Editor’s note: Fort Lewis College held its second virtual commencement on Dec. 4, when 150 students gathered online to hear recorded speeches. Professor Dugald Owen gave the commencement address, excerpted here. There are two tasks all of us must undertake as we develop in our cognitive, emotional and moral lives.
First, we must move from the initial particularities of our upbringing and culture to reach a more universal, reasoned view. Second, we must move from the certainties of those familiar origins to the uncertainties of mature thought.
What do these two lines of personal growth entail?
Our origins are accidental: We are born into a particular culture at a particular time and in a particular place on the globe. Because of that, we absorb the belief systems of those places and cultures, and, as young people, tend to do so in an uncritical way. We don’t know what is credible and what isn’t until we recognize alternatives and begin to question the basis of our own beliefs. But we must undertake that questioning in order to move from uncritical acceptance to responsibly held beliefs. Responsibly held beliefs are those backed by evidence, those that enjoy logical support and empirical grounding.
The values we embrace must also evolve in the same way. Although we might have been told stories that privilege our own group, or favor one group over another, a more adequate view recognizes all lives as equally worthy of our concern, our respect and our compassion. Moral maturity demands a world-first outlook, not an in-group or nationalistic stance.
That’s the first path. The second might seem to go in the opposite direction.
College is unquestionably a place of learning, of real knowledge in many areas of inquiry, but this journey to a mature worldview can also be one from confidence to uncertainty, from comfortable beliefs to a recognition of our ignorance. We find ourselves in a universe that is as mysterious as it is beautiful: We gaze on the blank canvas of Moby Dick’s inscrutable skin and we can only wonder at the puzzle of his existence. We don’t know why we are here, ultimately, nor do we know where we are headed, though we can make some good guesses about that in the short run: Listen to science on that score. But no one knows the origins and the ending. The pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes noted that even if by good fortune we had hit on true beliefs, we couldn’t tell for sure that we had.
That’s the second path.
I want to mention two reasons to complete these two journeys, from particularity to universality and from certainty to open-minded doubt, and then to reflect briefly on why their two most significant outcomes, a rigorous intellectual integrity and a concern for others’ well-being, cannot be attained in isolation, but rather implicate each other.
The first reason to set out is that only by doing so do you become your own person. Only so do you become an autonomous agent, as philosophers would have it, a person fully in charge of her own beliefs, attitudes and actions.
Secondly, because doing so represents the deepest expression and fulfillment of our nature. We are creatures who understand, who care and who love, so we live best when we use our minds at their highest pitch and when our emotions are plumbed to their depths.
Now here’s an amazing thing: These two pillars of the best life, strict intellectual honesty and care for others, require each other. We cannot fully realize our nature in either of these ways without doing so in both. Now, I think you might be skeptical of that claim – it sounds too good to be true – so I will explain why I think that conclusion is inevitable.
Why does intellectual excellence require concern for others? It’s because we think best when we think together. We need others to hone our skill at analysis, to generate ideas, to check our excesses and oversights, and finally to confirm our own beliefs. We cannot do this without a community of fellow scholars, citizens and friends. So we must attend to their well-being to build such a community of trust. We can’t discover the truth without them.
On the other hand, why does concern for others require intellectual integrity? That’s because we can’t know how best to enhance others’ lives, what respect and care for them demands of us, without sustained inquiry. To know how to treat others well requires careful attention to their lives, their sources of satisfaction and therefore, the discipline of balanced, objective thought.
If both of these claims are true, then our fulfillment, the deepest life available to us, lies in the inextricable mix of intellectual honesty and genuine concern for others.
Dugald Owen is professor of philosophy and this year’s Alice Admire Outstanding Teacher Award recipient at Fort Lewis College.