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The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

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End-of-course summary

Congratulations! You have now reached the end of the course. We hope you have enjoyed it.

Throughout this course, you have explored many ethical issues surrounding the conservation of heritage, in both peacetime and wartime. You have examined several case studies, including the restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral, the bombing of Monte Cassino Abbey, and the destruction of Palmyra. You have also assessed many of the arguments given for and against protecting heritage in such circumstances.

The core dilemma we face is that, sometimes, protecting heritage means neglecting the needs of human beings, or vice versa, and we currently have no principled way of solving this problem.

In Week 3 you learned about some of the philosophical challenges any solution would have to overcome, including the problems of incommensurability, incomparability and aggregation. You have also explored the context and motivation behind assertions of the ‘inseparability thesis’. That is, the attempt to deny the existence of the core dilemma by claiming that heritage protection and the defence of humans are somehow ‘inseparable’.

After examining various readings of this thesis, you have seen that there is no workable interpretation. It is true that heritage defence sometimes has positive force-multiplier effects for humans, and can enhance their ‘flourishing’. However, it is overly simplistic to assume that heritage and lives do not have any independent value and can never be in competition.

We are left in a difficult position: we want to protect both heritage and human lives but, sometimes, we cannot do both. How should we proceed? Any extreme principle seems unappealing: for example,. always sacrificing lives to protect heritage; or never sacrificing any human interests to protect heritage. The first option appears to undervalue human lives, while the second would effectively abandon our world’s heritage to crumble and disappear entirely.

Yet, maintaining the status quo is also problematic. Today, the decisions of states and militaries are largely governed by factors such as political pressure, customary international humanitarian law, and traditional spending habits. It is unclear whether these forces will always produce the ethically correct decisions. This is a problem, especially given that mistakes here could result in abhorrent and ethically unjustified losses of human life.

What we need is a principled way of resolving the dilemma of ‘stones versus lives’. This will involve thinking through what should be done when things we deeply value conflict with each other, even if doing so is not always comfortable. Until we succeed, we will be perpetually at risk of committing serious moral wrongs.