Commencement Exercises
June 5, 2001 

Valedictory Oration

Jared Kramer

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that "the intellect is what moves all the parts of man" and that reason is the "first principle of human action." By nature, we are creatures of reason and analytical thought. To live productive lives, we need knowledge. We also need moral truth. Equipped with automatic access neither to knowledge nor to the good, our intellectual ability is our most reliable aid in acquiring these things.

Princeton has forced us to ask many questions, and to think rigorously in exploring their solutions. Our labors between one and three in the morning, writing, rewriting the end of that stubborn paragraph, choosing new words, checking the flow into the next paragraph, was work not just of language but of reason, of ensuring that the ethical argument in our writing was cogent and coherent. Our labors between three and five, chalk in hand, reproducing a proof about the properties of polynomials, was not just an exercise of replication, but of moving our minds through new steps, new modes of argument. It is necessary that we continue questioning and exploring.

Ask questions of moral justification. Be critical of your institutions and leaders. It is pleasant to assume that "the powers that be are ordained of God." But this assumption is a luxury that active and influential people cannot afford. Our institutions must promote their proper and useful ends, and we must make sure that they do so.

Ask if the allocation of resources through corporate structures and financial markets accords with the moral directives of human equality and responsibility to community. Profit is necessary for progress, but consultants and bankers and managers must seek it while working to reduce the vast inequalities of opportunity that surround us.

Ask if technology and the industry built upon it accord with moral reason. Intellectual, natural, and capital resources cannot be wasted, and engineers must ensure that the products they create are necessary and efficient.

Ask if government policy accords with moral reason. Was it right for President Clinton to permit the funding of organizations that provide for abortion -- the morality of which is unresolved by our society? Was it right for President Bush to deny this funding when it also threatens valuable family planning, contraception, and educational services?

Ask if your public service job accords with reason. Are you doing it to make yourself feel good, or to get paid to travel to some nifty new place? Are you avoiding a more rewarding, more challenging, and more valuable position in the private sector merely because you are afraid of facing more subtle and more difficult decisions?

A friend of mine once gave me a draft of her essay for medical school applications. It accused doctors of abandoning patient care to obsessive concern with cost and technology. I advised her to remove the passage, since the doctors reading the application might not appreciate such commentary from an outsider. But this outsider offered thoughtful criticism, noting that professional practice seemed to contradict the moral implications of healing as a profession. Perhaps my advice was wrong.

Also continue to ask questions of academic knowledge. Someday you may be a programmer, plagued by product release deadlines. It may be easier, debugging Java code for sixty hours a week, to forget about the science in computer science, and to fall back on just hacking things together to make it all work. But it is valuable to ask questions that straddle the academic and practical divide. Can real software incorporate this theoretically fast algorithm? Does the myoglobin protein serve a previously unknown biological function? Can we reform campaign finance without sacrificing free speech?

There is excellence also in asking questions that are purely academic, whose answers will not soon escape the world of literary journals or university labs and chalkboards. The exercise of the intellect is among the highest human pursuits, and should never be abandoned. What was Nietzsche getting at? What is a supernatural number? What is the symbolic significance of pomegranate juice?

We must approach our beliefs, our theories, and the way the world works with doubt and with reason. We must do this, to seek the best arguments in favor and opposed to our positions. We must do this, to act to change and improve ourselves and our communities. We must do this, to make the best use of all that was given to us in four years at Princeton.