Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities Public Lecture Series

The Paradox of Western Values

"The Seven Virtues" by Anton Francesco dello Scheggia (Documented from 1465 - 1476)

There has been much talk in recent times about the need to promote or reinstate Western values. But what exactly are these values? Where do they come from, what do they represent, and what is the justification for seeking to reinstate them? In this lecture I identify three paradoxical aspects of the promotion of Western values. The first is that while values-talk of this kind evokes the idea of a long historical tradition going back to classical and early Christian cultures, the idea of ‘Western values’ is actually a relatively recent invention, coming into existence for the first time in the last century. A second paradox, related to this, is that the idea of ‘the West’ is also quite recent. For much of its history Western Europe looked beyond its borders and to a distant past in order to forge its own sense of identity. A third paradox concerns the fact that, when closely examined, commonly touted Western values—democracy, tolerance, liberalism, commitment to the rule of law, and so on—turn out not to be values at all, but rather strategies for managing diverse and often incompatible values, both moral and religious. These paradoxes not only highlight logical difficulties in arguments for the reinstatement of Western values, but also point to potential sources of instability in modern Western liberal democracies.

Peter Harrison is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. Before coming to UQ he held a named chair at the University of Oxford. He has also had visiting fellowships at Yale, Oxford, and Princeton. Much of his research focuses on the philosophical, scientific and religious thought of the early modern period, and he has a particular interest in historical and contemporary relations between science and religion. He is sole-author of more than 100 articles and book chapters, and his six books include, most recently, The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), based on his Gifford Lectures.

Please RSVP for this lecture here by 23 August.

6.00pm Wednesday 30 August 2017
The Terrace Room, Sir Llew Edwards Building (14) St Lucia Campus
For further information, please contact or 07 334 69492.

All welcome.


The Terrace Room, Sir Llew Edwards Building (14), St Lucia Campus