The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

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The ethics of cultural heritage

2.4 Cultural heritage and the aggregation problem

The important question for this course is: does the aggregation problem apply to the value of heritage and human lives?

Some believe it does. The video below recaps the aggregation problem and outlines one way it might be relevant to the topic at hand.

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Transcript: Video 7

If you could choose between saving someone's life or giving 1,000 strangers a free cup of coffee, what would you pick? Assuming each coffee has a small amount of value, 1,000 coffees would have a large amount of value. We just need to add them together.
Of course, a life is still more valuable. But what if we kept adding more-- a million coffees, a trillion? Surely there comes a point when the coffees would be more valuable than saving a life. Yet most of us would never trade a person's life for any number of free coffees.
This example illustrates the aggregation problem. If we agree that minor benefits like coffees can be added up or aggregated, then we are seemingly forced to agree to some unappealing hypothetical trades. The aggregation problem can arise in many areas, including the conservation of cultural heritage. To explain, the benefit of visiting a heritage site is typically rather minor but enjoyed by large numbers of people.
Say a government had to choose between giving a pot of funding to health care or heritage conservation. The first would save one additional life. The second would save one important heritage site. Assume the heritage site is enjoyed by millions. Can these minor benefits be added up? If so, saving the site could be incredibly valuable, perhaps even more than saving a life.
Yet if we cannot add up the minor benefits of heritage, then funding health care would be better in this case. In fact, while hospitals and lifesaving charities could still use additional funds, it would be difficult to justify any spending on heritage at all.
End transcript: Video 7
Video 7
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You have seen that heritage can be good in a variety of ways: pleasing us with its beauty; teaching us about the past; and commemorating or reminding us of historic individuals or events, etc. Yet, arguably, each of these benefits is rather small for each individual who enjoys them. Thus, while a single piece of heritage might provide millions of people with these minor goods, it is not clear that we would be justified in allowing even one death to save it.

Aggregating across the millions of people who benefit from the heritage, its overall value seems to be huge. Yet, perhaps these benefits are too trivial to add up in the way they would need to in order to make a human life a permissible trade? If we couldn’t ethically sacrifice someone to guarantee the World Cup stayed on air, why think we could sacrifice someone to keep Notre-Dame standing?

If the benefits of heritage are indeed too minor to be added up and counted as something significant, as the aggregation problem indicates, we may never forfeit lives for the protection of heritage. Both in terms of military decisions and government and charitable spending, heritage must always be abandoned if that is necessary to save even a single person.

Activity 6 Aggregating the value of cultural heritage’s benefits

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes
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If you answered ‘yes’, you may disagree with the aggregation problem or believe that it does not apply to heritage vs lives dilemmas. On the other hand, if you answered ‘no’, you may believe the aggregation problem is indeed serious and does apply to heritage vs lives dilemmas. Either way, the next poll allows you to test your intuitions by setting (or refusing to set) a precise threshold at which a trade-off between human life and heritage becomes morally permissible.

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There are many reasons you may have struggled to choose any of the precise figures as answers to this poll. One is that you believe in the aggregation problem, and so don’t believe any number of heritage fans would make sacrificing the life permissible. Alternatively, perhaps you believe a calculation is possible here, but more information is necessary to give a concrete answer, or that no concrete answer is possible because this is a morally vague area.

These sorts of questions are incredibly challenging and so we sometimes try to avoid answering them. Nevertheless, it is worth stressing that militaries, governments, and individuals who donate to charity often implicitly provide answers to questions like these with their actions, whether they acknowledge this or not. For instance, a government which divides its spending between heritage conservation and healthcare is implicitly favouring a certain balance between protecting heritage and saving lives.

The next section of this course will get you to reflect on what you have learned by answering five short questions.


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