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Chair in Ethics Lecture Discusses Going beyond Punishment towards Forgiveness in Disaster Aftermaths

A healthy crowd gathered in the Great Hall of Champlain College for Trent University’s inaugural Chair in Ethics Lecture on November 3, 2010.

Chair in Ethics Lecture Discusses Going President Stephen Franklin welcomed everyone to celebrate the official introduction of Dr. Kathryn Norlock, the Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics, noting hers is the first privately Endowed Chair in Trent University’s history.

“The concept of privately endowed chairs has a long and rich tradition at universities around the world and has been a symbol of scholarly achievement for hundreds of years,” noted Dianne Lister, vice-president of External Relations and Advancement, who acknowledged the attendance of members of the extended families of Kenneth Drain along with his personal friend and Trent’s special guest for the evening, Mr. Ken Campbell.

Dr. Moira Howes, chair of the Philosophy Department introduced Professor Norlock, to speak about the difficulty of moving on after the human-caused tragedy of the BP oil spill in her lecture “Beyond Punishment: BP, Technological Disaster, and Moral Repair.

“Prof. Norlock’s research addresses some of the most difficult theoretical problems of philosophy,” said Professor Howes, “but also the most practical and urgent ethical problems currently confronting humanity.”

“It is a tremendous honour to be the first to occupy a position created in honour of Mr. Drain,” Prof. Norlock said, thanking the families of Kenneth Drain and commending them for choosing to honour their beloved family member in such a remarkable way.

Those in attendance listened intently to the well-ordered points put forth by Prof. Norlock, who spoke with compassion about the victims of the BP tragedy. Prof. Norlock argued that unlike victims of natural disasters, victims of technological disasters are less likely to pull together as a community and more likely to suffer long-term and chronic effects due to the deep mistrust that results from human-caused error.

Prof. Norlock pointed out that punishment and monetary compensation are appropriate responses to such disasters, as punishment has value in maintaining standards of justice and economic responses are necessitated by obvious ecological and human consequences. However, she suggested that punishment and compensation will never be equal to extensive harm caused by the disaster. Moral and ethical responses to human-caused evils require both political will and a systemic approach.

“In fact,” Prof. Norlock stated, “monetary compensation can exacerbate negative repercussions, not just in cases of fraud and abuse, but in that the search for compensation can lead to feelings of helplessness.” She illustrated through examples from stories of victims how the process of searching for paperwork to apply for financial assistance does not enhance fellowship in a community of sufferers, but mires individuals in work and frustration. “These disasters are not strictly economic events and should be treated as social processes,” said Prof. Norlock.

“Loss of trust is deeper than anger. It affects what you can do in the future. It causes social and political isolation. It affects not only how people behave but how they perceive and comprehend the very communities they are a part of. Victims suffering from natural disasters can pull together to recover. The loss of trust suffered in a community that is victim to a technological disaster is divisive and works against the recovery of a community.”

Themes of culpability, the prevention of disasters and evils brought about by those who could have acted differently were further explored in the question and answer period, mediated by journalist and award-winning author Alana Mitchell. Questions of forgiveness were raised concerning related issues such as global climate change and the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

“We can do wrong,” responded Prof. Norlock. “We can be complicit. We all drove here tonight,” she said. “The best we can do is to make responsibility incumbent upon agents with the power to act differently, and to take responsibility to prepare for the future more wisely.”

Prof. Norlock earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2001, with a minor in women’s studies. She is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Her main area of research is in the ethics of forgiveness, with additional focus in feminist studies and environmental philosophy.

The Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics was Trent University’s first endowed chair, established by members of the Patterson and Drain families attributing the life of Kenneth Mark Drain, described as “a quintessential son of Peterborough.” Having lived and worked in Peterborough County all his life, Kenneth Drain was an exemplary volunteer and lived a life of quiet deeds. Thirteen members of his extended family have benefited from a Trent University education. As an endowed fund, the Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics will exist at Trent in perpetuity, ensuring that the University is able to attract and retain the finest faculty for years to come.

Posted on Friday, November 5, 2010.

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