4. Intentionally Killing for the Sake of Heritage

Liability to Harm

The beginnings of a case for justifying the forceful defense of heritage plausibly lie in showing that an individual can become morally liable to harm in defense of heritage—that, for example, threatening to damage or destroy a valuable artifact can cause one to forfeit one’s usual right not to be harmed. As above, this requires showing that the value of heritage can weigh against harm to human beings, since permissible harming rests in part on considerations of proportionality.

That the perpetrators of attacks on heritage may be intentionally killed is simply taken for granted by Weiss and Connelly. It is worth emphasizing here that one cannot use self-sacrifice as a guide to the proportionality of harming. There are well-known examples of individuals risking and sacrificing their lives in defense of heritage. One might think that this provides examples of heritage that can weigh against human life. But the fact that someone is willing to risk their life for the sake of some particular instance of heritage does not show that that heritage has value that can count in a justification for harming. That someone is prepared to die for a cause does not show even that the cause is valuable; on the contrary, people often kill themselves or let themselves be killed for the sake of morally bankrupt causes. And even when something is genuinely morally valuable, the fact that one may sacrifice oneself for its sake doesn’t show that one may harm anyone else for its sake. Being willing to risk one’s life for one’s child, for example, does not make it permissible to kill other people for the sake of one’s child. Likewise, even if one thinks that the Monuments Men’s willingness to risk their lives to recover stolen art was admirable, that willingness did not itself confer on them a permission to kill other people.

Clearly, not everything that is valuable to human beings, or that makes our lives go well, warrants forceful defense, let alone lethal defense. This is true of even some morally significant goods, such as relationships, promises, and jobs. Imagine that Colin is about to be unfairly dismissed from his job. It seems impermissible for Colin to physically attack his boss (much less kill her) even if this is the only way he can prevent this undeserved harm (imagine that he has no evidence of the unfairness that he could take to an employment tribunal). This isn’t a simple question of proportionality: we can imagine that redundancy will be extremely harmful for Colin, cause him great distress, threaten his identity and self-worth, bring financial hardship, and so on. It is rather a question of the type of good at stake.

It is revealing that recent philosophical work on the ethics of war often focuses on straightforward comparisons of physical harms when discussing proportionality, for example, how many combatants or civilians will be killed in an offensive, compared to how many lives we might thereby save. This is of course important and useful. War involves a lot of killing and maiming, and we have at least some idea of how to weigh these things against each other. But it is much harder to judge the number of people whom one may kill to, say, defend political rights or territory. Even granting that citizens have rights to self-determination, it is hard to know how many people one may kill and injure to secure those rights.

The difficulty of comparing the value of heritage to the disvalue of death and injury is not unique, then: wars are fought over other values that do not reduce to physical harms to people. But, at the very least, the permissibility of lethally defending artifacts is considerably less well supported by our intuitive judgments than the permissibility of lethally defending our lives and liberty. The intuition that an innocent person may kill in defense of her life enjoys near-universal support. It is similarly intuitive that a kidnapping victim may kill to escape her abductor even if she believes that he will merely imprison her for a significant period of time rather than kill her. Intuitions about the permissibility of killing in defense of one’s home vary, but this variation tends to track whether there is a duty to retreat from one’s home, on the assumption that one could safely reclaim the home later. In cases of unjust forced occupation—that is, a threat of long-term or permanent displacement from one’s home—the permissibility of lethal defense seems to enjoy widespread intuitive support.

One of the difficulties with intrinsic justifications for force is that their proponents tend to invoke the harm that would follow from eradicating the heritage of a given group to support forcefully preventing its partial destruction. Consider, for example, the above claims by Kourbaj and Rapley, both of which defend the protection of heritage by citing the harm that would befall a people without any heritage at all. But the harms of eradication and partial destruction seem to differ not merely in degree but also in kind. It’s plausible that the eradication of a group’s tangible heritage often has a seriously detrimental effect on its members’ identity, flourishing, and so on. The degree to which it does so might depend on the group in question: many people draw on multiple sources of identity (religion, ethnicity, nationality, profession, familial status), which plausibly increases their resilience in the face of a threat to any one particular source.

But it is considerably harder to make general claims about the effect of the partial loss of heritage on a group’s members. Communities that suffer even widespread losses of their cultural sites through natural disasters, for example, are undoubtedly harmed. But it is not clear that such losses threaten their members’ sense of identity and community in the way that the eradication of heritage plausibly does. Thus, even if preventing the eradication of an entire body of tangible heritage warrants the use of lethal force, it does not follow that preventing the destruction of even a substantial subset of that heritage also warrants lethal force.

Moreover, the eradication of an entire heritage, rather than just its tangible manifestations, requires more than attacks on heritage sites. Eradicating stories, songs, languages, cuisines, and so on typically requires direct harmful interference (or threats of such interference) with persons. But (threats of) these types of interference with persons—physical harms or unjust imprisonment, for example—fall under the more familiar scope of rights to defensive force. Lethal prevention of the eradication of heritage may thus be justified on grounds that do not obtain in cases of partial destruction. Again, one cannot straightforwardly extrapolate from the permissibility of forcefully preventing these types of harms to the permissibility of forcefully defending tangible heritage.

The permissibility of killing in defense of important works of art or buildings also enjoys less intuitive support than killing in defense of our interests in life and liberty. Of course, many actions that threaten cultural artifacts will also threaten people: it would clearly be permissible to kill someone to prevent her from blowing up a mosque with people inside or nearby, even if the people were not her target. One must be careful, then, not to wrongly infer that protecting the building, rather than protecting people, justifies killing. Put another way, one cannot infer from the fact that one has a justification for forcefully protecting a valuable building that it is the value of the building that justifies forcefully protecting it.

One must also be sure not to conflate what we can call law and order justifications for harming with harming for the sake of heritage. For example, we might agree that if someone were going around a museum or gallery methodically destroying every piece of art, it could be permissible to kill her if this were the only way to stop her. Even if one may not kill to save one or two paintings, perhaps the wrongs could aggregate to make lethal defense proportionate. But this permissibility could be explained by our interest in maintaining law and order rather than the value of cultural artifacts. After all, it seems similarly permissible to prevent the destruction of other types of property. It would be impermissible to kill someone to prevent her from destroying one’s car, but it could be permissible to kill her if she is destroying every car she comes across and there is no other way to stop her. In simple terms, we do not let people commit gratuitous acts of violence against property, and in the absence of nonlethal means of prevention, these acts of violence could aggregate to make lethal force proportionate. If so, the fact that it might be permissible to kill a person to stop her from destroying everything in the Tate does not show that cultural artifacts warrant lethal defense. It might show only that one may sometimes lethally enforce law and order. Nor, of course, does the fact that one might have law-and-order justifications for harming show that one may not also lethally defend cultural artifacts in their own right. Our point is simply that one needs some argument for permissibility of doing so if one is proposing the defense of heritage as a just cause for war.

None of this is to deny the distress that the destruction of cultural property might cause to humans. That distress is morally significant, because human suffering is always morally significant. But, as above, one should be cautious about assuming that this kind of suffering could justify harming. Lots of things cause distress—the desertion of a spouse or the loss of a job, for example—but preventing them does not ground permissions to do physical harm. This is true even if, as in the case of Colin’s unfair dismissal, the harm is unjust and significant. And in cases in which one may use force to protect heritage sites, one must show that this permissibility is not grounded in some other feature, like sustaining law and order, that might not obtain in other cases.

The claim that one may kill to defend heritage is not, then, a minor addition to, or natural extension of, the claim that one may kill to prevent genocide. Rather, the claim that defense of heritage is a cause for military intervention in its own right demands an account of the permissibility of harming for the sake of defending heritage in its own right. This requires substantial theoretical work that is absent from Weiss and Connelly’s proposal.