Philosophy Major Talk

"Mom, Dad, I'm a Philosophy Major."

Bjorn Hedstrom

I’d like to begin by introducing myself because I realized when going back through the e-mails that Lisa had sent to me that I didn’t respond with a bio and picture of myself like she’d asked. My name is Bjorn Hedstrom. I graduated from Gustavus in 2005. I immediately went to law school at Hamline University School of Law. Although law school does not have majors like undergrad does, I decided to focus my education on health law. This led me to take a job with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota’s legal department, where I work on implementing new legislation both on a federal level and state level. I also have gained an extensive knowledge in privacy laws, and work on ensuring that Blue Cross is not only compliant with health laws, but also proactive in ensuring this compliance. I first got a job at Blue Cross starting in my second year of law school, and have been employed on a contractual basis since then.

When I was asked to talk to philosophy majors about how philosophy has been a part of my life, my first thought was that this was going to be a difficult speech to write. I have only been out of college for three years, and the vast majority of them were spent in law school. I think my assumption was that school doesn’t count. I’m not sure what led me to this assumption, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that school actually does count, and philosophy has carried over from my undergraduate education in many varied ways. I further realized that even outside of law school I was constantly confronting situations that called on me to use not just philosophy, but the analytical skills philosophy has provided me. Consequently, I’m going to lead you through the process I went through when answering this question.

To begin with, I believe at least part of the reason that I’m here speaking tonight is because I went to law school, and some of you may be interested in doing so yourselves, and there has been a significant marriage between philosophy and the law and so my presence makes sense. Consequently, I’ll begin with what law school was like for me, and I’ll let you know how philosophy influenced my perspective.

There is a saying when going to law school that actually does have some truth to it. In your first year they scare you to death; in your second year they bore you to death; and in your third year they work you to death. Typically, here’s how a first year class would work. You would read a set of two or three cases per class, and you would come to class being able to cite the following information. First, you would have to be able to discuss the issue of the case. This may sound easier than it is, especially in the beginning because within any case there are several issues, sub-issues, non-relevant issues, etc. Your job was to be able to weed out all of the issues that don’t really matter, and be able to get to the crux of the case. Then you would give the rule that comes out of the case, and the reasoning why the court came to the decision they did. Sometimes you won’t be able to know what the meaning of any given case is until you have read all the cases around it, which of course means that you have to go back through all the cases and refine what the relevant information is. All of this is done in a classroom setting that usually follows the Socratic method, which means that when you’re called on, you keep going until you can’t answer a question any more. This is difficult to get used to, because what this means is that you’re usually not done until you’re wrong. This process is happens because the law is not fixed. The process you’re going through when reading through cases is not spelling out what the black letter law is, but rather you’re just hammering out the parameters of any given issue.

There may be many examples, but I’ll give a quick one spelling out what I mean. It is commonly said that the right of a woman to have an abortion is based on the right to privacy. However, the right to privacy is not part of the bill of rights. Rather, when the first case was decided regarding this issue, the court found that the right to privacy was implied in the bill of rights because you cannot have any of the other rights without having a right to privacy. As a result, we have seen several examples of states putting restrictions on abortions that in their minds do not hinder this right, such as 24 hour waiting periods, making you read pamphlets on other options, etc. This is a very crude explanation of this case, but it is an example of how they are setting the parameters of the issue. If we say that you have a right to privacy, what are the boundaries of this right, is a 24-hour waiting period an invasion of this right. If we say no to a restriction, then we have set a boundary. This was one example of how a class might work.

Relating this back to the topic of discussion, philosophy helped me in two distinct manners in law school. First, going through my philosophy classes here helped me gain analytical skills. Most of what you do in law school is read and analyze, read some more and analyze some more. So having some experience doing that was helpful. Second, philosophy helped me to not come to a case with any preconceived notions. Here’s what I mean. When most people go to law school, they have assumed that they basically know what’s right and wrong as an intuition. Thus, law school is the inevitable continuation of these basic assumptions. Now if you were to go practice criminal law, this may be the case, but in the classroom it’s not. Professors love that absurdities are left open in the law, and it’s what they want to test you on.

Going back to how a class is run, then, I may be able to give you an accurate description of what happened in a case, but the professors will change the facts a little bit, and ask me to tell how the court would decide this altered case, then they will change some more of the facts, then some more. Consequently, when answering a question such as “what an ‘attempt’ is in an attempted murder?”, they have me starting by agreeing that an attempt is when I shoot at you with a gun, with the thought in my head that I’m intending to kill you. However, by using the logic of the cases we read now I’m agreeing that an attempt is when you first think about murdering someone, which most of us could agree is not an outcome congruent with our pre-conceived notions. The point is that I never actually believed that thinking about murder is an attempt at it, nor do my professors, but both of us realize that it’s this type of analysis that’s important in developing your legal skills. Now if I had been unwilling to logically follow this path because I knew what I thought was attempted murder, but had no way of justifying it, I would be at a disadvantage. Whether it was deciding whether Data of Star Trek is a person, or whether I was discussing Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Resignation, these types of arguments, where assumptions are left at the door, really did help in law school.

Law school wasn’t the only place where philosophy has helped me. During my second year of law school, I decided to study abroad in Israel in Jerusalem. I was part of a program that was studying Alternative Dispute Resolutions, which is basically a program where lawyers use their brokering skills to resolve disputes outside of an actual courtroom. Dispute resolution may take many forms, but generally there are impartial arbiters to the proceedings, and there is no advocate on either side just the two parties and the arbiter who is helping them negotiate with each other. This will probably come as no shock to any of you, but in the vast majority of cases decided in a court, neither party ends up being happy, even if you win the case. There are likely many reasons for this, but sometimes the rigidity of the law doesn’t really satisfy the problems that exist between two parties.

I’ll give you a couple of anecdotal examples of some of the problems brought up in my time in Jerusalem, but first I’ll begin by describing the unique situation Jerusalem sits in. There are more than three religions there, but generally the country exists of people of the three Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each religion feels like they are the minority, and thus persecuted ones, and thus the religion in need of protection. However, it’s more likely that each religion is both the minority and majority at the same time. Jews are the minority because on the global scale, there are only about 14 million Jews worldwide. However, they are the majority in Israel because they make up 80% of the population there, and Israel has named Judaism as it’s national religion. Christians feel like they are the minority because they are the smallest population in Israel, only roughly 6% of the population, but globally, they make up the majority of the worlds wealth and people. Finally, Muslims feel like they are the minority because Israel is a heavily armed country with current conflicts with Muslim nations, and they are the minority compared to Jews in the country. However, because Israel is actually surrounded by Muslim countries, they can be considered the majority as well. The point is that the unique circumstances of Israel lead to unique circumstances legally. These problems are compounded further when one considers that even within a specific religion there are conflicts with a similar dynamic. When there are inter-religious or intra-religious conflicts, the law often can’t help. It doesn’t really satisfy someone if the solution is given without following the dispute resolution processes spelled out in one’s religion.

For example, the Great Wall, or Wailing Wall is one of the holiest Jewish sites. It’s located in the old city of Jerusalem, which is in a relatively low area of the city. As you look at the wall, you can see most of the rest of the city off in the distance. Well, one day, someone noticed that a Christian hotel at night had lights that looked conspicuously similar to a cross. What was happening was that there were lights on in the elevator shaft, which lit up a vertical line. Additionally, there were lights on in the one of the top floors because it was a banquette floor, giving a horizontal line. Well, the Jews of the area felt like this was an insult because every time they went to look at their holiest site, here was a giant lit up cross glaring at them in the background. Well, legally, what can you do to a hotel that happens to leave lights on in their elevator shaft and banquette hall? The answer was to be creative. Instead of telling a party “you have to turn off your lights,” or “I can do whatever I want with my property,” it was negotiated that the shades would be purchased for the banquette floor.

If you think that this was a minor problem, you have to realize that people take these conflicts as though they were life and death. There was a Hasidic Jewish group that lived in a certain area of town, and they were situated near a hospital. Well, on the Sabbath, they believe that no technology can be used and you are meant to rest. So when an ambulance came roaring through their area, a few members would throw rocks at it. Despite it being about someone else’s life, religion meant more. There wasn’t any malice, but a deep religious conviction. How could a formal legal hearing satisfy either group? That particular problem was solved by building a road that goes around the area of town that didn’t have any stops to slow them down, thus allowing the ambulances to circumnavigate the problem.

As an example of a problem between two sects of the same religion, one need only look to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the church that many believe holds the tomb of Jesus. Suffice it to say that it is a point of contention because figuring out which religion has rights to this piece of property has many implications. Currently, there are four sects all claiming whole ownership of the church. They’ve been doing so for hundreds of years, and all refuse to acknowledge that the others are there. Although they don’t recognize each other, it’s amazing how it happens to be that one of the groups will basically run the church on one day, and another the next. The problems for this church can come from the most basic of tasks. For example, when a light bulb went out in a significant area of the church, groups almost came to fisticuffs. One of the groups said they were going to change it, and this had everyone about ready to explode. Why would this matter? Well, if the church were yours then you would change its bulbs. Thus, if one group changes the light bulbs they are making an overt gesture signaling their ownership of the church, and this can’t happen. At the brink of the fight, it was negotiated that they would hold off until the next morning before any bulb would be changed. My professor there made a late night visit to investigate the problem. The next morning, when the group was ready to change the bulb they found the light was working. It was proclaimed a miracle, and the crisis was avoided. While in Israel, I remember now how religious philosophy classes kept creeping into the discussions we were having when trying to explain what the problem was, when sometimes they seemed a bit trivial, I would say that these were knights of infinite resignation if I’ve ever seen one.

Finally, and briefly, I’ll discuss what I do now that I’m out of law school. I don’t have any set of tasks that I do on a daily basis. I have to research quite a bit, but the problems are always changing. I will say though, that health care in general has many implications about how we view humans, and what are our basic rights. These aren’t just legal questions, or moral questions, but philosophical questions. One example came when I worked on implementing some new legislation that was passed by the Minnesota legislature that required Health Plans to cover hearing aids. Basically the importance of this legislation was that Minnesota was stating that hearing aids are one of the basic health benefits that all plans must cover. The questions that I came away with had less to do with hearing aids, and more to do with what benefits are basic to health insurance. A priority is really put on certain coverage. In answering this question I found that human rights are constantly being implicated, and these are both political and philosophical questions.

I would like to end by thanking you all for listening to me, by stating that you should not go in to law if you think that it will make you money, because judging by all the people I know that have gone, there is no immediate financial benefit. If any of you have any questions about law school, whether it has to do with getting in, choosing a school, or anything, feel free to e-mail me. I would like to thank the philosophy department for putting this on and having me down, it was a pleasure.

– Thanks