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The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

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1.5 Problems with the constitutive reading

While the constitutive reading of the inseparability thesis outlined in Sections 1.3 and 1.4 perhaps comes closest to achieving what its proponents intend, it still has some major drawbacks.

First, when faced with a choice between saving lives or heritage, it could be very challenging to determine which option would maximise human flourishing overall. We would need to predict the long-term consequences of our actions precisely, but this can be incredibly difficult, perhaps even impossible.

For example, would saving this temple preserve more flourishing than saving these biological lives? It is not obvious how to fill in the numbers for this calculation. Given the constitutive reading, there would be no deep conflict between the value of each option, since they would both be measured in terms of flourishing. Yet, in the absence of perfect knowledge about the future, we would still face a dilemma when presented with any particular conflict between the protection of heritage and the protection of humans. In addition, people who choose to protect heritage at the expense of humans would still be vulnerable to the criticism that they had got things wrong – that, in this case, they were overly concerned with the heritage and overestimated its value.

Ultimately, the constitutive reading is unhelpful when applied to specific cases. It may be generally true that heritage is valuable for promoting human flourishing. But that alone does not tell us whether it is worth trading these particular lives for this particular piece of heritage. When the Temple of Baalshamin in Syria was destroyed by ISIS, a potential source of enrichment and flourishing was taken from the world (Figure 4). But how many people’s lives are actually flourishing less well as a result, and by how much? It is incredibly difficult to calculate.

The Temple of Baalshamin in Syria before it was destroyed. The temple pictured here shows the dominant columns stretching from the ground upwards, and the main central structure.
Figure 4 The Temple of Baalshamin

Second, while the constitutive reading highlights that biological lives and heritage are both connected to the value of human flourishing, it does not entail that the destruction of heritage and the killing of people are entirely equivalent.

To explain: when a cultural heritage site is destroyed, something is removed from the world which could have continued to contribute to human flourishing. It may also reduce the total amount of flourishing going on if people cannot find anything to replace it.

Yet, when a human is killed, two things happen. First, the overall amount of flourishing in the world will go down because that life, which probably would have contained more flourishing in the future, has been cut short. Second, it deprives that specific person of the opportunity to continue flourishing and it also deprives them of their life. Thus, it appears as though the harm of a person’s death is different from the harm of heritage destruction, and in quite significant ways.

The constitutive reading under discussion here is true only if the values of both cultural heritage and human lives are entirely identical. Hence, human life warrants our moral concern only as a sort of container for flourishing, since supporting flourishing is also our primary reason for valuing cultural heritage.

Yet, this seems false. A person for whom flourishing is impossible might still have a right to life or a valuable life, for example. Similarly, we would find it unjustifiable to kill one person merely because that could double the flourishing in someone else’s life. This means that human lives very plausibly possess a kind of independent value or moral significance, which is distinct from their value as mere containers for flourishing.

Thus, the projects of defending heritage and defending lives would have at least partly distinct goals and so could come into genuine competition. Some of the value or benefit of saving lives would be separable from the benefits of saving heritage. Therefore, the constitutive reading of the inseparability thesis is incorrect.

It is true that heritage can promote flourishing in human lives. However, it is still unclear, in any specific case, whether we are morally permitted to sacrifice these lives and their flourishing in order to protect a particular piece of heritage and thereby promote more flourishing for other people in the future. Again, uncertainty about the amount of flourishing which the heritage would produce, and the presence of independent value or moral significance attached to the human lives, mean we would face a genuine dilemma here.

Activity 2 Flourishing human lives

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