know about it.

Willful ignorance isn’t just the state of not knowing something. It’s an attitude that blocks learning. It undermines intellectual humility and careful thought. If you’re just ignorant, you can become less ignorant. But if you’re willfully ignorant, how will you learn more?