“I think a lot of people don’t have an ethical code they live by every day. A lot of people are apathetic. They don’t know the implications of their purchase decisions.”
I stare down at my Starbucks cup, immediately self-conscious and overly aware of the “Made in China” tags I’m sure can be found on every item of clothing I’m wearing. Even if I do know the implications of my purchase decisions, I don’t seem to be doing much about them.
Sam King has a slight frame and lively hand gestures. He is soft-spoken but well-spoken. He is from Eugene, Ore., well, really from the outskirts of Cottage Grove, but it’s Eugene that he identifies with more. He graduated from Stanford in 2012 and is finishing up a coterm in computer science. When I start off with small talk he is reserved and has little to say besides polite “mm-hmms,” but when I ask him more prying questions, he riffs on his values with gusto. He is offbeat, unexpected and notably conscientious.
Sam came into Stanford thinking he might be a political science major. He was inspired by Peter Singer’s teachings of utilitarianism in Rob Reich’s class, but CS 106A was where things really clicked. Describing his realization that he could use programming to make a difference in the world, he says, “It was the first time I was actually building something.” He got involved in Dance Marathon/Hackathon and founded Code the Change in the spring of 2011. Currently a CS 109 TA, he tells me, “There’s a big need for CS majors to discover the potential they have to effect social change.”
When I ask him to tell me something few people know about him, he pulls out his phone to review the email he wrote to me earlier. He nods, then puts the phone away and checks back into the conversation, thoughts organized. He is the type of person who won’t just start talking without his thoughts composed – the residue of many years of competing on his high school debate team. He tells me that for him, aesthetics are second to ethics. When I stare back perplexed, he explains, “It’s like everybody perceives the world through a lens, and I’m trying to be conscious of the lens I’m looking through.” He goes on to tell me that when he explains this to most people, he gets hostile reactions. “It’s like people think I’m not human.”
This astounds me. Sam comes across as quietly intense but altogether human. He holds himself to a stricter standard than most, that’s all. He is acutely self-aware. He doesn’t drink because he knows himself to have an addictive personality. As he puts it, “Inertia is a very powerful force on me.”
When I ask him to tell me a guilty habit, he replies that he believes in veganism but still eats eggs and dairy – a habit he feels he should divorce himself from. He is already a strict vegetarian, the kind that bans the gelatin in marshmallows and frosted Mini-Wheats as well as the more obvious things.
We chat briefly about his music taste – The Decemberists Pandora radio station and Ratatat – but he always returns to his code of ethics, clearly the part of himself he considers most important. Before we wrap up our discussion, I ask him to give me a concrete example of his mantra of “ethics before aesthetics.” He pauses to compose his thoughts and I see the high school kid preparing his argument for debate team. His answer: “I’ve never seen a sunset more beautiful than justice.”
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