The Relative Value of Things

I studied philosophy at Oxford University in the late 1970s (and knew less at the end of three years than at the beginning, though there was, I suppose, some consolation in knowing why). One of the options I chose was moral philosophy and at times we indulged in what philosophers called ‘thought experiments’, an almost empirical exploration of moral values, and of the competing claims of rights and the greater well-being of the majority. Rights, we were taught, are the answer to the negligence that arises when you aim only to maximise happiness.

One way or another we were encouraged to believe you could weigh competing claims in a kind of moral balance.

Would you torture a terrorist if you could thereby save the lives of 10,000 people?

Or 100,000, or a million?

Would you give a life-saving drug to just one patient or cure the back ache of 87?

Or 97 or 303?

It’s as if a finite set of questions could help us to map our moral sensibilities and determine the instinctive algorithm we apply when choosing the best option from a variety of alternatives.

Certain aesthetes, for whom art is the sole purpose of life, pose somewhat similar questions:

A house is burning down. It contains a priceless Breughel and a bedridden old lady. You have time to save only one of them. Which do you choose?

The most dedicated aesthete will almost always choose the Breughel. Breughels, it seems, are morally weighty.

But of course moral choice isn’t like that. We rarely face different choices, and we rarely have time to calculate. More often it’s simply a matter of choosing to do something, or not. The philosophers’ ‘thought experiments’ pose improbable and almost always artificial situations. They certainly aren’t a true test of what we might do. And in any case, what we think we might do and what we would actually do may very well be different things.

Exercising our moral balance with ‘thought experiments’ is as silly as wondering if it’s better to be deaf or blind. When do we ever make such a choice?

I was thinking of these absurd ‘thought experiments’ this week following the destruction of some two-thousand-year-old temples at Palmyra by Islamic State. I can just hear an undergraduate considering the question, ‘Is it more important to save one temple or a hundred apostates whom IS intend to murder?‘ Sometimes, given the airtime devoted to these old ruins, I feel that journalists and commentators are asking themselves these questions too.

It’s as if these temples actually matter more than human lives, that their destruction is the ‘real‘ and ‘final’ proof of IS’s barbarity. It’s as if the destruction of ancient stone monuments can be placed on the same balance as the suffering of IS’s victims, as if we can do a ‘thought experiment’ to work out how much of one is worth how much of the other.


But stones don’t matter at all next to the decapitation of unbelievers, the tossing of gay men from tall buildings, the raping of apostates. Next to these atrocities, or indeed a single one of them, these temples are of no significance at all. Their destruction is barely a footnote, and to report these actions without giving massively more emphasis to the greater atrocities of murder, torture and rape, is wrong.

If art has value it lies in its celebration of human imagination, compassion, knowledge and beauty. To value a thing before a life is to misunderstand the purpose of art, to get everything the wrong way round. It surely doesn’t take a thought experiment to work that out, nor three years of philosophy at Oxford.

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