Commencement Address by Dr. Peter H. Schwartz, May 16, 2004

Commencement Address delivered by Dr. Peter H. Schwartz
School of Management Auditorium, Boston University, May 16, 2004

First, Congratulations to the 2004 Boston University Philosophy Department Graduates! And second, Congratulations to the parents of the 2004 Boston University Philosophy Department graduates! Question: Who worked harder to get you here?

Today, I am speaking for a very particular group: the faculty of the philosophy department. You’ve already heard from other representatives, of the college, the university, and the outside world. But I speak for the Philosophy Department, and I feel this is a weighty responsibility. You studied in many different areas, and did many things in college, but philosophy was your academic center and home.

It is also the last time you will sit and have to listen to one of the philosophy professors speak to you in a lecture hall!!

When I think about sending you out into the world, and what I should say to you and your parents, I’m reminded of a story about something that happened to my college roommate Bub-joo. He majored in economics and graduated Cum Laude and was on his way to law school. But the summer after graduation he was helping out in his dad’s dry cleaning shop. One day Bub-joo was giving a customer back his shirts, and the customer said: “Wow, your college ring looks a lot like mine. Did you go to [our school] too?” Bub-joo said, “Yeah.” There was a long pause, and the guy said, “What was your major????” Bub-joo looked at the guy for a second and moaned, “Philosophy.”

For many of the parents sitting here, and for some of the graduates, there has been at least a little fear over the last couple of years that what you have learned is somewhat irrelevant, that you have spent four years immersed in liberal arts education, majoring in philosophy, and that you will find yourself somehow unsuited for the real world. I’m here to reassure you.

I have an unusual perspective to do this, since I split my time between philosophy and something else. I am a trained physician and a trained philosopher, and I spend my time roughly divided between practicing medicine and teaching philosophy. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how ideas relate to the real world, and specifically how training and understanding in philosophy affects or should affect medicine.

There are the downsides to doing both medicine and philosophy. One problem is that I’m the butt of jokes in the hospital, like: “Well, if a patient says he has chest pain are you going to ask him whether the chest pain REALLY EXISTS?”

They didn’t know the worst of it: I can make a cogent argument that THE PATIENT doesn’t exist.

I actually had an interview for residency where the interviewer told me that he was worried about my background in philosophy: Philosophers, he said, often seem absent-minded, and how could he be sure I wouldn’t forget important facts while taking care of patients? I waited a second and asked him, “What were you saying?” (Actually, I pointed out that I seemed to do just fine in my rotations in medical school.)

Can you think and act? Is a focus on thinking somehow a detriment to action? That’s the question I want to address today. And of course my answer is NO, it is not a detriment. It is a requirement. It is a virtue. We do not need to fear reflective people being inactive or distracted. We need to fear action that lacks reflection and depth. Anyway, that’s my claim.

In your time here you have not just spent your time thinking. You have volunteered to teach students and help the homeless and raise money for research. You have been political activists and politically active. You have performed plays, and dance, and music. You have published newspapers and newsletters and yearbooks.

You’ve also lived other parts of a normal adult life that I can’t talk about here because your parents are here. And because it violates the rule against overnight visitors.

And within academics, you have not restricted yourselves to one thing, such as philosophy. You’ve been required, and you have chosen, to study in every possible area. You have studied biology, and astronomy, and chemistry. You have studied history, and anthropology, and sociology. You have studied statistics, and calculus, and writing. All of you have learned a foreign language (well, to some extent).

You have been INTERDISCIPLINARY here. And thought and reflection are best when they are interdisciplinary: bringing together different fields and questions. You have been interdisciplinary in your studies and you will continue to be so as you leave here and move forward in life. Only a few of you will go to graduate school in philosophy. The rest will go on to jobs, and careers, and lives in a different area, where you will take your background in philosophy and bring it to a different world.

This has been my own experience, of being interdisciplinary, and confronting, to the degree I am able, the intersection of medicine and philosophy. And maybe this is a good place to look for examples of how your background in philosophy will impact your future interdisciplinary lives. There are three areas of philosophy and medicine I’ll talk about here.

First, there are DILEMMAS. The field of medical ethics began in the 1970’s partly in response to questions about what to do in situations where our best intentions drag us in different directions. A young woman in a coma is being kept alive by a ventilator. There is little to no prospect of her waking up. Our commitment to avoiding putting people through unnecessary suffering makes us want to stop. But our value of preserving human life drives us to keep her on the ventilator.

Later it gets even more complicated: There are many people on ventilators who have no prospect of waking up. We could save many other lives by transplanting these people’s organs to them. Now we can continue some greatly diminished (already ended?) lives or save others. How can we choose?

With the help of philosophers, our medical world has made great progress. There are clear provisions for avoiding using extreme measures beyond what a person would want. There are accepted procedures for deciding when a person’s brain has died, for deciding when their organs can appropriately be used to save the lives of others.

There are still important dilemmas. Anybody familiar with the tragic case of Terri Schiavo knows how complicated it can get, and how contentious these questions can become. This woman has been unconscious for many years, but she never said how long she would want to be kept alive in this state. Her husband, as her next of kin, would usually be the one to make the crucial decision, but others have raised questions about his ability to do so. Religious groups have emphasized that any life like this should be saved, no matter how diminished.

The thorny philosophical questions involved include questions about the relation between the value of life and its quality, how to balance a husband’s wish and a parent’s, whether it serves justice to spend more money in the health care system on such a case.

Philosophers have done well at identifying the major issues involved here, but they can’t determine what will finally happen. They can’t convince the different sides that one particular outcome is the right one. In the end, what happens is determined by political and legal procedures. So the philosophy is there and it is relevant, but it doesn’t eliminate the questions. This is often the case with Dilemmas.

A second area where philosophy is necessary to think about medicine is when we consider the impact of new technologies on our lives. Largely in response to this challenge, there is a President’s Council on Bioethics that, and before that there was a similar body that reported to President Clinton. All such commissions include philosophers, and President Bush’s is chaired by one.

Bush’s commission has focused lately on cloning, stem cell research, and recently the distinction between using medications to enhance life rather than just to treat disease. They have asked what these advances will mean for the organization of healthcare, the structure of society, and even the meaning of human life. Some of this requires considering empirical claims, about what the new technologies will bring. But evaluating such possible changes ethically – what will be better or worse for society and for people – is part of a tradition of questions philosophers have been asking for thousands of years.

And not all these social changes are in the future. We are already much more likely to question the reality and import of human free will, now that we have medications that can change moods. Our growing understanding of genetics has uncovered disturbing facts about how heredity may determine many aspects of who we are. Evaluating the use of these technologies and the meaning of this science requires philosophy as well. In your education in philosophy, you’ve thought about the concept of free will and are equipped to engage such questions wisely.

Of course, what will happen with these technologies is not dependent on philosophy and instead relies largely on facts of economics and politics. What we decide is morally right will not be implemented unless it also is supported by powerful economic and political considerations. So again, philosophy frames and situates the debate, without settling it.

A third main area of philosophy and medicine I’ll touch on is trying to make our physicians more ethical. We teach medical students to think about ethics partly to make them better at the bedside. We hope that if they think about the big questions of right and wrong more deeply, maybe they will do right more often. They will be more committed and sensitive to their patients; they will be more like the sort of physicians we want for ourselves.

But of course thinking about philosophy isn’t everything here either. Learning the ethical theories of Aristotle, Hume, Mill, and Kant and understanding them doesn’t necessarily make a student more ethical. In fact, the data we have suggests that changing the work environment and providing inspiring mentors does more than reading philosophy.

And here as in so many other areas, Aristotle got it right more than two millennia ago: studying philosophy is no replacement for acquiring character. Character must be acquired through training that must include much more than book learning. Again, philosophy plays a role, but cannot be everything.

There’s an inherent tension in the way we discuss a liberal arts education. You come to a great college like BU largely for the quality of the teachers and the academics.

But of course you do much more here than study, and we wanted you to do much more than study. We wanted you to develop friendships and outside interests in everything from arts to athletics. This is partly since we wanted you to develop your character through experiences that are far from books. Your characters are still being formed.

And the three areas of contact between philosophy and medicine showed, I hope, that what you think, what ethical or philosophical understanding you develop, guarantees nothing about what will happen. In solving dilemmas, or harnessing advances in technology, or responding to everyday ethical challenges, much more will come into play than thought. I am absolutely convinced of the unavoidability of philosophy in these areas, but also the limits in its power to determine action.

The only conceit that we cling to, as your teachers, now saying fare thee well and Godspeed (but keep in touch!), is that thinking and action are not radically separate. There is no way to distinguish what you think and what you do. You have been changed here by what you have learned, both in philosophy and your many other areas of study, and you will take it with you as you go on.

Please remain interdisciplinary. Keep learning and thinking about abstract issues as you become embroiled in the minutiae of everyday life.

This is your obligation as citizens too. We are faced with the greatest sort of political questions, now that we are a country at war. For the first time in your lives, in MY LIFE, young and middle aged American men and women are dying abroad in large numbers. You have to think about it and decide what to do, politically. Will you vote for Bush or Kerry or someone else? I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you that you must reflect and then act on your convictions.

This applies to the other great questions of our day. I can’t tell you what to think about this. But I can tell you that you MUST THINK.

When I was graduating from college, I remember feeling like at times they were treating us like young superheroes, being sent out into the world. It was if they were telling us: “You’ve acquired great powers, now use them for the good!”

One of the last speakers [Peter Gomes] got up and pooh-poohed the exhortation we’d been receiving to go out and save the world. He said, “This College has been here a long time and graduated many young men and women, and the world is still a pretty bad place.” His one piece of advice for us was that sometimes when people seem to be telling you, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” that instead you should obey the command, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

You have acquired the skills here to reflect and consider before you act. Do not forget them. These philosophical skills are anything but irrelevant. They are integral to leading a good life.