Legality vs. Morality

I have (thus far) avoided adressing the Elgin Marbles debate on this blog. In part this is because I really don’t feel that I have much to say that hasn’t been said much more eloquently by others. In part it is because I recognise that my own opinion is very much coloured by the fact that I spend hours as a child knocking round the British Museum. I am not going to directly deal with the rights and wrongs of the situation here.
However, earlier this week I had the opportunity to listen to two groups of first year university students debate the issue. It was interesting to see their approach; these are mostly students who have no background in ethics, archaeology or even ancient history. For most of them this was their first time reading about the Marbles. They approached the topic, as educated but generally not particularly invested Canadians (and yes, I do think the fact that they were not British or Greek makes a difference), in a much more abstract way than I have seen elsewhere.

What interested me most about their approach was how much they focused on the importance of the emotional and cultural elements to the debate, rather than the legal issues. Even those arguing for the retention of the Marbles in the UK tended to focus on their “importance to British culture”. Legal issues were hardly mentioned. In part this is probably because the majority weren’t actually aware of the laws and guidelines that exist governing cultural heritage. However I suspect the real reason is because “morality” has far more rhetorical power.

A few weeks ago I would probably have taken much the same approach. I still very much believe that morality has a role to play in archaeological ethics. Yet I am wary of relying too heavily on “moral” arguments, simply because they lack parameters. Whose morality is “correct”? What if (as with the Marbles) too sides vehemently declare themselves to be acting morally? We cannot measure morality.
I may not always agree with the parameters laid out by cultural heritage laws; however they do have the benefit of bringing some black and white to a world of grey. I may still change my mind on this one but right now I think that legality should hold more sway than morality based arguments – one is at least semi-measurable, the other is too subjective to be applied across the field.

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