James Martineau Memorial Lecture

  • 22 Jun 2022
  • 6:00 PM - 7:00 PM
  • Hobart

Sacred Values as a Social Technology

Presented by Professor Toby Handfield, Monash University

This public lecture can be attended at the venue (The Salon Hedberg, Hobart, Tasmania) or online (as a zoom webinar). You will need to register with Eventbrite. Below the zoom link for remote attendees.



The James Martineau Memorial Lecture is an annual public lecture hosted by the School of Humanities, University of Tasmania. It is funded by a bequest made to the University by Mr Samuel Lovell, a former Inspector of Schools in Tasmania, to promote the philosophies of Dr James Martineau. Martineau’s writings examine theological and philosophical questions - most centrally, questions of religious authority, the relationship between religion and morality, and the roles of reason and conscience in the religious life.
The Martineau bequest enables visiting scholars to conduct public lectures, bringing to the Tasmanian community the very latest research in the areas of moral philosophy and the philosophy of religion.
We are delighted that Professor Toby Handfield (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia) has accepted our invitation to deliver the 2022 Martineau Lecture.

"Some things are sacred." This attitude can be found among both the secular and the religious. A sacred value is an object, cause, or relationship, which cannot be compromised or negotiated. Examples include reverence for the national flag among patriots; the immorality of abortion for a religious conservative; a family’s honor and reputation in societies governed by an honor code; the preservation of an endangered species among conservationists; the abhorrence of genetically modified organisms by a segment of food consumers; individual rights and liberties among libertarians; the defence of basic human rights for a political activist. As these examples demonstrate, across an enormous range of ideological positions people hold widely differing values to be of special status. To compromise on these values is unthinkable, and merely being offered to make some sort of trade off on these issues is likely to generate anger and indignation. If a person faces a choice in which they must decide between two sacred values, it is experienced as a distinctive sort of dilemma: a tragedy, in which no matter what decision one makes, some remorse should be felt for the result.
Sacred value attitudes seem to be a feature of all known human societies, and emerging evidence from anthropology and psychology suggests that sacred value attitudes might serve distinctive functions, for individuals and societies. In this lecture, Toby Handfield will discuss the understanding of sacred values that we obtain from recent work in social sciences, and possible philosophical implications of these theories.

Toby Handfield is ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Philosophy at Monash University. He has published on the nature of probability in physics and natural laws; the role of resolve in rational decision making; and dilemmas relating to the timing of human extinction. In collaboration with colleagues in economics, psychology and computer science, he is currently working on two main projects: The first, "Governing the Epistemic Commons" investigates how to maximize the productivity of collective epistemic resources such as Wikipedia and Youtube, as well as scientific publishing and the mainstream media. The second, "The Evolution and Economics of Sacred Values" uses evolutionary perspectives on moral psychology to investigate how to incorporate sacred value attitudes in the policy tools of rational choice and decision theory.

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