Meet Girton’s Honorary Thinker in Residence: Dr Dean Cocking, Philosopher and Author

in Senior School News

In the way of Philosophers, Professor Cocking has a unique and intriguing way of meandering through a conversation that has many directions and multiple possibilities, all the while honouring the focus of the conversations’ initial intent.

Below is a summary of such a conversation:

What is your working background? What are you main interests?

Dr Cocking gained his PhD from La Trobe University in 1996, worked as a post-doctoral fellow for 2 years (University of Auckland), then as a Senior Lecturer for Charles Sturt University, before working as Senior Research Fellow for a number of years at the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, ANU, Canberra. He also has diverse teaching experience in philosophy (mainly ethics) beyond lecturing and supervising students of philosophy at universities, such as teaching to students and professionals in the military, police, medical and legal professions.

His research work has focussed on friendship, ethical theory and various areas within professional and applied ethics, such as medical and legal ethics and ethics of information technology. He has published extensively on these topics and his research work is taught at many universities around the world.

Dr Cocking plans to continue his research work on friendship and professional and workplace ethics. His main focus, however, will be developing the themes of his forthcoming book Evil Online (Wiley-Blackwell). Evil Online provides the first comprehensive analysis of the explosion of evil in our new online worlds. In so doing the work develops a new theory of evil and some fresh approaches to understanding individual moral character and the pro-social life. These themes are broad and Dr Cocking intends to develop them through a website and podcast.

What will you do as Thinker in Residence at Girton?

Dr Cocking hopes to contribute to the academic life of the students and staff at Girton by spending time in classes and being generally available to students and by talking with staff and developing areas of mutual interest. He also aims to assist Girton in contributing to public discourse in the broader Bendigo region, such as through presentations that are open to the wider community.

Dr Cocking sees himself as a resource, inside and outside the classroom, for students to come to him whenever they like. He has already become known to some students and been approached a number of times for a quick ‘philosophical chat’. So his involvement at the school will be partly formal and partly unstructured.

His mandate is to encourage students to think broadly and deeply and so help students contribute to the broader community in a range of ways that are meaningful to themselves and others. Much of his role will be to gauge and contribute to the discourse amongst students and to help turn this into something that can be actioned.

His approach is to discuss and teach philosophy and ethics in ways that are clear, absent of jargon, and based in open-ended reflective critical discussion – not overly reliant upon simple prescriptions nor one’s own current attitudes and views. He is also concerned to discuss and teach ethical issues and challenges in ways that are relevant to people’s lives, and so avoid focussing on extreme or largely irrelevant cases and issues, or being too caught up in abstract points of moral theory – as has often been the case in the traditional teaching of professional ethics.

Why is the online world of interest to your ethics work?

Dr Cocking says that the online revolution has been a monumental social experiment without much foresight and little design or monitoring in regard maintaining our basic values. He points out how social life online is so unlike the social worlds we have learned to navigate over thousands of years. Communication online, he says, is characterised by such things as isolation from one another, weak and superficial connections, the demolition of public/private contrasts and self-obsession – he points out, for instance, that online we talk about ourselves twice as much as we do offline.

The online environment, he says, provides the perfect breeding ground to create forms of moral confusion, what he calls ‘moral fog’, about what we are up to. As a result, he says, thinking about life online has shed a lot of light on how ordinary, normal people can be easily and quickly led to make mistakes and do bad, even terrible, things – not only online, but offline such as in our working and personal lives. This area of research, he says, is very important to all of us – as individuals, parents and as organisations and communities – since most wrong and evildoing, he says, is done by otherwise ordinary, normal people and not people who are extremely malicious, sadistic, and anti-social, such as we often see in movies and television.