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In Defense of Objects

By Jonathan Peterson

In March 2015 the Islamic State reportedly looted and bulldozed the ruins of the ancient cities of Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq. These attacks on ancient cultural sites appear to be part of an emerging pattern of plunder and destruction which includes the destruction of a mosque built on the site of the supposed tomb of the prophet, Jonah in Mosul in July 2014 and the smashing of ancient Assyrian statues in the museum in Mosul in February. With the fall of Palmyra to the Islamic State in Syria on May 21, 2015 further plunder and destruction of important cultural sites and objects may well be expected.

The destruction of these cultural heritage sites and objects has been met with sadness, horror and outrage in Iraq and throughout the world. Some have called the destruction a war crime and have called for the international community to use force to protect remaining cultural sites from destruction by the Islamic State. In the face of such destruction, it is reasonable to feel that something must be done to protect these cultural sites, some thousands of years old. But it is one thing to feel that action is called for to protect cultural objects and artifacts. It is another to provide a justification for using military force to do so.

The destruction of cultural objects by ISIS raises a number of important questions about the protection and preservation of cultural heritage during armed conflicts. Among these questions, the following seem particularly important.

  1. Is the deliberate (or negligent) destruction of cultural heritage a just cause for the use of force?
  2. Are those who are engaged in the destruction of cultural objects liable to defensive harm?
  3. More crucially, can defensive harm be used to protect cultural objects if it means the death of even one innocent bystander/non-combatant?

It is doubtful that a complete answer to these questions can be given without addressing some more fundamental questions about cultural heritage. A full account requires some an understanding of why the destruction of cultural heritage objects and sites is bad, whether it harms anyone, and whether it violates anyone’s rights. Moreover, it would be foolish to draw any conclusions about the destruction carried on by the Islamic State without considering the cultural and historical context of this destruction, which would include an understanding of the negative ways in which some versions of Islam respond to the veneration of cultural and sacred sites. So my conclusions can only be tentative. But my aim in this post is to sketch a suggestion for a way forward in thinking about the destruction of important cultural sites and artifacts either in wartime or by hostile governments that control these sites.


But it is one thing to feel that action is called for to protect cultural objects and artifacts. It is another to provide a justification for using military force to do so.


A bit of background: traditional just war theory draws a distinction between jus ad bellum, which addresses the rules for justly resorting to war and jus in bello, the moral rules for how to wage war. The questions that concern me here are about jus ad bellum. They ask whether the destruction of cultural property could be a just cause for the use of military force. Just war theorists have rightly emphasized the high bar that must be met in order to justify engaging in military action. The costs of war are high, especially when measured in the death of innocent non-combatants. In light of this, the kinds of things that could count as a just cause are usually thought to be limited to defense of self or others from unjust aggression. That is to say that the just cause is limited to defending against an unjust attack and protecting human life. Moreover, any military response pursuing a just cause must meet a requirement of proportionality. The harm I cause in pursuing my objective must be proportional to the value of the aim I seek to achieve.

In this post, I want to explore the idea that the use of defensive force to protect cultural heritage is morally comparable to defensive force against unjust attacks on human life. Suppose a group is unjustly engaged in an attack on cultural objects without killing or possibly killing any humans. Would this attack fall within the scope of the defensive just cause? In particular, could the defense of cultural objects count as a standalone justification for the use of defensive force? Would the use of lethal force have any chance of satisfying a proportionality requirement? These questions seem to be analogous to the question of the justification of defensive force in cases of ‘bloodless invasion’ – one where an aggressive nation unjustly violates the territorial jurisdiction and political independence of another nation but does not have the goal of killing anyone. But the case for the use of lethal force in bloodless invasions is far from straightforward and the same is true for the defense of cultural objects.

Thinking through these issues may help us think about a question that might be closer to the question raised by the destructive activities of Islamic State. Can the destruction of cultural artifacts contribute to a justification for the use of force if other reasons to use force also apply? In other words, can we legitimately appeal to the defense of cultural objects as an aspect of a complete justification for the use of force? Such a complete justification might include, for example, the defense of innocent life and preventing the destruction of cultural groups such as the Yazidi minority. Could ISIS’ destruction of heritage objects play a role in explaining why force is permissible?

Here is a proposal that I find plausible. In the central cases of the destruction of cultural objects, these objects are not only very valuable, but irreplaceable. Moreover, they are often non-compensable, i.e., full compensation for their loss may not be possible. Thus their destruction is not like the destruction of ordinary property such as a car or a house. A car that has been destroyed can be replaced and a new house can be built. As bad as it is to lose one’s car or house it may be that lethal defensive force cannot be justified to protect them. But cultural heritage objects are not like this. In many cases, they cannot be replaced and their loss plausibly cannot be compensated. This might make it easier to justify the use of defensive force to protect them. The destruction of a valuable and irreplaceable cultural object is more like the destruction of innocent life than like the destruction of ordinary property. Thus it is easier to justify the claim that those who are engaged in their destruction may be liable to lethal defensive force.

Imagine that the Mona Lisa has been stolen. As you are walking your dog, you find it in an alley. You are preparing to return it to the Louvre, when an aggressor approaches. “I am not going to harm you,” she says, “I am only going to destroy the painting.” The painting has great significance for many humans and is plausibly very valuable. It is also irreplaceable. May you shoot the aggressor to prevent her from destroying the painting? If no other non-lethal means of stopping the aggressor are available, it seems plausible that this is morally permissible. (If the Mona Lisa doesn’t do much for you, think of something whose loss you would regard as irreparable. For me it is the last known copy of Bach’s Mass in B-Minor.)

This case makes it plausible to say that the aggressor is liable to lethal harm to prevent the destruction of the object she aims to destroy. However, what is left out of the picture in this case is the possibility of harms to innocent bystanders. To demonstrate, imagine that the Mona Lisa has been stolen. As you are walking your dog, you find it in an alley. You are preparing to return it to the Louvre, when an aggressor approaches. “I am not going to harm you,” she says. “I am only going to destroy the painting.” The only way to prevent the aggressor from destroying the painting is to shoot her, but in doing so you foresee that you will cause the death of one innocent bystander.

Even if the aggressor is liable to lethal force to prevent her from destroying the painting it seems doubtful that you can use such force if even one innocent bystander will lose his life. In this case, you may not be morally permitted to use lethal force to defend the painting. You may be morally required not to do so.

If this is correct, then the initially plausible first response is in trouble. Insofar as we foresee that using force to defend cultural heritage objects will result in the death of innocent non-combatants, we may not be morally permitted to use force in their defense. This will be true even if the destroyers are liable to be killed to prevent them from destroying these objects. It seems that even if we count the defense of cultural objects as a just cause, the use of lethal force in their defense will rarely be a proportionate response because it will involve the foreseen death of innocent bystanders.

But there is something deeply unsettling about this. It leaves us powerless to defend goods that are crucially valuable to us. It requires us to resign ourselves to a world in which the terms are set by aggressors. It is unsatisfying for the same reason that a thoroughgoing pacifism sometimes seems unsatisfying.

This suggests a different reason why it may be permissible to use force to defend cultural objects even when it means the death of innocent bystanders. The reason is that we may be morally permitted to use force to bring about a situation in which aggressors do not unilaterally set the terms on which we all live. The creation and defense of such a world is something of additional value above and beyond the preservation of particular cultural objects. It is also something that is deeply important to us. Perhaps the use of force to preserve cultural heritage can be justified, not merely as a way of preserving the value of particular sites and objects, but in order to create and defend a world in which the terms on which we live together, including the rules about how to treat cultural objects, are set mutually rather than unilaterally by aggressors.

To be sure, this suggestion needs to be explained and defended much more fully. And whatever view we take of the value of a world in which aggressors do not unilaterally set the terms on which we live, it is clear that we cannot do just anything we want to create or defend such a world. But it seems to me that this is a promising way forward in thinking about how to respond to the pressing practical problem of cultural heritage destruction.

[Acknowledgments: Thanks to Helen Frowe, Leonard Kahn, Jonathan Parry, and Massimo Renzo for comments on drafts of this piece.]

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.

2 Comments

  1. Bernhard Koch

    Dear Colleagues,
    For many years I have been thinking about organizing a conference on this issue. Is anybody interested to join in?

    Jonathan focusses on the ad-bellum-issue. I think we should add the in-bello-question as well. We have to address a further (fourth) important query: Are (even just) combatants required to accept greater risks for the sake of protecting cultural heritage?
    Bernhard

  2. Jonathan Peterson

    Bernhard, I agree that there should be much more discussion of these issues. And the in-bello question also seem to me to be very important as well. Thanks!

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