Growing up in Israel, Oded Na'aman wanted to be a musician. A composer, to be exact. He liked reading okay, but didn’t do it often; for him, it was all about the music. But then he found himself serving on the West Bank during the Second Intifada, a tumultuous period of Palestinian uprising against Israel that saw high casualties on both sides. “I felt like I found myself in this alternative reality that I didn’t understand,” Na'aman said. “I felt at times betrayed but also guilty, because I felt like I ended up doing things I couldn’t justify.” That was when he turned to philosophy--he hoped it would help him think independently. “I thought, ‘When I can make sense of things, I can go back to music,’” he smiled.
It’s no surprise that he’s still making sense of things today. After earning his PhD in philosophy at Harvard, he came to the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society as a postdoctoral fellow, where he continues his work on issues of attachment, examining connections to the varied aspects of our lives that give it meaning, be they places, people, or projects. “There are interesting intricacies that at first--or second--don’t seem related to big issues like military and oppression, but my sense is that they are. If you understand what it is to be oppressed...you have to understand what makes that life meaningful.”
At the Ethics Center, he found the postdoc workshops particularly helpful to develop ideas. “Because we meet every week and we get to know each other, it becomes much easier to send things that are very preliminary,” Na'aman said. “You have people who know you and understand where you’re coming from but know the subjects, and can give both professional advice and intellectual advice.”
Effectively demonstrating the relevance of ethics in other fields is a challenge, Na'aman thinks. But it’s an important task. “People think of ethics as something that is external to what they’re doing, whether it’s in tech or law or whatever. The main challenge for people like us,” he argued, “is to show practitioners and researchers that they’re already engaged in asking ethical questions.” Ethicists may consider systematic ways of thinking about them, but everyone deals with ethical dilemmas in their personal and professional lives whether they realize it or not.
Na'aman still isn’t done making sense of things, and Stanford isn’t done with him, either. He’ll remain on campus next year as a lecturer in philosophy, running a graduate seminar in philosophy and literature.