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.