You’d think Pavlov invented it, that characteristic sound of a new instant message, the “buh-ding.” That’s what Jack heard in his cubicle that morning, before caffeine had cleared the fog in his head. He clicked over to his messenger application as routinely as if distraction was a part of his job description.

“You’ve got to see this. I mean, we probably shouldn’t be watching this, but it’s a live web-stream of a home break-in,” the message from Jack’s coworker read.

Jack followed the link to what appeared to be a cheap webcam security system in some poor guy’s apartment. How the guy had published his webcam feed but not followed it close enough to call the police in such circumstances was a question that Jack momentarily considered. But the entertainment value of the feed quickly won out over any hypothetical moral reasoning or pity for Mr. Webcam.

The thief was wearing a ski mask, like they always do–an image so cliche that Jack felt like he was watching prime time television and not something that was happening in the real world. But that all changed gradually, like the beginning of an avalanche is gradual. Jack began to notice things about the apartment, things that seemed important but not close, like emergency sirens in the distance. Jack noticed a lamp that he recognized and thought to himself, “That guy must have bought the same lamp as I did from Ikea.” But then the layout of the apartment looked the same too, strangely, and then the couch, the coffee table, the television, too large to be anything other than masculine posturing. It was all the same.

Buh-ding. “Isn’t this crazy? Watching this guy get ripped off.” But Jack wasn’t there to respond to his coworker’s instant message, he with phone in hand, three digits dialed, running out of work, trying to remember if he had purchased the theft protection ryder on his renter’s insurance.

Knowledge and Action

What made Jack take the webcam feed seriously? It wasn’t his moral compass, troubled enough to know that he was watching a crime in progress, but not strong enough to do anything about it. It wasn’t the truthfulness of what was going on. He knew it was a real-life break-in. The difference was immanence. In an instant Jack became convinced that what was abstract moral truth had now become truth which had direct bearing on his own life–a bearing that caused several reflexive actions to occur all at once: “call the police,” “leave work,” “speed home,” “catch a crook.”

There are two misconceptions about knowledge and action, the first is that raw knowledge produces action while the second misconception focuses on applicability of truth to the exclusion of knowledge.

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