2. Intrinsic Justifications for Harming

Weiss and Connelly, in addition to endorsing various extrinsic justifications for the forceful defense of heritage, propose a wider scope for the defense of heritage, which includes the defense of heritage for its own sake. These intrinsic justifications for the use of force focus on the value of heritage rather than the value of other goals that might be achieved by protecting heritage.

There are two types of intrinsic justifications, underpinned by different conceptions of the value of heritage. The stronger conception holds that heritage is valuable for its own sake, independently of its importance to human beings. On this view, cultural sites and artifacts would be valuable even if no human cared about them, or if humans ceased to exist.

The more moderate, and most common, conception holds that heritage has derivative value. Objects of derivative value derive their value from their contribution to something with intrinsic value, in this case, the well-being of human beings. A great deal of cultural heritage—perhaps all heritage that is not part of the natural environment—is plausibly valuable only if and because it contributes to how well people’s lives go. One way in which heritage contributes to well-being is by providing what Janna Thompson calls “opportunities for enrichment.” Thompson argues that the constraints on the fighting of a war are motivated “by the moral importance of limiting war, of making it possible for important values to survive armed conflict. Above all, it should be possible for the opportunities intrinsic to civilized life to survive and be enjoyed by future generations—and this includes being able to appreciate its greatest products.” Such views are widely echoed in the heritage sector, although they raise difficult questions about the ownership and control of heritage sites. It is not only members of the group that has produced an artifact who might be enriched by interaction with it: as Weiss and Connelly put it, many people “view culture as a shared endeavor across peoples and time” and regard the destruction of heritage in general as a cost to “humanity as a whole” rather than (merely) to the specific group that produced the heritage in question.

Less controversially, heritage contributes to the well-being of those groups that regularly interact with it or that identify with the original producers. Heritage can facilitate the forming and sustaining of communities, allow those communities to express certain values, and create intergenerational ties that bind the community together. This contribution to well-being is the focus of many accounts of the value of heritage. As Thompson argues, “A community is bound together through the places where people live and work, and its public buildings provide the infrastructure for their social relationships. Schools and places of worship or public assembly are the focus of the lives of many individuals, and provide resources that help to make their lives worth living.” Weiss and Connelly argue that “the destruction of cultural heritage is ruinous for cultural identity and social cohesion. The buildings, museums, libraries, and infrastructure around which societies organize themselves in part help define a people.”

This entwining of people and heritage is one way in which proponents of protecting heritage seek to defuse the objection that they are prioritizing stones over lives. This objection holds that proponents of heritage protection demonstrate an inappropriate degree of concern about old buildings and artifacts, compared to that which they evince toward human beings. At the time our newspapers were filled with the destruction of Palmyra, there were also thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Syria. There is, undeniably, something morally uncomfortable about stressing the need to protect heritage in the face of such widespread human suffering.

But according to one form of this type of intrinsic justification for defending heritage, heritage and people are all of a piece. And by equating saving heritage with saving people, we can deny that saving heritage can conflict with saving lives. For example, Weiss and Connelly argue, “The protection of people and the protection of heritage are inseparable.… There is no need for a hierarchy of protection because the choice between the two is false, just as a choice between people and the natural environment is false. Air, water, and culture are essential for life.” In a recent public debate on protecting cultural heritage, the artist Issam Kourbaj suggested that “heritage without people means nothing; people without heritage means nothing.” At the same event, Vernon Rapley, director of Cultural Heritage Protection and Security at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, claimed that “people without culture is like a tree without roots. There’s no point [in the] military going in to protect a country unless they protect the country, not just save the lives of people. [Heritage] makes the difference between living and life.” The UK Committee of the Blue Shield maintains that the Hague Convention on Cultural Property Protection does not “place cultural property above people, as it exists within a wider framework of laws designed to protect civilians and their property in a conflict situation.” The art historian Nausikaä El-Mecky suggests that heritage and people are sometimes “one and the same thing.” Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO, claims that “there is no need to choose between saving lives and preserving cultural heritage: the two are inseparable.” She has also claimed that to destroy Syrian heritage is “to kill the Syrian people a second time.”

What the foregoing arguments have in common is a claim about the constitutive role of heritage in people’s lives going well (or, indeed, their having lives at all). Rather than suggesting that attacks on heritage are worrying primarily insofar as they are indicative of worse harms to come, the claim here is that people and heritage are bound up in such a way that one cannot distinguish between them and, by implication, one therefore need not choose between them. On this view, attacks on heritage are attacks on people and, perhaps, people’s lives are not worth living (or saving) in the absence of heritage.

It can be hard to pin down these arguments, since they often rely on unhelpful metaphors and trade on ambiguity in the meaning of words such as life or people. It is clearly not the case, for example, that air and culture are on a par in terms of what people need to survive, and such claims do little to help us understand the moral status of heritage. Rather, this claim equivocates between what people—that is, persons—need to survive and what a people—that is, a cultural group of some sort—needs to survive. But one cannot infer the moral importance of the survival of “peoples” from the moral importance of the survival of persons. One certainly cannot infer the permissibility of killing to defend peoples from the permissibility of killing to defend persons.

Similarly, the fact that the legal protection of heritage is packaged as part of a “wider framework of laws” regarding civilians is no reason at all to think that saving heritage cannot conflict with the interests of persons. Indeed, it seems inevitable that such conflicts will arise, not least because civilians are not the only persons at risk of harm in war. Conflicts between heritage and persons arise whenever, for example, a combatant is asked to incur an increased risk of harm in order to avoid damaging a cultural site. With respect to sites that have been granted enhanced protection by UNESCO, Article 12 of the Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention requires combatants to refrain “from any use of the property or its immediate surroundings in support of military action.” Insofar as combatants might have otherwise used such a site, they presumably would have done so because it was militarily advantageous: because the site provides the most protected position, the best vantage point, and so on. Demanding that combatants refrain from using the site—that they occupy a more exposed position or use a worse vantage point—is to demand that they operate at increased risk for the sake of heritage.

Article 12 also implies that combatants can be required to impose greater risks on civilians in order to avoid damaging heritage. If making use of, or endangering, a cultural site would draw the battle away from civilians, prohibiting such use or endangering will increase the risk to civilians. We can remain neutral on the permissibility of demanding that combatants incur or impose these increased risks. The important point is that incurring or imposing these risks does put heritage above people in a very concrete way. The claim that heritage cannot conflict with lives is simply false. People may have an interest in their continued heritage, but they also have other interests, such as interests in not being killed or maimed. Actions that promote their interests in their heritage may set back their other interests. The failure or refusal to recognize this plurality of interests undermines the credibility of these types of intrinsic justifications for heritage protection.