The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

The ethics of cultural heritage

1 Introduction to the basic dilemma in war

  • What would you do if you had the power to decide whether Notre-Dame will be destroyed or whether numerous lives are put at risk?
  • What would you do if you had to choose between saving the lives of a group of civilians or protecting a museum full of priceless paintings and artefacts?

These questions might seem far-fetched but these situations do arise in the context of armed conflict. Military commanders need to make difficult decisions, weighing up the costs associated with various plans of action to determine the best way forward. Typically, these costs take the form of increased risks or harm to civilians or soldiers. However, sometimes commanders are also expected to consider the value of cultural heritage in their strategic decision-making.

Activity 1 Military dilemmas involving heritage

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Watch the following video and think about how you would respond as a commanding officer in each of the given examples.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
Skip transcript: Video 1 Example military dilemmas involving heritage

Transcript: Video 1 Example military dilemmas involving heritage

Military commanders face difficult choices. They must work out the best plan of action by weighing the costs and rewards of various alternatives. Typically, these factors involve military objectives and risks to civilians or soldiers. But sometimes, the value of cultural heritage also plays a role.
Imagine you have been deployed to help protect civilians against extremist insurgents. Your task is to defend a major religious site, as well as its staff and worshippers. The local population are adamant that the site should remain open. However, closing it would make it easier to defend and reduce the danger to civilians and your own soldiers. What would you do?
Now, imagine you were deciding where to position a temporary military base. Your logistics branch informs you of two possible sites. One is an open area, the other, near some ancient ruins. The second option would give you a better defensive position. Yet if the site was attacked, the archaeological remains could be damaged. Where do you build your base?
Finally, imagine a sniper is firing upon your unit from the tower of a temple. You could eliminate the sniper by shelling the tower. However, this would seriously damage the building and increase unrest amongst the local population. Alternatively, you could attempt to move onwards without returning fire, but this would put your unit in harm's way. What is the best strategy?
In each of these cases, military objectives must be weighed against the value of cultural heritage and the consequences of its destruction. There are no easy solutions.
End transcript: Video 1 Example military dilemmas involving heritage
Video 1 Example military dilemmas involving heritage
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


These examples are fictional but realistic. In each one the commanding officer has to decide between courses of action. Some of these involve greater risks of harm to cultural heritage; others involve greater risks of harm to civilians or military personnel. Selecting one option instead of another appears to demand that the commanders compare and weigh up the value of heritage against the value of human life.

Given this, identifying the best choice is not easy. As you saw in Week 1, these kinds of decision can be philosophically challenging, even outside the context of an ongoing battle. And yet, soldiers and officers are faced with such decisions, and must often choose with imperfect knowledge of their circumstances. The destruction of the Monte Cassino Abbey during the Second World War is a real-life case which exemplifies this problem.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371