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Compassion. In memory of William Hewlett



William Hewlett, co-founder with David Packard of the technology giant Hewlett-Packard, has died, aged 87. A memorial service honoring him is being held today in Stanford Memorial Church. He was a beloved figure, and both he and David Packard were public spirited, leaving foundations to carry on their good work. It is dangerous to generalize, but compassion and public spiritedness seem to vary by professions. Here is one man's assessment.

At the top of the list are practicing physicians who care for the sick. Médicins sans Frontières is the embodiment of their compassion. So are many representatives of religious groups who perform or support similar work. Hewlett was an electrical engineer, and the net which binds humanity and incidentally WAIS together is dependent on the web. It is not without significance that Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, earned nothing from his invention and wanted it that way.

There are different kinds of engineers. At the bottom of the compassion list I place "rocket scientists", an expression which has come to mean a man of the highest intelligence and training, a commendation which is just as unjustified as the condemnation of computer experts as nerds. Werner von Braun is the embodiment of lack of compassion. He claimed he did not know his V2s were killing people, and after the war he was received by his American colleagues as a hero worthy of having a building named after him. Almost as lacking in compassion is the military-industrial air complex. World commentators say correctly that they are pushing the star warms program and the development of expensive war planes which are then sold to countries like Chile, which do not need them, suggesting that the US is supporting the armed forces of Latin America, whose reputation it will be hard to restore after the revelations of mass killings of civilians. This¡is the antithesis of compassion.

Business Schools offer courses in business ethics, which are partly an attempt to teach businessmen to stay out of trouble, but the training does not promote compassion, nor does that in law schools. There are of course compassionate individuals in those schools, Stanford law professor Tom Campbell being one of them. Nor does training in economics promote compassion, but the other social sciences do. Their being labeled "soft" as opposed to "hard" sciences is an unwitting commendation. Sociology is properly charged with providing a refuge for people with odd views, but it embodies essentially an attempt to study humanity and thereby to help it. The slogan of Auguste Comte, the father of sociology was "Order and progress, and above all else love [of humanity]." I have adopted that slogan as my own. Much maligned Schools of Education nurture the upbringing of children. "Suffer little children to come unto me..." What in principle could be more compassionate?

What about the so-called humanists? They are a disappointment. They study writers whose main concern is their emotions and their reaction to society. Many have been concerned with keeping up with the latest fad or -ism. Judge authors as humans, and few of them are practitioners of compassion, although they pose in their writing as being compassionate. Their moral standing has declined visibly. I actively dislike many modern authors, including Ernest Hemingway, who was a mess. Let me say no more about this lest I be accused of lacking in compassion.

How do you rank professions in terms of compassion? It is an important question in a new administration uses "compassionate conservatism" as a slogan. Compassionate conservative President George W. Bash was sworn in five minutes ago.

Ronald Hilton - 1/20/01


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