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

4.1 The humanitarian position

One perspective is that any option which raises the chances of harm to humans is ‘unfeasible’. Given this, the Hague Convention would essentially be commanding: ‘do everything you can to protect cultural heritage unless this is likely to put human beings in danger, in which case you may use/attack the heritage in whatever way is necessary (assuming the other conditions for such an act are met)’. In practice, since many opportunities for preserving heritage in war are likely to add at least some additional risk to soldiers or civilians, the protection of heritage under this interpretation of the Convention would be quite limited.

For instance, this position would likely recommend destroying Monte Cassino Abbey provided doing so was expected to end the battle earlier with fewer casualties (Figure 10).

This is a black-and-white aerial photograph taken in nineteen forty-four. It shows the ruins of Monte Cassino Abbey from above. The building complex is set into the peak of a hill, which looks entirely bare due to the bombing. The buildings lie in almost complete ruins. No roofs remain; only scattered sections of walls stand above the rubble.
Figure 10 The Battle of Cassino, January–May 1944

This position runs parallel to the humanitarian position outlined in Week 1, Section 2 (also known as ‘stones versus lives’). This states it is not permissible to spend money on heritage projects such as repairing Notre-Dame when it could be spent on humanitarian charities. Similarly, the humanitarian position here holds that, when choosing between allowing damage to heritage or harm to human beings, we can never permissibly pick the second. Our priority should be to help as many humans as possible. Only then may we consider how to minimise damage to heritage.

Activity 5 Humanitarian or heritage?

Do you agree or disagree with the humanitarian position?

Active content not displayed. This content requires JavaScript to be enabled.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


This poll is similar to one from Week 1: ‘Do you think it is morally impermissible for states to spend money on heritage like Notre-Dame instead of humanitarian causes?’ (Activity 6 in Section 2.5).

In both cases, we are considering whether or not we should always prioritise human lives over saving heritage. Last week’s example was about how to spend money, whereas this example is about military decision-making. Did you give similar answers in each poll? If you gave different answers, you may have simply changed your mind, or you might have different beliefs about the different contexts. Either way, think about what might be affecting your opinions in each case. For instance, is it relevant that military personnel adopt a particular role?

In the next section you will see some additional considerations which weigh in favour of protecting heritage, and are particularly relevant to military decision-making.


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