A Confession

A number of years ago, I was walking at the beach with a couple of friends of mine. The weather was perfect, as it frequently is in southern California. The sun was shining, the temperature was about 75 degrees, and the air was dry. Everyone around me seemed to be living a relaxed life. People were chatting, eating ice cream, and doing beach activities. I suspect when people imagine life in Los Angeles, that’s what they picture.

Unfortunately, like every big city, there are many of those who live in poverty. Homeless people are everywhere, including the beach. So I wasn’t at all surprised when I noticed, to my left, a homeless person sleeping on the grass with a blanket over their head and torso. It was a common scene, for sure—a poor person ignored and avoided by the rich, their proximity to the ground reflecting their social status. I’m so used to seeing homeless people that I would’ve entirely forgotten about this person, if it hadn’t been for the fact that their feet were absolutely disgusting. I mean they looked rotten. For a brief moment, I thought to myself that this person might have been dead.

But I didn't do anything.

By the time the thought had cemented into my mind, I might have been half a block away. So I could’ve easily gone back to check up on this person.

But I didn’t.

I just kept walking and chatting with my friends.

Sometimes I watch these social experiment videos on YouTube, where they have hidden cameras to record how people react to certain situations. One experiment featured two actors, one dressed as a nonhomeless person and the other as a homeless person. And the goal was to see if people would check up on them after they pretended to collapse on the sidewalk near an intersection. The results were what you would've expected.

When I watch experiments like that, I like to tell myself that if I’d been a civilian in that video, I would’ve done the right thing, that I wouldn’t have been like almost everyone else, that I wouldn’t have ignored suffering right in front of my face.

But I am like almost everyone else.

When I think back on that day at the beach, I wonder if that was one of those social experiments. I wonder if somewhere on the internet, there is a video of me walking by what I thought could have been a corpse.

The Value of Watching Cat Videos

I recall a disagreement I had with one of the philosophers in the department over the value of watching cat videos. She insisted that it was a waste of time whereas I believed (and continue to believe) the opposite. Though it wasn't the best argument I could have given, I said that watching cat videos builds empathy. To be clear, I still think this is true, but a better argument would have been in terms of beauty.

It doesn't seem implausible to argue that cuteness is a species of beauty, and so by watching cat videos, we are appreciating beauty. This may be comparable to looking at a natural landscape, which may embody yet another species. I'm assuming here that appreciating beauty is not a waste of time.

I don't do work on aesthetics, so my argument should be taken with a grain of salt, but a quick look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that my claim is consistent with multiple conceptions of beauty.

One idealist conception of beauty states that beauty is "a primary bridge...between the material and the spiritual" (Sartwell, 2017). I'm not a spiritual person so this account doesn't resonate with me that much, but I have encountered religious people who sense the divine when looking at animals.

A second account of beauty argues that beauty is that which causes love or longing. This conception of beauty is reflective of the subjective experience sparked by watching cat videos.

A third conception accounts for beauty in terms of pleasure. Again, this is also consistent with my claim that cuteness is a species of beauty.

In response, one could argue that though it may not be a waste of time, cuteness may be an inferior species of beauty. According to the article, Hegel thinks the beauty of art is superior to the beauty of nature because the former is born twice: first from God and then again from the artist. If true, listening to music would be superior to watching cat videos.

According to the other accounts, however, one species would only be superior to another if it creates more experiences of love and longing, or pleasure. And since cuteness could create such experiences equal to that created by other species, it follows that watching cat videos could be comparable in value to engagements with other species beauty. So I think it's reasonable to claim that watching cat videos is valuable, because it's consistent with major theories of beauty.

References

Sartwell, C. (2017). Beauty. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/beauty/ 

On the Mend

Since I was unsuccessful in last year's job market, I've been processing negative emotions for the past 6 months. I don't think I've ever felt anger, frustration, hopelessness, and jealousy all at the same time before. The good news is that I'm on the mend, and I attribute that to two things. First, I allowed myself to feel negative emotions. And second, I've changed my plans for the future.

Regarding the first, I allowed myself to be human, to feel all the negative emotions sparked by a terrible job market where most applicants find nothing. I told myself that it was okay to be jealous of my friends who found jobs, even though I felt guilty that I couldn't be happy for them.

Acknowledging one's human limits is simultaneously disheartening and liberating. It's disheartening because I don't want to suck as a person. I want to be able to be happy for my friends, you know? But it's also liberating because it makes me feel more okay with feeling negative emotions. To be clear, I still feel guilty; I'm just dealing with it better.

Regarding the second, I've decided to go into clinical ethics. A clinical ethicist is a person who offers guidance to clinicians on ethically complicated medical decisions. I'll be doing a clinical ethics practicum in the Fall, where I shadow various people in the hospital. And I'll be taking a clinical ethics class in the Spring.

This decision to enter clinical ethics has help me recover from my depressive state, because it has given me something new to look forward to, and because it will help me on the job market. I've been told that for clinical ethics, there are 30 applicants per job (compared to 300 applicants per job in professional philosophy). So this coming Fall, I'll apply for both academic jobs and clinical ethics jobs.

I get excited over the thought of being an applied ethicist. I never thought I would, to be honest. I always thought of myself as a person who would work on the theory side of things. The only worry I have is that I'll be constantly surrounded by death. I'm not sure how that will affect me psychologically.