Doing Good – Doing Evil

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The annual Dan and Gwen Taylor Lecture hosted by the Department of Philosophy was given by Philip Pettit on the theme Doing Good and Doing Evil.  I arrived early and wondered if I was in the wrong lecture theatre as the room filled up with an audience mostly made of young men.  A way different audience to other lectures I have attended.  I did not realise.

An asymetry exists between doing good and doing evil.  Doing robust good is demanding.  It is costly to give love, honesty, respect, intentional good (altruism? an anti-libertarianism?).  Due care has to be given to all possible worlds, whether being Earnest or knowing Jack.  All possible worlds cover the possibilities by which situations for doing good might by influenced to the point that they become unrecognisable : physical, mental, moral, spiritual, criminal.

Rich evil imposes cost of harm on others across a range of possibility.  The agent becomes the fallen hero: Milton’s Satan; Shakespeare’s Iago; Himmler.  Is the agent of rich evil a Nietzchean figure?  The energy outlay is considerable.  Most evil is a thin self-interested evil.

The just person is a person who takes all the care a person can do that every action may be just; an unjust person neglects action due to an apparent benefit to themself, the failure to do virtue, to do rich good.

Intent is knowledge, an end-goal.  The action to do good is intential and rich; the  action to do harm happens out of non-intentional action, a thin evil.  When we break a rule we fail to conform to the rules.  (This is potentially good as well as evil.)

I wonder what this model of doing good – doing evil makes of story-telling of popular media where we have seen such anti-heroes as a ‘good’ serial killer and a chemist teacher who makes drugs.

Future of Arctic and Antarctic Sea Ice

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Professor Cecelia Bitz, University of Washington

This was a lecture by visiting Professor Cecelia Bitz.  I saw it listed in the open lectures on Thursday’s newspaper which was fortuitous as the lecture was on that evening, and gave me the first open lecture report of 2014.  Cecelia Bitz had been part of the University of Otago’s team to Scott Base in Antarctica.  For the first lecture of the year, just before the beginning of the university year, this was well attended by several hundred people.  I suspect a lot of the relevant sciences and students made sure to hear her, as well as interested members of the public.

Sea ice is different from icebergs.  Icebergs calve off from glaciers as huge masses of thick ice.  Sea ice is frozen sea water.  It loses its salt content over time.  In the Arctic sea ice is about one to three metres in depth.  Historically it has been thinner in Antarctic seas, between one to two metres in depth, a person’s height.

The Arctic is warming faster than the global mean, mostly during the polar night.  The Antarctic is warming less quickly than the Arctic.  It is warming fastest in the Antarctic peninsula.  In 2009 the first two cargo ships crossed the Arctic Sea, north of Russia, between Europe and Asia.  They  were accompanied by ice-breakers.  It is possible that the Arctic Sea could become ice-free in the future and cargo ships would be free to supply the North-West Passage.  The Arctic Sea could be ice-free in September within a lifetime, by mid-century.

This threatens the survival of top predators in the Arctic Sea, the Polar Bear and the Ringed Seal.  Both in different ways depend on sea ice to survive and flourish.  It is possible that human intervention in stalling climate change could allow the polar ice-cap to re-grow in scale.  It has not reached a tipping point yet.  This might not save the top predator species.

The Antarctic is less certain.  It is a different model.  Scientists need to catch up with its different circumstances.  The Arctic Ocean is nearly completely contained, except where it is fed by warmer water from the Atlantic Ocean, from the Gulf Stream.  Cold fresh water flowing into the Arctic Ocean from Eurasian and North American rivers form a layer on top of warm Atlantic Sea water.  The cold water cycles back into the Atlantic Ocean.  The largest ice-capped land-mass in the Arctic Ocean, Greenland is already subject to ice-melt.

Antarctica is a larger land-mass than Greenland.  Its ice-cap will decrease at a slower rate.  It may be more than a century away.  Increasing fresh water in the surrounding oceans will affect it.  Reduction of emissions will slow the rate of loss.  As always to do this there needs to be the will to act.

The Common Good: A Question of Style by Will Storrar

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Will Storrar is an occasional visitor to the Centre for Theology and Public Studies.  This is the first of his lectures that I can attend.  (Only two out of three as I will be away from Dunedin for the second half of the week on the back of a motorbike.)  He is not the normal person to which one would listen about style, a roly-poly Scottish academic in a rumpled suit.

And yet enter John the Common Weal leading the poor into the parliament of the three estates.  The king of humanity asks him,

Why is the Common Weal crooked?

Because the Common Weal is overlooked,

Around the world.

The Common Good is on a bender, not in virtue, but to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, welcome the alien, and advocate for the prisoner.  The Common Good is thinking about the banking industry that is more interested in profits than the interests of their customers, and he ain’t thinkin’ nicely about them.

Don’t think about what [New Zealand] can do for you, think about what you can do for [New Zealand].

The Common Good is no longer a single ideal, it is a pluralist and conflicting ensemble of contributors in the public domain.  The mainstream sects, once its custodians, are now in decline and too polite to be heard, or are they the saints and citizens of an ecumenical future, where ecumenical is broad enough to include interfaith and humanist traditions.

John Knox was a bad man

He split the Scottish mind

One half he made cruel

The other half he made unkind

Protestant Style:  It’s not getting there that matters, it’s not the journey that matters; what matter are the arguments we have to get to the point where we are going next.  All goals can be contested by debate for the public good in a pluralist society.  There is a road map.   We can be anti-relativists, prophetic scrutineers.  Everyone is included, let’s turn around declining civic participation.  Be more liberal.

  • We live in ordinary time with the finite, the mundane and the quotidian.  (In New Zealand Pentecost season covers the wintry time of the year.)  Where will god be tomorrow? or we?
  • We live in open space, with mutual consent and equality of power.
  • We live with language, rhetoric, and public opinion — because style matters.

Living in a Warmer World with Jim Salinger, Auckland Climate Scientist

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Jim Salinger, not only talks about Auckland’s Climate Science.  He talks about the rest of New Zealand’s Climate Science, including Dunedin, where I heard him tonight at the College of Education Auditorium.  The rest of the world got mentioned as well.

Climate change means the westerly winds will increase in New Zealand.

Terroir is going to change.  Warmer temperature ranges will make wines from Bordeaux and Champagne more acidic.  New South Wales, West Australia, southern Spain, Italy and Greece are going to drop out of the wine-growing zone.  England and South Ireland will enter it.  Perhaps I could taste my first Southlander Red.

As groundwater is drained from the Canterbury aquifer it will be replaced.  Unfortunately the immediate supply is the Pacific Ocean.  The soil of the Canterbury Plains risks becoming more saline.

In dryer areas our livestock may have to be changed from Bos Taurus to Bos Indicus which is more tolerant to heat.  This will have be bred as a meat animal.  There will be a risk of new livestock diseases.  Reducing methane and nitrate emissions *burp* *belch*  (not *fart*) will have to be looked into.

Cold water fish species are already moving into polar and deeper waters.  Fishing will follow them there.  Other fish species will move to take advantage of the warmer waters.

It’s up to us now.  The difference is an increase of 2 degrees of temperature to 4 degrees of temperature in the next hundred years, accompanied up seas rising by 10 metres.  A sensible capitalism means everything we make is intended to be re-used.

“What you do may be insignificant.  It is significant that you do it.” — Gandhi.

Evolution of the Body Snatchers: Robert Poulin

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Well that seemed like an interesting title for a lecture.  It would provide an evening’s diversion.  I went along.  I think the Department of Zoology turned up in droves.  Different selection of people to those of the Humanities lectures I usually attend.  I wonder if anyone has done a taxonomy of the departments of the University and its residents.  The lecture was a function to present Pr Robert Poulin was a medal for distinguished research.  The general public was welcome.  I was welcome.

Pr Robert Poulin is a French Canadian who has lived in New Zealand for a long time.  His accent is clear and interesting.  Very early on he moved from studying fish to studying parasites on the fish.  They interested him more.  I remember when the Irish comedian Dave Allen interviewed a member who studied fleas.  It made him scratchy.  I noticed the same affect.

Parasites are the uninvited guests at the table.  Despite numbering about half the known species on earth they have been dismissed in the past as a subject for study.  I think this is changing.  Even I have heard of toxoplasma.  Pr Poulin is a leader in the field, or possibly he has managed to infest himself in a number of his colleagues.

Marine parasites are interesting.  They colonise an animal like a snail and convert it into a parasite-cloning factory.  Some of them in the colony act as breeders, others as soldiers to protect the colony from rival parasites.  When they are ready they may migrate to another host that is more likely to be eaten by an ecology’s top predators where their eggs will pass from for another generation.  In an ecology the parasites may number the same biomass equalled only by the top predators.  They are very successful.

Knowing now how successful parasites are for making hosts to be prey for their final hosts I’m now wondering about the food in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  Eat me!  Drink me!  Any food that advertises itself like that is potentially suspect and parasitic!

The connections that parasites make in an environment’s food-web make it more complex than previously expected.  Up to one quarter to three quarters of the links in an environment’s food-web involve parasites.  They increase the biomass and diversity of an environment and play an important role in stabilizing food-webs.  They provide the connection.  I would have liked if this was explored further and explained with examples as I am unfamiliar with how this happens.

Humans are making an impact on parasites in the environment.  Both climate change increasing the temperature of the environment, even by a small degree, and the concentration of herbicides are increasing parasitic populations.  This is a problem for host species and could lead to the death of species in many environments.

If you have read this far, are you feeling scratchy too?

Parasite Factory!

The Discursive Construction of Social Processes, or, How Stories Make Our World

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I had forgotten the awful doom of the end of the university year with the inevitable result that there is less to attend.  Time becomes a wasteland.  My time is free now and that is unfortunate when I’m looking for things to spin the mind.

Fortunately Peace and Conflict Studies had an Inaugural Lecture as Pr. Richard Wells Jackson took up his Professorial post.  The second professor  of this Centre, I believe, with Kevin Clements.  The Counter Terrorism Unit from Critical Terrorist Studies in the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies let me in.  They looked very impressive in black costume.  The agents present on the doors for the X-Files Capping Show were more shouty, some years ago.  Just saying.  Everyone was let in.  They didn’t even confiscate the coconut thins that were given to the person sitting next to me.  There was a good attendance of University and Peace Studies worthies.

Professor Jackson’s personal narrative is interesting.  He was born in Africa to Salvation Army missionaries and educated in New Zealand, before teaching at Manchester and Aberystwyth.  In his education he dropped Economics in favour of Political Studies because Political Studies was more interesting.  Since then he has moved into Peace Studies, a pacifist in wolf’s clothing.

He talked about how our narratives make up our perception of our lives and world events.  Our origin stories give our nations a founding narrative.  They tell us who is included with us in nationhood, and who is excluded, both internally and externally from our national narrative.  Our scientific stories tell us about the studies of the world, what is observed, how we react as a society.

We live with the story in our fiction and media, that there is a ticking bomb in our public places.  Only the terrorists know where it is.  We don’t have time for them to tell us without coercion.  The hero in our stories of good and evil must resort to redemptive violence to extract the information from the perpetrators.  So we endorse torture and dehumanising practices.  Because we live in fear of the ‘unknown unknowns’, the threat that is always invisible to us until it is revealed.  The price of our security is paid by someone else being, and remaining, our victims.  We never ask why the terrorist acts in that way.  Our hero is always the Man of Action, not the traducer or the interpreter.

Our story leads us to torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib

The story exists.  The story changes and evolves.  We can change our stories, we can change the narratives that we tell ourselves.


Tensions in the Korean Peninsula

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An open lecture from the Centre for Theology and Public Issues.  I suspect that this was for the occasion that a visiting Korean Churchman was in Dunedin on study leave, Kyo Seong Ahn from the Presbyterian Seminary.  He sat on a forum with speakers from Political Science and Peace Studies.

We don’t know what is going on in North Korea.  There is a crisis of leadership taking place as the young prince assumes the crown.  To prove his legitimacy the palace is talking in language of posturing manliness and fiery rhetoric.  While all the advantages lie in the other Six Party States as long has everyone pays attention to North Korea’s posturing it has respect.

Even its closest ally, China, is getting frustrated trying to work out where North Korea will jump to next.  China wants stability in its neighbourhood on the Korean Peninsula, not a punch-drunk hermit kingdom.  North Korea is the Rogue State, the last member of the Axis of Evil.  China’s patience is eternal.  While North Korea is dependent on China’s aid to survive China is not treated without suspicion in North Korea.  Their ally is a rather pushy giant.  Dwarves don’t get to complain when the giant rolls over.

The Six Parties: North and South Korea, China, America, Japan, and Russia, are in stalemate.  All of them will come to talks with their own agenda.  Who will blink first?  Will North Korea back down on its nuclear programme, or will America come to the Six Party Talks.

There are still people on the ground, a country of 24 million people, who have no choice but to follow their leaders.  Of course we now live in an age when people can communicate faster than ever, even in night-bound North Korea.  It may prove that the leaders will have to move fast to catch up with their people.

Enough! Challenges to a Post-Growth Economy

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An enthusiastic audience came out to hear former Green Party Co-Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons present the Quaker Lecture, a lecture to the Annual Meeting of Quakers which is being hosted by local Quaker groups around the country.  Jeanette Fitzsimons was born in Dunedin, and even once appeared on the cover of the Outlook, the old Presbyterian magazine.

Her lecture was available as a booklet for $5.  I decided that making notes and reporting them here would fit into the spirit of the lecture.  No doubt a copy can be obtained through the Quaker Website.

Continued growth is not sustainable.  The earth is full.  Wednesday 21 August marked World Overshoot Day for 2013.  That means  we have used up the resources that the world supplies for 2013.  Any further resources we use we borrow from the future.  And I haven’t started on my Christmas shopping yet!

The Club of Rome predicted that an end to growth leading to a collapse of society back in 1971.  We have delayed it, but the prediction is on track.  How do we manage a post-growth economy?  How do we manage ourselves living in Ecotopia?  How do we create a sustainable well-being when growth has not made us happier people?

Sustainable growth is not possible based on interest-bearing debt.  Economic culture is having to change its language.

The richest economy cannot provide decent healthcare for all its citizens.  Let’s not go down that path.

  • Less stuff and more time.
  • Less work but shared equally.
  • Less travel and strengthen local communities.

As an aside Fitzsimons noted she had needed to buy a new charger for her laptop.  A packaged charger cost her $160; an unpackaged charger cost her $90.  We are paying $70 difference for a box and plastic wrapping we are going to throw away!

Working hours would have to reduce and be separated from income.

If there is no growth debt is stealing from future generations.

Banks must be restricted to loaning only what is deposited.  Currently mortgages are funded out of imaginary currency.

Our cultural values and sense of identity hold back a sustainable economy: I shop therefore I am.  Emotions guide our logic.  Once you have food, shelter, means of transport and secured education for the next generation what more do you need?  Margaret Thatcher worked out that once you change the heart and soul of the nation then economic change will follow.  It’s time to back off her vision of the future.

How do society’s values change?

  • Take back advertising money.  I understand it’s not taxed.
  • Change the conversation to talk about quality of life: let’s talk about the arts, sports, our low crime rate, public health, the environment.  A lot of these things we do well.

Economists are starting to get it.  A generation are waking up to a power shift.  We are the 99% and the 1% control half our nation’s wealth.  It’s time to put a check on corporate greed and corruption.  The answers are not in technology, the answers are in our minds and in our thinking.


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A talk by Dr Christoph Bartneck of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITLABNZ) in Christchurch, held at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.  It was well attended by people interested in technology, their kids, and a toy robot supplied by Dr Bartneck.

The robot was fascinating to the children.  It was programmed to understand Japanese and could converse.  I don’t think that conversation has reached a Turing Test stage.  It would be interesting to see.  Dr Bartneck admitted that conversation would be a goal that he would like to see.  The robot had the advantage over the kids that its talk function could be dialled down.

So where are robots at?  They still have to get the understanding of social space.  When is standing next to you too close and socially alarming.  Robots still have to be programmed for that receptivity.  Advances in tactile senses also have to be made.

Anthropomorphism: the idea of perfectly human robots disturb us.  It crosses over into uncanny territory, like the unnatural behaviour of mannequins.  We cannot not communicate and need the signals that assure us of humanity.

We like our robots to be toy-like.  They are unthreatening.  Perhaps we would be less disturbed by toy robot in the room than accidently leaving Skype running (and watching us).

The last image was of toy robots with glowing pink eyes performing the haka.  Keep practicing, guys!

A Post-Christendom Theology of Democracy by Jonathan Chaplin

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In the contest between principles of modern democracy and doctrines of faith, democracy and the rule of secular law must always win.

Janet Daley, 2008

Why should it matter?  Secularists have a fear of theocracy — religion with authority over the will of the people.  At the same time democracy is under attack by the challenge of global markets and transnational institutions.  Active political participation is in decline.  We fear debate.  Popularist common sense will not tolerate dissention.

The motivation of religious faith has produced malevolent groups: the Lord’s Resistance Army, and communalist chauvinism in Hinduism and Islam.  It has also produced people like Malala Yousufzai.  Q. What is the most terrifying thing to a fundamentalist?  A. A girl with a book!

What is Democracy?  Chaplin defines it as a popular election of political rulers, protective of liberty and rights, situated in and limited by robust constitutional order.  It can also violate justice.  The Irish Famine happened after the liberalisation of Britain by the People’s Charter.  As did the expansion of the British Empire under democratic leadership and the suppression  of the first nations of North America, Australia and New Zealand.  In South America it happened under Spanish democrats.

In Christian thinking, and other theistic worldviews, political authority cames from god.  Should there be an active role for the people?  People form human communities.  From the people, after Him.  The divine right of the people was formulated before the divine right of kings.  Justice should come above rulers and people.

Any government that negates these fundamental principles forfeits its god-given right to rule

Declaration of the Church Leaders of Zimbabwe

According to Reinhold Niebuhr we have a capacity for justice and an inclination to injustice.

A natural consequence of human dignity is unquestionably their right to take an active part in government

Pacem in Terris

All human beings have an equal potential to pursue justice.  The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers means we are equal in the eyes of god, equal to understand the word of god, and equal to participate and advance the commonwealth of god.  Popular will is subjected to a higher authority, a wider framework of principles.

God has a preferential option for constitutional democracy.  A participatory representation, constitutional democracy in which popular consent is an essential ingredient; in which both government and people are held accountable to transcendent norms of justice and common good, the co-responsibility of citizens and government.

Three principles:

  • justice, not just us: a Post-Christendom Theology of Democracy includes peoples of all faiths and peoples of no faith.
  • learn to speak Christian in public, without embarrassment or constraint.
  • parity, not privilege: don’t Christianise the constitution.  Work from the bottom up, not top down.

When questioned on a definition of Christendom, Chaplin described it as a state of privilege for the Church, recognised by the government.

Four years ago, I heard a Muslim address the Peace Lecture of the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group.  He spoke about translating Non-violence into Arabic as a positive value and used the phrase, Jihad al-Madina, which I would understand in Christian terms as ‘Civic Discipleship’.  I think with a Post-Christendom Theology of Democracy we are a step closer with creating an identity for Civic Discipleship.

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