Dan Elbro (Phd Candidate)

Cécile Fabre claims, firstly, that some ‘heritage goods’ – things valued partly because they are part of the past, and which we are disposed to preserve – are part of humankind’s common heritage (HCH); and, secondly, that we have duties of justice to preserve and ensure access to those goods. Fabre’s talk was incredibly rich, touching on issues ranging from the nature of value; the good life; why we all feel (or ought to feel) the loss of structures such as Notre-Dame cathedral or the Buddhas of Bamiyan; and controversies surrounding cultural appropriation and the ownership and repatriation of artifacts procured through, for example, looting, conquest or colonialism, such as the Elgin marbles. I cannot cover all of these points in this short review, so I’ll make a couple of points about her claim that we have duties of justice to preserve and ensure access to HCH.

This claim is based on the idea that if a heritage good is part of HCH, it has universal value: we all have reasons to value it. If there are such goods, then it is plausible, as Fabre claims, that access to them is part of a flourishing human life. And since it is also plausible that justice demands we each have equal opportunities to attain a flourishing life, Fabre’s claims that we have (a) a negative duty not to impede access to HCH, and (b) a positive duty to provide others with the means to access it, seem well founded.

These claims have potentially revisionary implications for ethical, political and legal theory. For example, if it is a duty of justice to ensure access to HCH, then governments may have duties to allow immigration, so that immigrants can access parts of HCH which can be found in a particular country. For that reason, it’s important that we know exactly which goods we have duties of justice to preserve and provide means of access to.

To this end, Fabre argues that we have duties of justice regarding the goods themselves, rather than replicas or digital copies of the goods. She argues that justice demands we promote understanding of HCH, most pressingly those parts concerning crimes against humanity like the slave trade, rather than mere knowledge of it; and that access to the originals is required for understanding. But don’t we also have some kind of duty to make, preserve and increase access to replicas? And if so, is that also a duty of justice?

It seems that we have, at least, some kind of duty regarding replicas of HCH. Although having access to a replica certainly seems not to have the same value as having access to the original, it seems that access to replicas can nevertheless improve, firstly, our access to and, secondly, our understanding of the real thing. But, since these duties seem to have the same grounds as our duties of justice regarding access to originals, it might seem that our duties regarding access to replicas are duties of justice.

Firstly, we can use replicas to improve access to HCH by increasing our knowledge of them. I am thinking particularly of the use of replicas in schools to teach children about artworks or practices that are part of our common heritage. For example, a photograph of Picasso’s Guernica, even seen on a badly lit PowerPoint presentation in a noisy art class, might grant a child knowledge about a piece of our common heritage; or a recording of a Gamelan performance in a music class might increase a student’s knowledge of what music can be.

It seems to me that increasing our knowledge of these goods in these ways can be a means of improving access to the original. If someone doesn’t know that these goods exist, then they cannot know where to go to seek out the originals, or even that they ought to. And if, as seems likely, access to knowledge about goods belonging to HCH is not equally distributed among, say, levels of income, then access to the originals is therefore not equally distributed either. So, ensuring that children have access to replicas of HCH in schools seems a way to equalise opportunities for accessing the originals. But if making and improving access to replicas of HCH can improve access to the original, it seems that our duties of justice include duties to make and improve access to replicas, not only originals.

Secondly, it seems that using replicas in the classroom can also be a means of increasing understanding. Returning to the two examples just given, a teacher might be able to use a replica of a particular heritage good to improve a student’s understanding of it. They might be able to point things to listen out for, such as unfamiliar instruments, in a Gamelan performance. Or they might be able to point out things to look out for in Guernica, or provide important the important historical context of the Spanish Civil War crucial to properly understanding and fully appreciating the work. If the student had not known what to look out for beforehand, they might feel bewilderment, rather than admiration or awe, in the presence of the original. So it seems that sometimes, access to replicas of HCH is necessary in order to gain understanding when in the presence of the originals.

But if our duties to provide replicas of HCH are duties of justice, this poses a problem for Fabre’s account. The problem is that it is easier to provide access to replicas than originals, but we also have a sense that they are ‘second-best’ to the originals. If justice demands that we provide access to replicas, and this is easier than providing access to the originals, then it seems we would be permitted to take the easier option and ensure wide access to replicas while doing nothing to improve access to the originals. If that is right, then it might be that governments don’t have the duties to allow immigration I mentioned earlier. But since it seems that replicas are ‘second-best’, it therefore seems that we would somehow be failing to fulfil our duties by ensuring access only to replicas.

One solution might be to point out that the condition for our having duties to provide replicas of HCH is that they improve access to and understanding of the originals. So, perhaps we cannot have duties to improve access to replicas unless we also have more fundamental duties of justice to improve access to, and not to destroy, the originals.

This response is complicated, however, by historical intangible goods like performances and cultural practices. One of Fabre’s examples of HCH is a 1904 recording of Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato and the only one to make a solo recording. Although we can never be in the presence of original historical performances such as this, we are lucky to have the recording—arguably, itself a replica—as it provides us a kind of access to the performance itself. If the performance itself was the original and the recording is a replica, then we cannot provide access to the original but we can provide access to the replica relatively easily. It seems that in this case, we have a particularly strong duty to ensure access to the replica because we cannot have a duty to ensure access to the original. I look forward to future work from Fabre on this fascinating topic, particularly as it applies to intangible heritage goods.