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Institute of Advanced Study

Revenge, Forgiveness, Stupidity, Compassion: what is it to be human in the 21st Century?

(20 October 2008)

In an age of growing technological intervention in our lives and in our health, with a growing demand to respect the rights of nature and animals, and in a rapidly changing, increasingly uncertain world, Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study believes that it is time to explore the very essence of what it means to be human in the 21st Century. In a series of public lectures taking place in Durham over the next three months, internationally renowned scholars staying at the Institute will address many different aspects of the Institute’s ‘Being Human’ research theme.

Professor Sonia Kruks, from the Oberlin College in Ohio, will address such questions as whether or not the desire for revenge is a “natural” emotion, why we seek revenge even when we are not the injured party, what might be the relationship between revenge and justice, and whether or not revenge is morally justifiable. Professor Christa Davis Acampora (Hunter College, New York) will explore the boundaries between friends and enemies and the processes of dehumanisation that occur in the construction of the enemy, particularly in the context of current definitions of terrorism and the identification of distinct entities in foreign politics. And Durham scholar, Professor Christopher Brooks, will examine the relationship between ‘Being Human’ and ‘Human Rights’ and in particular how, even in countries such as the UK, human rights are consistently compromised in practice by political necessity.

Other topics include:
• An analysis of why stupidity appears to have become a habitual mode of appeal and response in American politics. Observers around the world stared in disbelief as George Bush was re-elected. When John McCain revived his campaign by selecting the inexperienced Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate, and as the two of them rolled out a campaign based on vicious anti-intellectualism, eye-popping hypocrisy, and an ideology dangerously removed from reality, liberals were torn between despair and recommending that their own candidate “dumb down” his appeal. Political stupidity is distinguished from simple ignorance and will be analysed as a characteristic vice of modernity. The antidote, it will be argued, is not an infusion of expertise, but compassion.
• An examination of the need to ‘rehumanise’ medicine and the medical profession. Despite the great technological advances in healthcare and in healthcare provision that have made it possible to cure more diseases and alleviate more suffering than ever before, there is significant dissatisfaction and burnout within the medical profession and a degree of public dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine and with doctors.
• A discussion of how, in the 1860s, under the new tsar Alexander II, there was an outpouring of hope for change in Russia. Liberal reformers and the first generation of revolutionaries alike looked to science for enlightened ways to build ‘the New Man’, a human being free from ignorance and prejudice. There was a highly charged debate about establishing psychology as a science and about human free will and the soul – with more than a few parallels to our modern debate about neuroscience, human nature and religious belief.

This fascinating series of public lectures is intended to stimulate discussion and enable members of the public to engage with the fundamental subject of what it means to be human. All lectures are free and open to all.

27 October 2008, 5.30-6.30pm
St Mary's College (Kenworthy Hall)
Professor Jill Gordon
Being Human in Medicine

4 November 2008, 5.30-6.30pm
Pemberton Building, Palace Green (room 21)
Professor Sonia Kruks
"Eye for an Eye": why do we humans seek revenge, and should we?

11 November 2008, 5.30-6.30pm
Grey College (Pennington Room)
Professor Christa Davis Acampora
Agonistic Politics: reflections on a 'War on Terror'

18 November 2008, 5.15-6.15pm
Hatfield College (The Birley Room)
Dr Roger Smith
Being Human in Russia: free will and psychology under the Tsars

25 November 2008, 8.00-9.00pm
Durham Castle (Senate Lounge)
Professor Robert Hariman
Two Elements of Being Human: Stupidity and Compassion

1 December 2008, 5.30-6.30pm
Pemberton Building, Palace Green (room 21)
Professor Christopher Brooks
Being Human, Human Rights and Modernity

For more information contact the Institute of Advanced Study on 0191 334 4686 or email: enquiries.ias@durham.ac.uk