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.

What would you have done?

My partner and I spent the weekend at a quiet and pleasant spa hotel in the quiet and pleasant countryside of South Moravia. Indeed, so quiet and pleasant were both the hotel and the countryside, that I can remember little about either. But that was the point.

We briefly escaped on Saturday evening to visit Telc, one of the most beautiful small country towns in the Czech Republic, so beautiful and so unique in its architecture that it is now protected by UNESCO.

Telc 2

Telc 1

The town dates back to the 13th century but its remarkable central square is mostly 15th century and later. Physically it seems largely to have escaped the ravages of time. The square is  intact – on all sides there are arcaded rows of high-gabled Renaissance and Baroque houses. There was plague, I think, which killed indiscriminately (there’s a plague column raised by the survivors), and there was the Second World War, which killed very particularly. Just outside the entrance to the Church of St Jakub there’s a long list of victims of the Nazi occupation, most of them Jews who were deported and murdered in Auschwitz.

It’s always difficult to imagine terrible things happening in beautiful places. You wonder what there can be to argue about. Telc must then have been a complacent and prosperous town.  But perhaps there are still old men and women alive today who remember those days and worry about them. Could anyone have done more?

What would you have done? What would I have done?

I ask this, because on Sunday evening, back in Prague, I caught up with a film I’ve wanted to see since I saw it reviewed in the Economist some months ago. Force Majeure is a Swedish film by director Ruben Östlund that examines what happens in a moment of terror during a skiing holiday when an avalanche appears to threaten a family lunching on the terrace of a restaurant. Thomas instinctively reaches for his mobile phone and flees, whilst his wife instinctively reaches for their children. All survive.


This near-disaster happens in the first ten minutes of the film, and the next hour and forty minutes are concerned with the corrosive effect of Thomas’s ‘cowardice’ on his marriage and himself.

What would you have done? What would I have done?

The fact is that most of us don’t face moral challenges on this scale. Our sense of ourselves, of our character, of our moral character, is built on principle and hypothesis. We all like to think we would do the right thing if challenged, but we cannot know.

What we assume ourselves and others to be, indeed, often what we might love in others is partially theoretical, untested. And when the test comes, if it comes, we can’t always choose what we do. We can’t examine our principles and calculate the right course of action. In Thomas’s case, there’s no time to think. Instinct takes over and he grabs his mobile phone.

But this does nothing to excuse him. The moral aspect of what he does, or doesn’t do, isn’t removed if we say that he can’t help what he does, that at the moment of weakness he is animal not rational. Moral character includes instinct, and we admire those whose instincts are virtuous.

It’s a good film. I hadn’t expected subtitles, but it’s worth the effort. It’s a little too long, but not as didactic or as definite in its judgements as I make it sound.