The Ethical Patiency of Cultural Heritage

Dissertation, Durham University (2011)
Current treatments of cultural heritage as an object of moral concern (whether it be the heritage of mankind or of some particular group of people) have tended to treat it as a means to ensure human wellbeing: either as ‘cultural property’ or ‘cultural patrimony’, suggesting concomitant rights of possession and exclusion, or otherwise as something which, gaining its ethical significance from the roles it plays in people’s lives and the formation of their identities, is the beneficiary at most of indirect moral obligations. In contrast, I argue that cultural heritage, as something whose existence can go well or badly, can itself qualify as a moral patient towards which we may have obligations which need not be accounted for in terms of subsequent benefits to human beings. Drawing inspiration from environmental ethics and suggesting that heritage, like an ecosystem, is a complex network of interrelations which invites a holistic understanding, I develop a framework for thinking about cultural heritage which shows how such a thing can feature in our ethical reflections as intrinsically worthy of respect in spite of its most obvious differences from the ‘natural’ world: the very human origins of cultural heritage and its involvement with human life in all its forms. As part of the development of this framework I consider the epistemic difficulties which arise when for all our holistic sophistication we do find ourselves in the predicament of having to judge the moral worth of some item of heritage, possibly someone else’s heritage and possibly something which we find ourselves disposed to value more because of than despite any mysteries surrounding it. I conclude by offering some tentative illustrations of how such a framework might operate in the practical course of normative moral reasoning about what should be done with items of cultural heritage. [Erratum note: p. 30 conflates the Kumasi palace looting of 1874 with that of 1896.]
Keywords cultural heritage  cultural property  patiency  archaeological ethics  value  worth  culture
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