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Ben Chan (Philosophy)

Ethicist’s Wide-Ranging Interests Feed New Perspectives

Ben Chan (Philosophy) is one of 14 new and visiting scholars welcomed to campus at the start of the 2013-14 academic year. Chan, who joins the St. Norbert faculty as assistant professor, received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. from the University of California-Los Angeles. He then completed a post-doc in the bioethics department of the National Institutes of Health. Chan sat down with our contributor Tony Staley to tell us more about his background, his academic career and his scholarly interests.

What first drew you to your field?
Asked in the fourth grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered, “I want to be a productive member of society.” My teacher responded, “Why would you want to be a productive member of society?” I still think it’s a good question! And it blew my 10-year-old mind, not simply because I’d never thought to question that desire, but also because my teacher didn’t pretend to know the answer. One thing led to another, and I became a philosopher with an abiding interest in the question of how one should live.

What is your background?
My parents emigrated from Hong Kong and Guangdong in the late ’60s, met in New York City, started a restaurant there, and eventually created me. I was reared there and then went coast-to-coast-to-coast until landing in Wisconsin: Swarthmore College, UCLA, a post-doc at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and most recently teaching at Lawrence University.
Why did you decide on St. Norbert College?
St. Norbert’s emphasis on community and reflection resonated with me. Those values seem to me essential to enabling me to help students develop ethical intelligence. I also discovered from my time in Appleton that Wisconsin is a terrific place to live and teach. So I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be here. 

How will your research interests affect what you do at St. Norbert?
Since my interests are eclectic (the ethics of emotion, medical ethics, political philosophy) and would benefit greatly from interdisciplinary collaboration, I will be spending time sneaking up on the psychologists, biologists, economists, political scientists, etc. on campus.

Which classes are you most excited to teach?
At the moment, Philosophy of Human Nature, and Ethics, both of which I’m teaching this semester. I’m especially excited for the human nature course, both because I really enjoy teaching first-year students and because my own interests are centered on figuring out what it is to be a (truly happy, good, sane) human being.  

Will you be able to offer new courses?
I am working on a food ethics course that I think will be a terrific introduction to applied ethics, as our food policy choices touch on a huge range of ethical issues: basic human rights, government paternalism, global justice, our relation to the environment, the moral status of animals, the use of biotechnology, cultural relativism, the moralization of health, etc. Like most restaurant folks, our family is very enthusiastic about food but also very critical. I was inculcated with the belief that most of the food that people enjoy isn’t actually very good! I suppose that’s the sort of contrarian spirit from which philosophy is born.

What does your field mean for your students?
I hope to work with students on bioethics projects that complement their interests in biomedical sciences, public health and medicine. Our society seems to be in the midst of several major shifts in how we think about health and medicine, and I’m excited to help our students be part of change for the better. 

Sept. 3, 2013