The destruction of cultural heritage is nothing new. But our connected world means that today scenes of the destruction of heritage sites fill our newspapers and television screens like never before. These scenes are met with widespread public outcry, with many prominent figures insisting that something must be done to prevent, for example, the destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS in the Middle East. But what, precisely, is the appropriate response to the intentional destruction of tangible heritage, that is, attacks on buildings, tombs, and other physical sites and objects?

One recent suggestion is that the protection of tangible cultural heritage is a just cause for military intervention. Writing in this Occasional Papers series, Thomas G. Weiss and Nina Connelly offer the most developed and explicit work on this topic to date. They argue that the combination of the generally objectionable nature of a group like ISIS and the wide publicity generated by their attacks on heritage has created an opportunity for action. Saving cultural heritage has come to be regarded as part of the fight against terrorism; the question now, they suggest, “is how best to take advantage of what appears a propitious moment.” Drawing heavily on the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P)—the political framework intended to protect against genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity—they propose a parallel framework for understanding the international community’s obligations to heritage. They argue that the three “pillars” of the R2P framework can be modified for or extended to cultural heritage protection. These modified pillars would stipulate (i) that it is the primary responsibility of states to protect heritage in their territory, (ii) that others ought to assist in building this protective capacity, and (iii) that there is an international responsibility to respond to protect heritage should the first two pillars fail. This third pillar, they argue, includes military intervention.

Weiss and Connelly’s proposal is distinctive in that it clearly argues for the use of military force to defend tangible heritage. While military force can, of course, be used to deter and detain, it also typically involves inflicting serious physical harms, including death, on both putative wrongdoers and innocent bystanders. Despite the calls that something must be done to prevent the destruction of heritage, few prominent figures have explicitly called for those who are destroying cultural heritage to be killed, even though it is clear that in many cases heritage could not be protected without the use of lethal force. Indeed, that such force is warranted seems to be the natural upshot of some of the arguments put forward by prominent figures in the heritage sector, even though they do not articulate it.

Although Weiss and Connelly call for the forceful defense of heritage for its own sake—that is, the use of force when heritage alone is threatened—their discussion draws on various other justifications for the use of force, such as the role of heritage protection in preempting genocide. As we shall argue, this conflation of multiple justifications makes their proposal—that we simply adopt parallel R2P doctrines for people and heritage—look more plausible than it is. Disentangled from these other justifications, it is hard to make a plausible case for the forceful defense of heritage in its own right.

We distinguish between what we call extrinsic and intrinsic justifications for the use of force to defend cultural heritage. Extrinsic justifications hold that protecting heritage is a means to achieve some other valuable goal, where it is achieving that goal that provides the justification for force. For example, it is widely argued that preventing the destruction of heritage is a means to prevent genocide. If preventing genocide warrants the use of force and if preventing the destruction of heritage achieves this goal, we have an extrinsic justification for forcefully protecting heritage.

Extrinsic justifications do not attribute to heritage any particular value in its own right. Of course, proponents may believe that heritage is also intrinsically valuable. But they do not invoke this value as a justification for the use of force. Rather, the justification for force is grounded in the capacity of heritage protection to prevent the physical harms to humans that occur in genocide. Weiss and Connelly draw on this connection between heritage protection and genocide prevention to support their call for military action.

In contrast to extrinsic justifications for heritage protection, intrinsic justifications cite the value of heritage as the basis for using force. Such justifications might invoke the role of heritage in creating and preserving people’s communities, providing connections to the past, and so on. These justifications are thus importantly different in character from the extrinsic justifications described above. Intrinsic justifications focus specifically on the value of heritage in people’s lives (broadly construed) and present this as a reason to forcefully defend heritage even if doing so is not a means of achieving other valuable goals.

In addition to calling for military intervention on extrinsic grounds, Weiss and Connelly argue for military intervention to defend heritage for its own sake, that is, because of the intrinsic value of heritage in people’s lives rather than because protecting heritage achieves other valuable ends. Intrinsic justifications for force, of the sort on which Weiss and Connelly’s proposal partly relies, are much harder to defend than extrinsic justifications. It is much less obvious that the goods that might be facilitated or provided by heritage warrant lethal defense. As we explain, a call for military intervention aimed at protecting heritage for its own sake must be underpinned by compelling arguments for the claims that we may (i) intentionally harm persons to prevent them from damaging heritage and (ii) foreseeably harm persons as a side effect of preventing damage to heritage. Supporting either of these claims requires (iii) an account of how to compare harms to people to damage to heritage, which itself demands (iv) some way of assessing the value of (particular examples of) heritage. None of these requirements is acknowledged, let alone satisfied, by Weiss and Connelly.

In chapter 1, we explore some of the difficulties with supporting extrinsic justifications for the forceful defense of heritage. In chapter 2, we discuss the idea that heritage might provide an intrinsic justification for the use of force. In chapter 3, we show how Weiss and Connelly conflate these two types of justifications in their paper. In chapter 4, we consider the claim that it is permissible to intentionally harm persons to prevent them from damaging heritage. In chapter 5, we argue that since military intervention inevitably imposes a high risk of collaterally harming innocent people, it can be permissible only if one may impose high risks of serious harm on innocent people for the sake of heritage. Weiss and Connelly neither recognize the moral significance of collateral harms nor offer an explanation of how such harms could be justified.

We should note that Weiss and Connelly present their paper as a starting point, not a fully developed proposal. However, our core suggestion is that their starting point is already too advanced, since it omits all the important moral features of a justification for using force. Weiss and Connelly’s proposal—like much of the work in this field—thus belies the genuine and complex moral challenges to the protection of cultural heritage that must inform, and thus come prior to, discussion of policy. It is striking that Edward C. Luck’s paper in this series considers six “lenses,” or frameworks, through which we might approach the protection of cultural heritage—law, accountability, security, counterterrorism, atrocity prevention, and cultural genocide—yet omits a distinctively moral framework. We hope to show that any serious attempt to tackle the protection of cultural heritage must first engage with the fundamental moral questions that we identify. We are not claiming to offer a comprehensive account of permissible heritage protection. But being clear about the issues one needs to address is an important first step in developing such an account.