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The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

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2.2 Incomparable values

Incommensurability means there is no common measurement on which to precisely compare two values. Incomparability means any comparative judgement about two values is impossible.

For example, you saw that the values of an heirloom and US$100 were incommensurable, yet they may not necessarily be incomparable. Even if there is no systematic way of measuring the values on the same scale, a person could still potentially assess which of the two was preferable. Similarly, US$100 is also incommensurable with, say, finding your dream job or learning the meaning of life, and yet the latter options may seem obviously better. To be truly incomparable, this must be impossible. There must be no way of determining which option is superior.

Is anything truly incomparable in this way? Plausibly. Imagine you are sharing out a birthday cake and must decide whether every child gets an equal slice, or a slice which is as large as they deserve based on their behaviour. Which is better? To answer you must compare the value of a distribution that delivers equality against one that delivers justice. Yet doing so may seem impossible. Both are noble goals and there may be no apparent strategy for measuring them to see which is more noble, even imprecisely.

The important question for this course is whether the values of human lives and heritage are merely incommensurable, like the heirloom and US$100, or incomparable like cake distributions governed by equality or by justice.

The incommensurability of heritage and lives would prevent us from making systematic judgements about the moral permissibility of certain trade-offs. However, unless they are also incomparable, it may still be possible to determine whether, say, sacrificing one person’s life is approximately proportionate or justifiable in order to preserve some particular heritage site.

The problem is, heritage and lives do appear incomparable to many people. The question ‘How many lives are worth sacrificing to save Notre-Dame Cathedral?’ may be one which you find impossible to answer. Indeed, you may not even know where to start. In addition, any concrete response (for example, Notre-Dame is worth approximately ten to twenty lives) risks sounding absurd.

Yet, such a question must be implicitly answered by the French state when they allocate their restoration budget. Therefore, discovering a solution to the problem of incomparable values is an imperative. Until we succeed, we risk committing significant moral wrongs through ignorance.

Activity 4 Incomparability of heritage and lives

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As with many questions addressed so far in the course, this one does not have a clear answer. There is still an ongoing debate amongst philosophers about the value of life and the ways it can or cannot be compared to other things. Yet, it is fundamental that we find an answer to this question in order to navigate the more practical decisions we face surrounding heritage conservation.