Cape Town, meet "epistemic responsibility"

by Grace Garland | Published on 26 February 2018 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Our beliefs are powerful, not just because they inform our own behaviour, but also because they have an influence on the beliefs and behaviour of others. The duty to strive to believe the truth, rather than a comfortable falsehood, is known as epistemic responsibility. And it appears to be something else of which Cape Town is in short supply.

Running tap

According to a widely-publicised statistic in the media, a third of Capetonians have drastically limited their water use. Heeding the warnings months ago, this group of the city’s residents are, by now, so accustomed to having a backyard resembling a desert, and a bucket in the shower, that they barely give these things a second glance. For them – and I speak by proxy from the experience of a number of local friends – the crisis has become a part of life, and the current public and political panic around Day Zero sounds like old news.

The same cannot be said for the other two thirds of Cape Town’s population who have not, it is reported, reduced their household water consumption at all.

Let’s not focus on those who are still not properly informed about the severity of the crisis, or on those who already live in so-called ‘Day Zero’ conditions; that the first group exists is an indictment of the City of Cape Town’s communication campaign, while the existence of the second group underscores the disgraceful inequality in our economy. (Washing in a bucket because your home has no running water is very different to doing so by choice to ease your social conscience, but that’s a sad South African topic for another day.)

Let’s rather focus on those Capetonians who know the reality of the crisis, have ready access to water in their homes, and have not changed their usage. How can we explain their behaviour? How can we explain their numbers?

Taking a philosophical approach, we might say that they are neglecting their epistemic responsibility – also known as intellectual responsibility – to seek out and believe the truth. In other words, to resist the temptation to hold beliefs unquestioningly simply because they are comfortable and allow for things to continue as they were before. Anyone who is informed that Theewaterskloof Dam is at 12% capacity accompanied by photographic evidence thereof, and who responds with disbelief or scepticism, is guilty of epistemic irresponsibility to the point of recklessness.

Why “recklessness”? Put it this way: if a person believes in Santa Claus, they are being epistemically irresponsible, but their belief is unlikely to harm others. If, however, they maintain fantastical ideas about an essential shared resource like water, and are driven by that belief not to conserve it in drought conditions, they are putting other people at risk. Granted, we live in a time where #FakeNews looks set to become the primary fragmenting force of our social order, so some scepticism is understandable, and even laudable. But to reject demonstration after demonstration of the veracity of a piece of information just because it might have some uncomfortable implications for your lifestyle, is morally inadmissible.


"To reject demonstration after demonstration of the veracity of a

piece of information just because it might have some uncomfortable implications

for your lifestyle, is morally inadmissible."


If that sounds like too strong a conclusion, consider the connection between beliefs and behaviour, and the huge number of people in question here. Someone who believes the water crisis is real will do what they can to reduce their water usage. Someone who doesn’t, won’t. The first person becomes an inadvertent role model, but more importantly their actions add convincing power to the information about the crisis. The second person, also inadvertently, gifts everybody who’d really prefer to disregard the crisis with a demonstration that it is acceptable to so. Thus, it spreads. Like it or not, what we believe impacts not just on us but, through our actions and our speech, on others as well.

It would be remiss not to point out that the epistemic irresponsibility of two thirds of Capetonians is a microcosm of the broader society’s response to irrefutable scientific evidence that human activity is adversely affecting the earth. Some environmental ethicists have pointed out that matters of climate change and environmental degradation should feature much more prominently in our public debates and interpersonal conversations, and the fact that they don’t is a moral failing for which coming generations are unlikely to forgive us.

Perhaps the experience of Cape Town will be a necessary wake-up call – a dose of truth about planetary realities that each one of us needs. It will certainly serve as good practice for what kind of issues deserve and even demand our credulity. Indeed, it is because we live in a time of such misinformation, that it is even more important we do not mis-disbelieve because something is comfortable or easy.

Grace Cricle 3


Grace Garland is the Communications and Membership Manager at The Ethics Institute. She holds a Master of Business Administration from University of Stellenbosch Business School. She is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at University of the Witwatersrand.