Gray areas in life require philosopher's examination

Elise Patkotak

My cousin Joe's son, Joe 3, decided after a brief stint as a city reporter for a small town newspaper that he wanted to go into a career with greater potential. So he went back to school and got a doctorate in philosophy. I believe his father best expressed his feelings at this choice when he opened a newspaper to the want ads and declared, "Do you see an ad saying, 'Wanted: Doctor of Philosophy for high paying job.' "

Despite my cousin's concerns, we apparently need philosophers because the world continues to be a complicated place. Despite what some might believe, not all is writ large in black and white. The amount of gray area in between fills the universe of our minds.

I recently heard from a reader who posed this question to me. How should we regard good that comes from something we consider bad?

At one extreme this begs the question that if Hitler developed a cure for cancer using unwilling human subjects who suffered and died to produce the cure, would we be ethically obligated to shun that cure? Or would we be ethically obligated to use it to end other human suffering while admitting its source was obscene?

In Alaska we are constantly confronted with a much milder version of this question. It is generally accepted that oil companies are the engines fueling our economy and they can do no wrong. There are some, though, who view the oil companies as despoilers of the last pristine wilderness left on earth. No matter which view you subscribe to, you need only look around the state to know that the oil companies have tried to be good neighbors. They fund charitable causes of every ilk. They are some of the first to sign on for any worthy event. They buy tables at auctions for the library, they fund scholarships for rural kids, they are on the front lines of every walk/race/hop/skip and jump-athon we can invent.

Do they do all that for altruistic purposes? I think they might do some of it out of a sense of communal obligation to a society in which their presence looms so large. But they are businesses and what they do, they do to enhance their business. So all these charitable endeavors probably have some bottom line objective. If you doubt this, let me ask you a question. Do you really think that Shell or BP will be funding charitable programs here when they and our oil are gone?

So if you consider Big Oil bad, how do you view the good they do here? If that good is coming from something you consider bad, do you accept it and just shrug or does it keep you awake at night wondering if you've just sold your soul for the cost of 100 more meals at Bean's Cafe?

The Pebble Project is about to cause us to once again revisit this thorny question. For many, the Pebble Project is evil writ large -- a company that wants to endanger the pristine waters that supply one of Alaska's most famous products. But they are also underwriting a full week's educational residency here in Anchorage by one of the world's finest jazz bands.

Are they doing this to try and buy some goodwill? Of course they are. Does this change what they want to do at Pebble? Of course it doesn't. So if you think the Pebble Project is the answer to the unemployment and economic woes of the Bristol Bay area, this program merely serves to confirm your belief in corporate goodness. But if you think the Pebble Project is inherently bad and your kid is in that part of the school district where this band will spend a week, do you let your kid participate? Does the good coming from something you view as bad cause you to think twice about letting your child be part of it?

My cousin Joe was wrong. His son's profession is greatly needed in today's world as we try to work our way through questions like this. Of course, his son will never make a lot of money. But philosophers find their reward is usually not monetary. It's the ultimate effect they have on history. Which, as my cousin Joe will all too willingly point out, does not buy groceries.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Website,