This is a thought experiment. Presumably the Louvre already has extensive fire suppression systems and separate evacuation plans for its visitors (including the less-abled) and for its most valuable art works. The point of this scenario is not to recreate the boring details of such plans, but to stimulate thinking about the fundamentals of value and hopefully break through some cliches.
Life has value. Indeed life is the ultimate source of value because it is only from the perspective of life – of a subject of experience of the world – that the act of valuing is possible. To self-consciously alive creatures like ourselves, art is one of the things we can find valuable. But continued being is even more valuable because of all the other valuable things besides art that we may want to be and to do. The ending of a life is a bad thing to the extent that it cuts such being off from ourselves and others. There is an unfairness to having a shorter life than most others, and there is a particular tragedy in having a life cut off abruptly – in mid-sentence as it were – without the time to say goodbye to our projects and our loved ones.
So human life has value and moreover it is logically prior to and hence greater than art. But this scenario is not in the first instance about the comparative value of life and art in some absolute sense. Rather it asks us to make a more specific choice between saving a few (perhaps as many as several thousand) humans who happen to be visiting the Louvre, or saving some world-famous artworks like the Mona Lisa.
If we were to ask each individual museum visitor whether they would prefer that they or the Mona Lisa survive most of them might indeed value their continued being more. (Although perhaps some of them – the truly dedicated art-lovers – might prefer the continued survival of the Art.) But their personal calculations don’t really matter, since the value of the Art to the world would appear to far eclipse the value of their lives to themselves and to those who love them. The artworks are world famous while the art visitors are not. Moreover there are plenty more people where they came from (and we know how to make more) while the artworks are unique and irreplaceable and a responsibility in our care to pass on to future generations.
Hence, of course we should save the art first and let the people burn.
But, secondly, something has clearly gone wrong here. Inanimate bits of paper daubed with paint and and a narrative of authentic creation are not at all as important as human beings and can never justify their involuntary sacrifice. Only a moral monster in this scenario would actually pick up a Rembrandt rather than a child to rescue from the flames. Many hundreds of millions of people around the world think that the fact that someone from an art history book used his own hands to make the thing hanging on the wall makes it special, but this superstition (little better than the idea that objects are haunted by their previous owners) does not pass the test of fire.
It turns out that we have collectively been making a rather significant confusion between the idea of value constructed by price mechanisms out of the aggregation of our likes and purchasing power, and a genuine thought process of valuation. A mistake repeated by our political representatives spending billions on these baubles on our behalf instead of on actually beneficial things like universal university education, better health care, or climate change adaptation in poor countries. But if we wouldn’t exchange the Mona Lisa for a child’s life during a fire, we should question why we were we ever so content to make the very same choice implicitly, year after year.
Note: This essay is based on a thought experiment I like to give to my undergraduate students, and was previously published on 3 Quarks Daily.