The University of Colorado Philosophy Department just finished hosting its 9th annual huge, amazing summer ethics conference, the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, known as RoME (to the confusion of the uninitiated, who marvel that so many of us seem to be talking about heading off to spend part of August in the Eternal City). Even though I'm now an emerita (retired) member of the department, I still help review submissions for it, volunteer to serve as a commentator for some paper in my area of expertise, and attend as much of it as I can. Many of our former graduate students return for RoME, so it feels like a grand, glorious reunion.
This year I attended a bunch of terrific papers. One was on "effective altruism": are we morally required to do as much good in the world as we can, even if this means, for example, "earning to give" - i.e., choosing a career with the highest possible salary so that we can make the largest possible charitable contributions to the most proven life-saving charities? Another was on the ethics of "disability passing": is it ethically problematic if disabled people hide, or at least avoid openly disclosing, their disability (one question raised: should an amputee disclose this fact on an online dating website?).
The paper I commented on, by Rebecca Chan, was on what she called "The Problem of Self-Transformation." The central question she posed was: From the standpoint of self-interest, is it rational for me to prefer to become someone who will be radically different from my current self - though happier - rather than a less happy person who feels connected to who I currently am? It was a lovely paper that raised all kinds of fascinating thought-experiments: e.g., should Jon, who suffered childhood trauma, now wish he hadn't been brutalized in that way, even though the trauma made him who is today?
I love thinking about questions like this as I reflect on my own life and its many transformations. Over the course of the last six decades, I've changed my political and religious views radically (sometimes back-and-forth and then back again). I've become a wife, mother, grandmother. I've left philosophy, come back to it, left it, come back to it, perpetually ambivalent about how much it defines my identity, how much it is part of who I am.
At RoME, I always feel glad that I've come back to philosophy yet again. When I heard Rebecca's paper, I thought, THIS is why I DO like philosophy, I do, I do!
The closing keynote, by the brilliant Nomy Arpaly of Brown University, titled 'In Defense of Benevolence," looked at this puzzle: does love require that I commit myself to advancing the beloved's most central goals and aims? what if these are at odds with her well-being understood as something distinct from mere goal advancement? She used as a central example of a goal we might not support wholeheartedly the building of the world's largest ball of twine.
Well, as it happens, it was exactly a year ago that I departed from the final session of the RoME conference to head off on a road trip to Branson, Missouri, with a writer friend who was researching a novel whose events transpire on a girlfriend road trip. We spent our first night in Cawker City, Kansas, home of, yes, the world's largest ball of twine.
Yay for philosophy! Yay for girlfriend road trips! Yay for very big balls of twine! Yay for all of it that has made me the happy person that I am today.