Student profile / Ryan Shannon: A life philosophy

Ryan Shannon (photo by Jim MacKenzie)

Ryan Shannon, philosophy and politics senior at College Eight, ponders questions most 22-year-olds don't:

Should medical professionals be actively involved in torture?

Is it wrong for a woman to auction her virginity in order to pay off a debt that was fraudulently incurred in her name?

Part of the reason Shannon thinks about thorny issues like these is that he was a member of UC Santa Cruz's Ethics Bowl team, which faced those exact dilemmas on its path to a first-place regional finish and a ninth-place spot in the national Ethics Bowl championship--losing their round against the eventual winners.

But the other part is that the Chicago native is simply passionate about philosophy and believes a philosopher's viewpoint is not only important for his own life, but for the world.

"The main purpose of philosophy is to drive you to think and to examine life," said Shannon. It promotes curiosity and keeps a sense of wonder alive, he said.

The son of a physician and a school nurse/educator, Shannon was swept into the world of philosophy while attending a Jesuit high school. He spent the next years reading, studying, and savoring the philosophical questions that, he said, both inspire and puzzle him.

Shannon came to UCSC because of its reputation as progressive university and its emphasis on environmental concerns. But once here, he said, he quickly discovered a vibrant community in the school's philosophy department.

He cited professors David Hoy and Daniel Guevara, and Ethics Bowl coach Kyle Robertson, as inspirations. "The UCSC community pushes you to ethical thought," he said.

He became involved in the Ethics Bowl team his senior year, bringing a thoughtfulness, work ethic, and the ability to look at an issue from all angles to the group, said Robertson, a graduate student who was a big-firm litigator before he came to UCSC.

But Shannon's love of philosophy isn't reserved only for competition. He uses it in his own life, too.

"From an ethical point of view, if you don't step back and reflectively look at what you are doing in life, you may act unethically and hurt your own purpose," Shannon said.

So, for instance, when he worked as a campaign field organizer for Barack Obama and found himself focusing on poll numbers and donation amounts while demanding volunteers work harder, he realized his mistake. A philosopher would see the faithful volunteers not just as the means to an end, he said, but the end themselves.

Shannon even takes a philosophical approach to the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, citing Aristotle's admonition to lead a healthy, well-rounded life as a reason for practicing the martial art.

While Shannon's most immediate plan was a seven-day backpacking trip through the Mojave Desert, he said he is headed for law school and a career in environmental policy, which he believes is crucial for the survival of people and the planet.

He also suggested a new government post: "How about a national philosopher laureate?" he said.