It is a 'statement of personal values', written for a class on legal ethics, and while rough (the essay remains as I wrote and submitted it to Professor Rudasill...3 hours before it was due) it is nonetheless a very good encapsulation of several of the most important things about me. Though not 'personal' in the conventional sense, most of them are not things I normally share.
Read it if you wish. It is, at the very least, informative on one subject: me.
Legal Profession 1/15/08
My personal values and beliefs. Hmmm.
That’s a sticky wicket, partially because I reject most conventional systems of values despite having been influenced by them earlier in my life, and partially because the word “values” in this country has turned into a loaded term which conveys a near-demand for some religious sentiment.
Nonetheless, the account of which source or sources yield my personal ethos demands a brief recounting of certain aspects of my personal history. To wit: I was raised as a staunch Roman Catholic—Catholic schooling, lector at Mass, the works—and for my mother and the pastor of my church, that included a great deal of volunteer work, all of it targeted towards social justice.
As Mom told my brothers and I repeatedly, “You are your brother’s keeper.”
To that end, I’ve been working in soup kitchens and babysitting for single mothers and running food drives and working at shelters for battered women and writing letters for Amnesty International and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, since I was 12 years old.
That same mother, however, also told me when I came to her with questions about the Baltimore Catechism when I was 11, “God gave you a brain. No matter what the nuns say, you should use it.”
In great part because of both these admonitions, when I was 18 I went off to college determined to understand why it is that human beings do such terrible things to each other, and to that end majored in Political Science and minored in Psychology. Unfortunately for me, I got exactly what I wanted. (Professor Beres, a brilliant man who advises the Israeli High Council on international law, who “read” my senior thesis, and with whom I argued through two years of classes, once looked at my transcript and asked me incredulously if I was “majoring in atrocity”.) Put briefly, my studies in politics, psychology, and history utterly destroyed the religious faith which had previously helped to shape my views of the world.
My studies also reinforced, however, my conviction that personal responsibility for the world around us is a fundamental characteristic of a responsible human being, that human effort could and does improve the world, and that compassion for others is a hallmark of the human psyche—the flip side of the terrible insecurity and insular aggression we display. International law and history, along with the dreadful realities of the depths of human capacity, confirmed these shining and irreproachable truths.
And so I embarked on a view of the world at once more bleak and more complex than any I had known before.
My in-depth study of science, undertaken once I had reached adulthood, confirmed to me that there are other articles of faith for me, most based around the authenticity of verifiable observation and the ability of human beings to know things about the universe. It did not reshape the content of my ethics towards other human beings, but it did shape the way I parse information and the standards of veracity to which I hold opinion and knowledge.
‘Values’ and ‘beliefs’ may be verifiable or nonverifiable, empirically based or faith-based. Since I was sixteen, I’ve said that everyone has a religion—a way in which they explain the universe to themselves, a way in which they bring the world together into a coherent whole. For most people, this process stops at a young age—analogous to those who, in putting together a puzzle, find a way the pieces fit together to make an understandable picture, and conclude that the puzzle is finished, disregarding any extra pieces which later fall into their hands.
There are also those who, in receiving those extra pieces, try to fit them into the puzzle—even if it means disassembling some of it entirely and finding new places for pieces whose location they’d thought certain.
I try very hard to be one of those people. I don’t always succeed—but life is an exercise which demands perseverance.
Everyone also has articles of faith—beliefs which are difficult to logically justify, but which they nonetheless hold to be true. Some of my beliefs on the value of science, the worthiness of striving for justice, and the incontrovertible personal responsibility that human beings bear for the world around them derive from these articles of faith.
• I believe that human beings, through observation, can learn facts about the world around them.
• I believe that the only changes which occur in the world, especially in human lives, are brought about through the actions of forces of nature or of other human beings.
• I believe the scientific method of observation, testing, and disproving is the best method for learning about the world around us.
• I believe human beings’ characters should be judged on their actions towards other people, not their professed beliefs, their skin color, their sex, their sexual preferences, or anything else.
• I believe that every person has the ability to be both extraordinarily creative and extraordinarily destructive.
• I believe that justice for the human race as a whole, though an artificial construct that has no real place in our evolutionary biology, is a worthy invention and deserving of fierce defense.
• I believe that small actions, whether of caring or unconcern, have wide-reaching effects on the lives of both those around us and those we may never meet.
• I believe that human love and hate are as active and effective on human lives as gravity or electromagnetism.
I try very hard indeed to make sure that my treatment of the people around me—including colleagues, professors, patients, administrators—reflects at the very least courtesy and basic respect for them as people.
My beliefs guide—have guided—both my choice of career as physician and my ongoing desire to affect the policies which most affect those with the least power to change them.
As far as tests are concerned, I’ve encountered many already. As someone who has worked and volunteered for well over 2/3 of my life, I’ve encountered thorny ethical dilemmas to which there is no good solution—only a choice between worse and worst. In those situations I do the best I can: I try to hurt the fewest number of people while keeping to the promises I’ve made.
I try my best, in other words, to be honorable.
I don’t always succeed. But the Chinese say that “the glory is not in never failing, but in rising each time you fail.”
That isn’t an article of faith for me. But I still hope it’s true.