Students, Philosophy

Graduate Profile: Brittany French, Philosophy

December 08, 2016

As the end of the Fall semester nears and Vancouverites face an unusual spate of cold and snowy weather, members of the SFU community might seek refuge in the library, warmth in a cup of hot coffee, or release from the stress of exams in puppy or kitten therapy. Masters student Brittany French finds comfort in the study of historical philosophy.

According to French, engaging in contemplation roots her by offering a sense of connection to the larger world. “Reading historical philosophy is interesting because we realize that reflective, ‘deep’ questions about humanity that we ask today -- what defines a human being?, what is the best way to govern a nation?, what is friendship?, what is love?, is there a God? -- has in one way or another been written and thought about by philosophers for centuries. You get to see the development of thought and how we’ve reached the modern age we are in. You realize you’re not particular in having philosophical thoughts like, ‘what’s the meaning of life,’ and that these are actually really hard questions to confront. It’s comforting.”

In her work, French engages with questions that directly pertain to current debates in applied ethics. Questions like “do people have implicit biases and should we hold them accountable for their implicit biases?, what are the implicit expectations of a promise and how do we wrong someone when we break our promises?” She says “we often believe we know the answer to these questions, but when we are pressed to explain ourselves, the reasons for the beliefs we have are not obvious and are oftentimes not very good.” In this way, “philosophy applied to ethics is especially interesting because of the moral consequences. It also affects the way I live my life.”

When she isn’t busy completing the final steps of her Master’s degree, French can be found offering comfort to others: she spends a few hours each week at St. Paul’s Hospital where she visits patients in the emergency department, at Vancouver’s WISH shelter where she serves hot meals, and at the Ravensong Community Health Centre where she weighs and measures babies at the infant immunization clinic. She admits, “It’s probably more time than people usually have to give up to the community, but I need to be doing these activities to feel balanced in my personal life.”

In fact, French sees little divide between doing her work and doing good works: “The work I do in philosophy is solving problems from a theoretical approach. I figure out reasons for why people should be acting in specific moral ways. The work I do in the community is following through with the belief that people have moral obligations in society, one of which I believe is to give back to the community.”

While French started giving back in high school after she benefitted from the generosity of others (she received a scholarship that allowed her to attend a private school), including running the school’s volunteer club, the scope of her community grew internationally during her undergraduate studies at St. John’s College (U.S.A.). There, French was part of a group that won a grant for a proposal to build a water filtration system in Syanja in rural Nepal.

French (left), building a water filtration system in Syanja, Nepal. Image from Water From Stones.

As detailed in the documentary film, Water from Stones, the team travelled to Syanja in 2010 to implement the project along with the local community. Their filtration system meant that women wouldn’t have to walk so far to retrieve their families’ water every day, which, in theory, allowed them more time for study. “Seeing the impact that we had was unbelievable. It took relatively little effort -- we organized the project in our spare time as all of us were full-time students with part-time jobs. So it’s not like we were doing it for a class or as a job. It was what we were thinking about on a Saturday afternoon. Installing the project required a month’s time, which all of us were lucky enough to be able to do.”

Her group won the grant again the following year, this time to build a community center in the same Nepali village and also to install restrooms for women in the local school. The community “desperately needed a place to congregate and new latrines for the girls in the school, and didn’t have the money for either. We made it happen.” Prior to these efforts, French spent six months as a volunteer teacher in Kenya, and another three months studying organic farming in Spain and Finland through WWOOF, “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.” She funded all of these opportunities on her own, through summer jobs and working multiple jobs throughout the school year.

Now at SFU, French is fundraising for another water project in Nepal. She will hold a used clothing sale and is currently collecting donations. “I don’t have the opportunity of applying to another grant program again, so I will have to get creative on how I raise the rest of the funds. I thought about having an art auction, because I paint too. I’d love to see my work sell and get to donate all the money towards the project. Another avenue is to get local businesses to donate certificates and auction those off. That’s what we did for the Nepal project to raise money for our plane tickets.”

Of the connection between her philanthropic pursuits and philosophical engagement, French says: “I know that the philanthropic work directly impacts the lives of the people it is meant to serve. My philosophical work tries to impact people as well, sometimes to get students to be better critical thinkers and other times to convince people through arguments that they should be doing specific moral actions. Sometimes we have a desire to do good in the world, but we aren’t sure how or what the right answer is. Doing philosophy can help one think through the reasons for acting and hopefully help one to decide about what the right thing to do would be.”

The Philosophy Master’s program at SFU is specifically designed for students who are thinking of a PhD but who lack the formal training in philosophy. This was key for French, for whom the historical foundation of St. John’s College provided a strong basis for SFU’s more contemporary approach, including the opportunity to work as a research assistant on Dr. Lisa Shapiro’s New Narratives in the History of Philosophy project. As French says, “I got to learn so much in both of these programs – about humanity, about ethics, how to think through arguments, how social institutions work, the role of science… I could go on forever.”

Soon, French will make an impact in a new way: “Now that I’ve had a solid dose of life-fulfilling study of philosophy through the MA program, I want to devote my professional career towards impact, which is why I want to be a medical doctor. I want to work for Doctors Without Borders, providing health aid for people who are not fortunate enough to have any. I will always read philosophy for personal guidance. I might continue to write philosophy to get my articles published, even if I am no longer teaching in the field. I believe this is possible, if only there are enough hours in the day!”