The Library of Suffering

A building of metal and glass,
filled with the lives of flesh and blood.
Rows of stories next to each other,
stacked one by one.

Indexed, organized.
Last name, first.

Each one a portal,
a mirror to another life.
Glimpses of what could have been,
and what could be.

Returned, readmitted
checked out, discharged.

An old institution,
bringing all together.
Tales of being,
waiting to be told.

This is the hospital,
the library of suffering.

Privilege and Luck

I was at the optometrist about a month ago and I overheard a conversation a customer had with the clerk. Apparently, frames are not taxed. In response, the customer right in front of me and I communicated to each other that we didn't know that.

After a short conversation about the topic, I said, "I don't really think about what's taxed."

She responded by saying, "That's privilege."

I nodded. (To be clear, I don't think she was trying to single me out. I suspect she was expressing that we were both privileged.)

This experience got me to realize that I prefer the term "luck," because it can't be earned, whereas privilege can be. And the fact that I'm not that poor is largely due to luck. I just happened to be born in a middle class family, in a developed country, in the 20th century. In the context of every human being that has ever been born, my luck probably puts my quality of life in the top .01%.

Responsibility and Financial Independence

I've recently learned a lot about personal finances, because I've reached that stage in my life where I should start saving for retirement. I've learned about stocks, bonds, actively-managed mutual funds, index funds, traditional IRAs, ROTH IRAs, etc.

Besides being overwhelmed with new information, I've struggled with the ethics of investing. On the one hand, I'm uncomfortable investing money in companies that behave unethically. And let's face it, every major company is probably unethical in some nontrivial way. On the other hand, I want to be financially independent. I don't want to have to rely on others when I'm old. No one wants to be a burden.

One approach that I've taken to rationalize investing is that I already support these major companies, just in different ways. For instance, I use Facebook and Amazon all the time. I own multiple Apple products. Is it really that much different to buy their stocks? Probably not, but investing in their companies would mean that I'm further supporting them.

I'm aware that the proper response to such a scenario is to stop engaging in unethical behavior, instead of trying to justify an additional unethical act. Assuming it's unethical to support these companies, I should stop using Facebook and Amazon, and stop buying Apple products. But the fact of the matter is, I don't want to. I enjoy using their services and buying their stuff. I love my iPad Pro; it's beautiful.

I suspect what's going to happen is that my desire to be financially independent will win.

The Darkness of the Human Condition

It’s been about a month since I’ve started my new job, and so far it’s been a great learning experience. Unfortunately, all the issues that I have to deal with are depressing—death, dying, addiction, sickness, abuse, etc. On an every day basis, I confront the facets of darkness of the human condition, the limits, sins, and vices that plague our species.

Some people say that everyone should work in customer service at least once in their life, so that they know to treat service workers with respect. Part of me thinks that everyone should be exposed to the suffering caused by moral and natural evil, so that they can have perspective on their life. There is no doubt that I’m a lucky person and that none of my problems compare to those that I’m exposed to at the hospital.

Despite the perspective that my job offers me, I find myself constantly worrying about my own insignificant issues. For instance, I worry about my next dentist appointment, because I have a phobia. And I mean I really worry about it. It stresses me out months in advance.

I’ve seen a 4-year-old girl needing a heart transplant and yet I’m significantly worried about the dentist.

I feel self-centered, and I actually confided this to the dentist during my last visit, but he wasn’t listening. I don’t think he was expecting one of his patients to say something like that.

Having Perspective and Complaining

Just recently I found out that the postal service lost 5 out of the 6 boxes of books I had sent home. Apparently, I didn't tape the boxes sufficiently so they broke. I responded to this setback by trying to give myself perspective. I told myself that this isn't a big problem in the grand scheme of things. In fact, I've been very lucky in my life overall; there are others who have certainly suffered more.

To magnify and solidify the impact of having this perspective, I looked up YouTube videos of dying people sharing their thoughts on life. I found two people dying of cancer--both were relatively young. I reacted to these videos by telling myself that I don't have a right to complain. I don't have cancer or any serious health condition. I'm not dying. I'm just a person who lost some books.

I'd say that my efforts to comfort myself have been successful, but they've sparked some worries about the effects of having perspective. On the one hand, I think it's important for people to have a good idea of how their lives are going compared to others. On the other hand, it's quite depressing to keep telling myself that someone else has cancer. I'm not sure how to have perspective while not replacing one negative emotion with another.

Student Feedback Spring 2019

I'm glad my students enjoyed the class. I enjoyed teaching them.
  • It was obvious to the whole class that Professor Chen wanted his students to succeed and he did that by having open discussions about the material. I really enjoyed his class and it challenged me to think differently than I had in any other class.
  • Hands down one of the best professors I've had so far in SLU. He was very easy to follow and his curriculum was very logical and understandable. I was actually kind of sad that he wouldn't be teaching anymore after this semester. I would 100% recommend him to anyone who is looking to any philosophy class if he stayed at SLU. He was that good.
  • I had so much fun in this class. It was my favorite class this semester and I enjoyed every single class. You created a wonderful learning environment and were able to help each student. Additionally, there was minimal homework which was nice but everything we did, you were always willing to answer our questions and help us out. Overall, loved the class and thank you for everything!
  • Jason is great at facilitating class discussions and makes classes more entertaining by his way of involving students.
  • Jason was a great professor. He was very knowledgeable, yet humble with what he wasn't sure about. He was also very open to all viewpoints in a discussion, treated each argument as legitimate, and always taught the content as a dialogue instead of trying to persuade students of a correct way to understand ethics.
  • I enjoyed the style and discussion focus of the class. Professor Chen was definitely passionate about ethics and enjoyed getting his students to think in a new and deeper way.
  • Enthusiastic about what he is teaching, but sometimes forgets to remember that we are just now learning the material, we are not experts like him. He graded pretty tough, and when the class is only 100 points total with very minimal assignments, that makes it a little harder to enjoy the class. Take it easy on the grading.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed the course. Professor Chen taught an excellent course and made it easy to understand. I especially enjoyed the hypotheticals, as they were thought–provoking and made me question my morals in certain scenarios.
  • Loved prof Chen! He was super excited and passionate about the materials. He loved our new ideas and kept us talking about really tough subjects that were interesting to talk through!

Argument Against Buying Meat from Factory Farms

This is an argument against buying meat from factory farms presented in premise-conclusion form.
  1. If X can experience pleasure/pain, then it can possess well-being.
    1. If X can experience pleasure/pain, then it can have subjective experiences. 
    2. If X can have subjective experiences, then it has a life that can go better or worse.
    3. If X can have a life that can go better or worse, then it can possess well-being.
    4. Therefore, if X can experience pleasure/pain, then it can possess well-being. (This follows 1-3.)
  2. Most of the animals we eat can experience pleasure/pain.
  3. Therefore, most of the animals we eat can possess well-being. (This follows 1 & 2.)
  4. If X can possess well-being, then it has moral status.
    1. If X can possess well-being, then it can be harmed.
    2. If X can be harmed, then it has moral status.
      1. If X can be harmed, then it can be wronged.
      2. If X can be wronged, then it has moral status.
      3. Therefore, if X can be harmed, then it has moral status. (This follows 1-2.)
    3. Therefore, if X can possess well-being, then it has moral status. (This follows 1-2.)
  5. Therefore, most of the animals we eat have moral status. (This follows 3 & 4.)
  6. We ought not to support industries (by buying any of their products) that mistreat beings that have moral status, unless there is an overriding moral reason to do so.
  7. Factory farms are industries that mistreat beings that have moral status.
  8. There is no overriding moral reason to buy any products produced by factory farms.
  9. Therefore, we ought not to buy any products produced by factory farms. (This follows 6-9.)
  10. One of the products of factory farms is meat.
  11. Therefore, we ought not to buy meat from factory farms. (This follows 9-10.)
Notice that the argument is consistent with the position that eating meat is morally permissible. Given the reality of how people get their meat, however, not buying meat from factory farms would very likely lead to low meat consumption.

Also notice that the green argument likely implies that plants have moral status. Plants can possess well-being. However, this doesn't mean that all moral status is equal; such a position would require another argument. So it'd be consistent with the above argument to say that plants have moral status but very little of it.

The Problem of Natural Evil

I frequently think of the problem of evil when I'm in the hospital. About two months ago, I saw a 4-year-old girl needing a heart transplant who was attached to shelves of machines. About one month ago, I saw an infant who was born with part of his internal organs outside of his body. These are common occurrences in the NICU and PICU.

It seems hard to me to justify the existence of natural evil with the existence of something like the Christian God. I understand natural evil to be the suffering caused by things such as natural disasters and natural diseases. One defense I've heard is to attribute natural evil to the wrongful exercise of Adam and Eve's free will. My immediate response is the following question: When was that supposed to have happened? The dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid, so did Adam and Eve eat the fruit before the dinosaurs went extinct? That can't be the case, because Adam and Eve were supposed to be the first human beings, and there weren't human beings that long ago.

I understand that not all Christians have a literal interpretation of Adam and Eve, but this problem isn't only faced by a literal interpretation. Original sin is human, so it had to have taken place at a point in time. Moreover, it's obvious that there was natural evil before humans existed. So what justifies the existence of prehuman natural evil? This is a problem even if we assume that natural evil allows for the attainment of higher-order goods.

Late Assignment

A student, who was absent most of the semester, recently asked me if she could turn in her final paper four days late. She said she had been overwhelmed with other finals and so was only starting to write the paper. This was my response.
I'm sad that you missed most of the semester. I would've loved to have heard your input on the variety of topics that we discussed. But I understand that there may be multiple reasons why a student is absent, so I'm not judging you negatively.

Regarding your paper, I am willing to accept it, but there would be a penalty--specifically, if you were to turn it in today, you'd get a D. That, in turn, would give you a D- for the class.

I'm not sure if that'd be worth it to you. If not, then I'd recommend taking ethics again. I think everyone would benefit from such a class. 
Saying that I'd accept a paper but give it a D may seem odd, so I want to explain my reasoning. Turning in a final paper four days late without a good reason and without a severe penalty is a lot to ask. Saying that you were overwhelmed with other finals is not a good reason. Responsible students need to manage their time. Furthermore, it's common for teachers to take off one letter grade per late day, which I find to be a suitable penalty. Given that I would've only taken off three letter grades for a four-day late paper, I would've actually been more lenient.

If the student had good reason to get an extension, then she should've asked for one before the deadline. Then, she would've at least given off the impression that she was a thoughtful and responsible student, instead of a lazy and irresponsible one, one who forgot about the final and so is scrambling to get something turned in. Of course, I don't know her well enough to judge her character, but I'm also not naive. I know some students don't care about learning.

Another factor that influenced, though did not determine, my decision was that getting such a low grade would likely force her to retake ethics, and I thought that was good. Ethics is a very important class for people to take, because it's about how to be a good human being. While I do not think that people would otherwise be evil, it's nonetheless valuable to learn how to think about the right things in the right way, which is something students learn in ethics.

But why didn't I just say that I wouldn't accept it? The reason is threefold: (1) I generally want students to do the work, even if they turn it in late. Doing the work forces them to think about the content of the class. (2) The student asked me close enough after the deadline for me to be willing to accept it with a penalty. And (3), I'm not sure what getting a D- means for undergrads here. I think they'll likely have to retake the class, but I'm not sure. Perhaps they can still get credit for it, or they can choose to take a different class to satisfy the requirement. By saying that I'd be willing to accept the paper, I possibly gave her more choices.

A New Chapter

I’m glad to say that I've finally found a job for next year. Starting July 1st, I’ll be joining Ohio State University as a clinical ethics fellow. The fellowship lasts for one year, but I shouldn’t have a hard time finding a clinical ethicist position afterwards. Hopefully, this fellowship marks the beginning of a fulfilling career.

Getting this position has certainly brought much-needed relief. Oddly, I can’t really say that I’m happy, and the only reason I can think of as to why is because it takes a while to recover from anxiety and stress. The philosophy job market really took a toll on my mental health. I wonder how long it’ll take before I feel like myself again.

My plan is to move mid-June, which means that I have less than two more months here in St. Louis. It’s crazy to me that I’ve been living here for the past six years. When I’m in the philosophy department and look at the younger graduate students, I think to myself that it was only yesterday that I was one of them. Six years ago, the end of my PhD seemed so far away, and now I’m pretty much done.

All things considered, I’m ready to move on and start a career. I want to settle down somewhere and begin a life with someone I love. Don’t get me wrong, being a graduate student has been wonderful, but I feel like my maturation has been postponed because of it. I still kind of live like an undergrad.

Teaching Evaluations

I find teaching to be an admirable and fulfilling profession. And it makes it that much more rewarding when I read comments like these:
  • I have never had a professor who was as responsive to students via email then Jason. He was always willing to help and always open and honest. I wish there were more opportunities throughout the course though because one bad assignment could really dig you into a hole. 
  • You were an awesome, engaging professor who I felt that i could learn a lot from. You remained neutral throughout conversations but always challenged us to think more. Awesome job :) 
  • Jason is a great person and I would love to have him as my teacher again. I enjoyed Jason's ethusiasum of the material, I just wish he would have stated an opinion more than on one topic. 
  • Jason was mostly concerned with engaging us and getting us to think critically and grow as students and individuals rather than doing work for a grade, and I think that is very noteworthy for a professor. He created an environment that allowed students to feel comfortable participating, and he was definitely my favorite professor this semester, and I would recommend him as a professor to anyone looking to take an Ethics class. 
  • Jason was always excited to teach us, and brought a lot of interesting and thought–provoking issues to each class. I feel more confident in my argumentative skills after taking his class, and I feel better defending my ethical opinions and decisions now. Definitely keep the hypotheticals at the beginning of each class, it kept me interested and wanting to be present each class. I would maybe take just a little more time each class to review the vocab and topics from the previous class, though. I often forgot the theory names and what they argued after we talked about them. 
  • It was a really fun class and I learned a lot about ethics. 
  • Professor Chen was a great professor. He did an excellent job of mediating class discussions. Also, he remained unbiased in all of our discussions which I greatly appreciated, and I am sure other students did as well. 
  • Jason is a good teacher of philosophy and I have nothing negative to say about him. It might have been nicer if he made more of an effort to learn/use our names in class, but otherwise I think he has a promising future teaching philosophy and I'm glad to have had him this semester. His knowledge of pop culture is alarmingly absent. 
  • professor chen was one of my favorite professors i've had at slu. i learned so much about how to think critically and think about the world from him.

Blues Song

Yesterday was the first time that I wrote lyrics to a blues song. I thought it was fitting that it was New Year's Eve and that the song is about death.

Everyday I get older
One step closer
To that eternal slumber

What about the things I’ve said
The things I regret
And the things I never dreamt

My hairline recedes every morning
Wrinkles when I smile

What will be the last thing I see?
Will it be an empty room?
I don’t want to go alone

Will I be remembered?
Will all my work be done?
Or will there be more?

I know I gotta go one day
Because everyone’s got to go
But I want to stay, want to stay