Wistful Objects: Ethics, Heritage and Pathos
Forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook on Nostalgia (Routledge), edited by Tobias Becker and Dylan Trigg.

In the scholarly literature on cultural heritage, nostalgia receives a wary welcome. It has attracted suspicions of fostering, if not a regressive lapse into pith-helmeted jingoism or post-Soviet revanchism, then a merely sentimental form of engagement with the past which is at best a prelude to more soberly critical scrutiny of history. Yet the very concept of heritage implies something besides dispassionate and purely scientific objectivity.

Much as the etymology of nostalgia suggests homesickness, heritage implies a rootedness which may seize us in ambivalent ways. The pain (algos) arises because there can be no homecoming (nostos), but it is pain of a kind that only someone with situated attachments will feel.

If the memorial sites of tragic events form what Lynn Meskell has called negative heritage, then presumably the default is positive heritage. Yet even here the effect of nostalgia is bittersweet. Heritage deals with conservation: with a constant effort to keep the past somehow preserved in the present. The fonder we are of what we find in history, the more aware we shall be that the most successful conservation still serves to forestall decay and loss.

Ours is an era much concerned about bias, which has been found to lurk even in the algorithms to which we had hoped to delegate our judgments. Towards the stuff of rose-tinted glasses and golden ages we are naturally sceptical, if not contemptuous. Yet if nostalgia fails as part of a warts-and-all examination of history, that may be because its aims are different entirely.

‘There is a pathos in objects,’ wrote John Henry Merryman. ‘They evoke nostalgia for the people, events, and cultures that produced them.’ This essay considers how such pathos may be not only sentimental or aesthetic, but part of our awareness of heritage as an ethically salient idea.


Living Space and Outer Space: Home, Habitat, Heritage and the Heavens
Forthcoming in Geoethics and Environmental Protection in Space (Springer), edited by Tony Milligan.

‘Home’ exists in contrast with ‘away’, and nowhere is more emphatically away from nearly every home in human history than space. The exploration of space has indeed enhanced our sense that we share a home on Earth, the precious ‘blue marble’. We have learnt to value our planet as a unique and fragile biosphere.

Yet if this is the value of our global Home, what is left for the ethics of Away, particularly when Away is so comprehensively abiotic? One possibility, drawing some of its inspiration from space archaeology, is that while space has offered little in the way of habitability it has nonetheless become a repository of our heritage. Yet to survey the ethics of natural and especially cultural heritage on Earth is to encounter the numerous competing claims of national and ethnic heritages: not so much the planetary home implied in the concept of ‘the common heritage of mankind’, but more often homelands whose borders are intrinsic to demands that objects ought to be ‘repatriated’.

If the concept of heritage is not a constant friend of any global ethic, then it may not easily foster any general approach to ethics in space either. To the extent that this concept does support a sense that humans share a common heritage, meanwhile, the entanglement of heritage with specific homelands reinforces the contrast between how we value our home planet and how we form a moral outlook regarding the rest of the universe.

Drawing on research on both the ethics of heritage and the philosophy of home, this essay suggests that in learning to respect the need to conserve the sole ancestral home our species has, we have not yet developed an ethics of cohabitation in this home which has fully prepared us also to assume responsibility for conserving the Outside.


Gone in a Flickr: Persistence, Ephemerality and Sharing
Forthcoming in Valuing Information (Springer), edited by James Besse and Zachary Isrow.

‘On [the defunct social networking site] Google+, and before them, on Geocities, FortuneCity, and many others, there’s always been a question who exactly the services are for,’ blogs an Internet Archive staff member. ‘Choosing to “back up” or make a Wayback-machine compatible snapshot of these places turns into a choice of how much of the Internet Archive’s budget should go towards holding them.’

For information no less than for physical artefacts, to ask how much value something has leads one to ask what kinds of value and for whom. Often this has concerned the potential to realise commercial value versus potential for unrestricted cultural exchange: Lawrence Lessig’s writing on intellectual property describes how old films seldom retain enough commercial value to outweigh the legal costs involved in making them publicly available. ‘Thus, for the vast majority of old films [...] the film will not be restored and distributed until the copyright expires. [By which time] the metal canisters in which they are now stored will be filled with nothing more than dust.’ (Free Culture, p. 225)

We do not merely choose what to keep or delete: we choose, or a host chooses for us, what resources to invest into active maintenance. The most widely familiar cases today may involve social networks rather than publishers’ media archives. Myspace lost the music its users uploaded over twelve years, ostensibly to a glitchy server migration and a nonexistent backup regime. Flickr, under new and more parsimonious ownership, limited free accounts to 1,000 images and deleted anything over the new limit.

This essay examines such cases of online ephemerality, from GeoCities to Flickr, in order to develop an account of the social aspect of shared information and its value. Drawing on research in the moral philosophy of cultural heritage, archaeology and museums, it explores how information's value may be realised within social practices of sharing and reuse. It argues that in evaluating information we should consider it not only as discrete and quantifiable data, but also in terms of information flows, of information in circulation.


Players’ Will and Characters’ Deeds: Agency and Legacy
Forthcoming in The Rise of the Roguelite: Essays on a Gaming Phenomenon (Taylor and Francis/CRC Press), edited by James Cartlidge.

Philosophical analysis of gaming, shaped partly in response to concerns about the moral implications of performing violent actions in games, has tended to explore the closest forms of identification between player and player character. Terms like ‘avatar attachment’ have been invented to conceptualise this relationship. Yet avatar attachment is precisely what the soon-discarded permadead leave scant opportunity to establish.

Where there is a distinct player character (not always the case in roguelites, as Sir or Madam may recall from Being Hunted), it may be the succession of characters that truly has centre stage. It may even be accumulated wealth that enjoys lasting value and for which sacrifices are cheerfully made. Thus Rogue Legacy bills itself as a ‘genealogical’ roguelite in which ‘every child is unique’ and all are equally and permanently mortal. Meanwhile captains not engulfed by the Sunless Sea may even opt to retire, and the legacy left to the next captain is the true means of progression in the long term.

There is an almost Burkean quality to such a feature: whereas Cannon Fodder used its supply of individual soldiers to satirise the wastefulness of war, a roguelite legacy mechanic promises eventual success through careful accumulation and husbandry across generations. (Mooncrash erases progress on eventual completion as well as penalising failure, and this aspect was so unpopular it led to an official statement from Arkane Studios about the technical difficulty of changing it. A far cry from NetHackers’ attitudes towards ascension!)

Tempting though it remains to think of the character through which one acts in the game world as an extension of one’s self into it, the secondary and auxiliary role of player characters within this kind of progression must give us serious pause. Perhaps we should revise or expand philosophical thinking about what it means to play as a player character, and be prepared to talk about avatar investment.


Meddling With Power: Archaeological Ethics and Territorial Politics
Forthcoming in Indiana Jones and Philosophy (Blackwell), edited by Dean A. Kowalski.

Politics was the one trap Indy never could evade. Nazis, Soviets and Mola Ram all pursue historic artefacts as part of their territorial ambitions. Indy’s own government uses him to pursue its strategic interests but sequesters the Ark in the care of its own ‘top men’.

This is where the Indiana Jones franchise comes nearest a realistic portrayal of archaeology, which was and is frequently politicised. Artefacts without divine or mystical power can still hold symbolic power as part of the stories nations and ethnicities tell about themselves. Even archaeology’s search for scientific knowledge gets entangled with politics: evidence of how things happened in the past can yield interpretations that sway disputes about ancestral rights to territory.

Indy is no paragon of modern archaeological stewardship, and the franchise knows it: LucasArts’ tie-in computer game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis opens with Indy searching haphazardly for a statuette in the archives of his own college, and eventually finding it in a locker in the boiler room. So much for that high-minded appeal to what ‘belongs in a museum’. But then, putting artefacts on display in public museums doesn’t distance them from worldly controversy: it ensures that anyone with a competing claim to be their legitimate owner has your address. ‘Anyone’, in this context, includes the governments of other nations. When Zahi Hawass was seeking the return of antiquities to Egypt on behalf of its government, he was portrayed in the press as ‘Indiana Jones, but in reverse’: flattering, but maybe also a reminder that governments too deal in ‘fortune and glory’.

The Indy who pursues fortune and glory (i.e. academic stardom and prestige) and the Indy who stands for disinterested science and scholarship both highlight the enduring entanglement of archaeological ethics with partisan politics. Is it possible to separate them? Is it laudable to try, or just a pretext for enjoying fortune and glory and attractive museum pieces while ignoring legitimate grievances? This chapter explores the philosophical underpinnings of archaeological ethics and what they tell us when digging requires getting your hands dirty.


Free Software Fondation, 24th February 2022.

Programmers are not united by ethnicity, but they do share bonds of culture; and the gift economies of Free Software and Open Source Software, in particular, evoke other and older communities within which artistry and craftsmanship are practised and their knowledge shared and cultivated. For programmers are not the first to see their knowledge and techniques bundled up by a commercial enterprise, transformed, and sold back to them as a ‘new’ commodity. Indigenous peoples have voiced grievances when their botany or their art is commercialised for others’ benefit, and a substantial and growing body of legal and philosophical thought has emerged in response. Though the disanalogies are not small, in the context of Copilot the resemblances are telling—and serve as a warning to copyright minimalists.


Cultural Heritage and Territorial Rights; Symbolic Identity and Territorial Rights
In Global Encyclopedia of Territorial Rights (Springer/Meteor Press, Major Reference Works series, 2021), edited by Michael Kocsis.

Two articles on territorial rights and cultural heritage.


Rootless Users? Ownership, Access and Culture
Originally written for Handbook of Research on Cyberculture in the 21st Century (IGI Global), edited by Simber Atay and Constantino Pereira Martins. That project was cancelled, so the essay is now in Cyberpolitics (Institute for Philosophical Studies, University of Coimbra, 2021), edited by Constantino Pereira Martins.

To study culture in the sense of ‘cultural heritage’—of museum pieces and traditional practices; of stately homes and sacred sites; of local folklore and national legends—is to find oneself in the midst of myriad claims to possession. Voluminous literatures, scholarly and otherwise, have sprung up around concepts of ‘cultural property’ and ‘cultural appropriation’. Demands for the ‘repatriation’ of artefacts to their countries of origin generate solemn discussion in political and academic circles.

Indeed, some nations’ governments seem far more interested in retaining artefacts within their borders than in the movement of people, as though responding to an age of global mass migration by placing a redoubled emphasis on symbolisms of nationality. This is simultaneously a time of fascination with both ‘cultural patrimony’ and ‘virtual citizenship’.

To enquire into culture as it has developed through the mediating influences of the Internet, conversely, is to encounter frequent emphasis on the borderless and unregulated, on the unowned and often the ultimately unownable. Struggles over the scope of copyright, the major legal instrument by which proprietary control is exercised over the spread of culture, gave rise to the Creative Commons movement. Lawrence Lessig would write books examining ‘free culture’ and ‘remix culture’; ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic would contribute to the musical culture of that era with ‘Don’t Download This Song’.

Substantial balkanisation of online communications by national governments, of which the ‘Great Firewall’ of the People’s Republic of China is the most prominent example, is a relatively recent and enduringly controversial phenomenon. Online communities routinely develop internationally around the most obscure of shared interests. As the webcomic xkcd puts it: ‘Human subcultures are nested fractally. There’s no bottom.’ There is even a scholarly literature on the video game phenomenon of ‘virtual worlds’, artificial social spaces with fantasy geographies all of their own.

It is therefore very easy to be struck by the impression that here one encounters two faces of culture: one pulling towards proprietary control and national regulation, with deeper roots in the physical world and the time before computerisation, and another kindled into life by the early public Internet, for which in some sense all governments are foreign and all borders imaginary. Yet it remains arguable that both owe something to the same philosophical traditions of thought. Liberalism, which via John Rawls inspires Will Kymlicka’s work on ‘cultural rights’ and minority peoples in multicultural societies, is also identified by E. Gabriella Coleman as a crucial influence animating hacker culture and the Free/Open Source Software movements.

This essay pursues the moral philosophies that undergird human claims on culture and how culture matters. It examines how and whether such a philosophical underpinning must respond to the novel influences of connected technologies on how modern humans now understand themselves to belong to cultures and cultural heritages to belong to them. In so doing it asks how great the gulf really is between an online ‘virtual world’ and a world in which nations seek to construct and sustain themselves through symbols and stories and reliquaries of their pasts.


Models and Maps, Memory and Mystery
Philosophy of the City Now: Around the World in 24 Hours, 17th May 2021

The lockdown has made us used to thinking about human mingling in cities more through epidemiological models than through life as we lived it; but this has taken to extremes a strand of urban thinking which existed in John Snow's map of cholera infections in Soho in 1854, or in the Bills of Mortality published by London’s Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks during the plague of 1665. The data-driven city predates the 'smart city', and the history of cities is in part the history of conceptual models we have made for them: old Tube maps, for example, mark the presence underground of now-disused 'ghost stations'.

Of course, our modern maps and models belong to the age of big data and high technology: on Google Maps I can view a satellite image while learning about the Secret Cinema beneath the Houses of Parliament and the designer clothing shop within the Downing Street security cordon. (Spoilsport reviewers have undermined someone's jape.) While one would hope that epidemiological models rest on surer footing, this does reveal something of the way in which even gaps in records, the parts of a territory which a map must omit, are open invitations to the urban imagination.

We mainly think of urban heritage in terms of solid buildings and monuments—we call them heritage to the extent that we consider them worth preserving—but around them there's a penumbra of historic possibilities. A planning application that was turned down is as real as one that went ahead, as a trace of the city that might have been but exists only ‘on paper’. Even an urban myth about unmarked subway passages is a real part of the cultural life of the city. The city is physically and mundanely there, but its historic quarters have other and stranger dimensions.


Ghost Walks for Wireless Networks
In Technology and the City: Towards a Philosophy of Urban Technologies (Springer, Philosophy of Engineering and Technology series, 2021), edited by Michael Nagenborg, Margoth González Woge, Taylor Stone and Pieter Vermaas.

As technology transforms urban futures, it must get to grips with urban pasts. The development of cities is likened to palimpsests or strata: their cultural heritage is a history of repeated repurposing of urban spaces.

Work is being done on how to preserve existing architectural heritage alongside the novel infrastructure of ‘smart cities’, and on how such technology can aid preservation. Smart Heritage Sensors can enable buildings and monuments to monitor themselves and report structural decay. The Europeana Foundation has an initiative ‘to promote cultural heritage as a pillar of smart cities’. Meanwhile mobile apps let people track geographies of faded advertising markings (‘ghost signs’), or learn more about the streets surrounding them through augmented reality.

What is so far less developed is recognition that this embedded smartness, in which ‘the blood that runs through the veins of the cities of the future consists of data’, will itself be part of urban heritage to preserve for future generations.

The grandest vision of digital interconnectedness is of ‘smart’ environments that continuously monitor themselves and systematically react: in which data on everything from traffic flow to pollution levels are continuously available across the network so that other local subsystems can respond efficiently. The greatest prize for urban heritage may be the prospect of places with digital memories: of a city that even remembers the footfall on the waterfront ten years in the past (because it used the information to adjust illumination from the streetlights, and stores the data to enable examination of long-term trends). A city full of ghosts. A city made of memory.

How can (or should) we demarcate heritage ‘sites’ when connectivity is intimately built into them? Conversely, when physical sites become co-opted into manifold augmented realities, from video games to ‘virtual’ graffiti, to apps that subjectively ‘edit’ the statuary in public places or bring adblocking to perceptions of physical scenes, whose responsibility is this cultural reimagination of the urban space? This chapter examines the prospects for the future of cities’ pasts, at once centralised through ‘smart’ networks and fractured into myriad individually personalised cities, and asks how the technological city will remember itself.


Cultural Icons and Symbolic Links: What Technological Connectivity Means for Cultural Connections (and Vice Versa)
University of Twente philosophy colloquium, 22nd October 2020

In August 2020, news reports emerged that a 212-storey citadel was suddenly towering over Melbourne, while Buckingham Palace had been replaced with an office building. In Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator, that is. Its occasionally erroneous attempts to reconstruct the world from sources including OpenStreetMap illustrated the extent to which we inhabit a world of data as well as physical geography.

Where these layers of data don’t perfectly mirror the physical world, it’s not always a mistake. Before people discovered they could sometimes attack statues with impunity, there was a project to do the reverse: to increase the number of statues depicting women by creating ‘virtual’ statues in Augmented Reality and sharing them via a smartphone app. To my knowledge, nobody has yet put two and two together and started re-erecting toppled monuments in AR, but don’t be surprised if someone shortly does.

While our civilisation fails to deal peaceably with disputes over historic sculpture, our technological capabilities are advancing to let us sit in our smart homes planning a trip to another smart city across a smart border. This talk asks how our assumptions about monuments and heritage and culture(s) in general may be changed and challenged once meaningful distinctions between online cultures and everything else have dissolved.


Ethical Intelligence, 8th January 2020

A piece on digital afterlives, written after the outcry when Twitter planned to start deleting disused accounts, for an ethics consultancy which includes me in its expert network.


Arc Digital, 27th June 2019

Culture can be somebody’s property, or everyone’s concern.


Virtue, 10th June 2019

An introductory article on ethical questions created by uses of location data, aimed at prospective clients of an ethics consultancy which includes me in its contact network.


Reaction, 29th May 2019

In Reaction’s ‘Better Britain: What do we want for our country?’—a ‘series aimed at generating a conversation about the policies and ideas which might improve life in Britain’.


Leaks in the Ship of Fools
In WikiLeaking: The Ethics of Secrecy and Exposure (Open Court, 2018), edited by Christian Cotton and Robert Arp.

Where personal knowledge is concerned technology has long been double-edged: the Internet supports shared online spaces where you can be a half-elven vampire, and it supports prospective employers who try to gauge your character and reputation with a search engine. Responses to this brave new world have ranged from the laconic (the infamous ‘You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.’) to the dubiously utopian: a report by the Higher Education Commission in the United Kingdom anticipated a future in which students might be monitored to the point of tracking not only library visits (and even where their eyeballs fall on electronic textbook pages) but also visits to the campus bar, in order to accumulate data ‘which can be used in analytics to provide a more complete and powerful portrait of the student’.

Denizens of the modern world, who will be tracked by numerous parties when merely browsing the Web unless they use adblockers, who live with the leakiness of social media, and who get to check a site called haveibeenpwned.com after public data breaches, might reasonably wonder whether there’s really anything that special about WikiLeaks, apart, of course, from its penchant for getting up the noses of powerful organisations.

‘Sauce for the gander’ is not a principle commonly invoked in moral philosophy, and ethicists are not typically seen playing ‘the world’s smallest violin’. Yet those who have been told that they have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide can hardly miss the irony: a dark and double irony when WikiLeaks itself wields murky influence. From this angle, WikiLeaks looks less like a problem or puzzle for abstract scholarly analysis and more like one of the personae of a tragicomic drama.


Foreign and Native Soils: Migrants and the Uses of Landscape
In Cultural Heritage, Ethics and Contemporary Migrations (Routledge, 2018), edited by Geoffrey Scarre, Cornelius Holtorf and Andreas Pantazatos.

Since land is older than the borders which humans have drawn and redrawn upon its surface, it may seem that, unlike the artefacts which people make with materials taken from the landscapes around them, land itself is endlessly open for new waves of migrants to embrace as part of their own heritage. Yet humans do mark landscapes, sometimes in lasting ways: not only roads and buildings but agriculture, forestry, dams and diverted rivers, quarrying and mining and more. It is landscape archaeologists who are most able to trace the material evidence of how landscapes were used and by whom; and so when interests in land are contested, archaeological evidence may be cited in order to distinguish the long-established community from the geographical Johnny-come-lately, or to cast doubt on whether this can meaningfully be done. (An example is litigation concerning forests in southern Belize, once logging had made them profitable: the ethnographic and archaeological question of whether peoples inhabiting the area were descended from the ancient Maya, or whether from more recent immigrants, became a point of legal disputation.) This chapter assesses the ethical use of scientific knowledge when settlement, and the traces of settlement which archaeology can uncover, can leave newer immigrants finding that the very ground beneath their feet already looks like someone else’s cultural artefact.


Brexit Central, 26th November 2017

A follow-up to my February article on post-Brexit cultural policy, responding to the cancellation of bidding to be European Capital of Culture with an examination of the decision. (The title under which the article was published is basically drawn from its closing paragraph.)


Hacker Ethics for Cyborg Appliances
Talk delivered at the MANCEPT Workshops 2017 panel Bio-Hackers, Home Made Cyborgs and Body Modifications: A New Frontier for Ethics and Policy in September 2017.

Modification of human bodies encounters questions of ownership. Legal dimensions have run from copyright in tattoos to the patentability of the genome. Philosophical questions arise by way of Lockean ideas about self-ownership. Cyberpunk has long brought the two uncomfortably together: the Ghost in the Shell franchise was dwelling on characters’ cyborg bodies as government property back in the early-to-mid-Nineties.

Now biohacking has arrived, and as the name implies it owes something to computing’s ‘hacker ethic’ and thereby to the open source and free software movements. (In fact, we have already reached the point of seeing serious discussions about the use of open versus closed source software in health implants, not least when the possibility arises of pacemakers that can succumb to hacking in the other sense of the word, that of unauthorised intrusion and subversion.) To speak of hacking rather than mere modification connotes an ethos: one of mastering a system and pushing it in fresh and exploratory directions, and one of free and open sharing of knowledge.

Biomodification, then, could emerge as the epitome of autonomous self-ownership, or undermine it profoundly. Computers in everyday use have turned into scenes of struggle between users and commercial interests, from adblocking to Digital Rights Management (that is, anti-copying technology). Now computerisation is moving into the body, the physical site of our sense of self.

This talk examines the implications as a question of ethics: it argues that ‘biohacking’ evokes an ethos which complements but goes beyond questions of legal regulation and the design and functionality of biomodification technology. When the human body potentially starts to become one more computerised appliance, the most autonomous thing a person can do may be to hack the appliance and creatively explore what can be done with it.


Quillette, 1st June 2017

An uncompromisingly tepid defence of the concept of cultural appropriation: right or wrong, it’s more intricate than one might infer from recent public debate.


(published as Why Augmented Reality Is Triggering Cultural Conflict and Religious Controversy)
The Conversation, 19th May 2017

An offshoot from research into how connected technologies blur basic concepts of cultural sites and objects, though it ended up as more of a topical piece on the bleeding of digital culture into physical and even sacred spaces.


Heterotopias, 25th April 2017

Culture and politics from a procedurally generated countryside. (The original draft was considered too dense with information, but may be of interest to those wanting to learn more.)


In Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks: Philosophy: Technology (Cengage, 2017), edited by Tony Beavers.

[Erratum note: on p.200, for ‘is no stranger’ read ‘are no stranger’.]

A commissioned textbook chapter.


(published as How Might Brexit Affect Attempts by the E.U. to Define “European Culture”?)
Brexit Central, 11th February 2017

‘European culture’ is symbolically important to the European project: how the E.U. pursues cultural policy in light of Brexit will indicate what kind of European identity it now aims to promote, and where we Anglo-Saxons and assorted Celts are expected to stand in relation to it.


(published as George W. Bush Was a Policy Pioneer)
Comment Central, 3rd February 2017

I wonder how many people will take this at face value...


Subtle Casualties: Conflict and Intangible Cultural Heritage
The Ethical War Blog, Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, 19th September 2016

Material heritage is not the only kind affected by war; how should our ethics take account of intangible heritage in conflict zones?

Why Should Cultural Artefacts Be More Rooted Than People?
The Conversation, 26th August 2016

Repatriation of cultural heritage is being debated at a time of mass migration—is heritage more important to countries that increasingly cannot be defined by their populations?

(published as Are You an E.U. Devotee?)
Comment Central

This aged better than one might have wished.


(published as The Flagging Ideals of Multiculturalism)

Guest posts for Imagine Athena.


Exploring the Heavens and the Heritage of Mankind
In Commercial Space Exploration: Ethics, Policy and Governance (Ashgate, 2015), edited by Jai Galliott.

This is the last draft I approved; the printed version seems to have undergone some further copy-editing.

‘The heavens’ are among the oldest and most enduring heritage of human cultures: a scene of ancient myths and modern space opera. That something is part of somebody’s cultural heritage implies that there may be ethical duties to conserve it or otherwise treat it with respect, and space is no exception to this principle: recent work by Tony Milligan asserts that the cultural significances of the Moon may count against any prospect of lunar mining on a significantly destructive scale. Current literature on the ethics of cultural heritage, however, tends ordinarily to be suited to more familiar sorts of heritage: artefacts and places contested by terrestrial governments and settled ethnic groups, rather than the distant worlds above us. So long as space exploration is conducted by those same terrestrial governments and their agencies, current international agreements about protection of ‘the common heritage of mankind’ may seem adequate as a guiding light for their ethics in space. Private space exploration, however, introduces further difficulties.

Private individuals and corporations often have complex cultural affiliations of their own; and expansion into space may foster the development of identities not strongly grounded in the national and regional cultures of Earth. To look up and observe space is part of the heritage we share as human beings, whilst the names of the ‘heavenly bodies’ we perceive and the stories we tell about them are hallmarks of particular terrestrial cultures; but what responsibilities are borne towards this heritage by people who go out to explore and inhabit and exploit it? This essay considers in what ways, and to what extent, the roles which space has played within the cultures that have developed on Earth might place moral constraints upon private explorers of space. I argue that space qua heritage is best conceptualised as an intellectual resource: explorers will not find legendary heroes or crystal spheres, but it has been possible (for example) for human cultures to feature Moon Goddesses by virtue of the fact that there is a Moon. Drawing on ideas of stewardship which have been influential in archaeological ethics, I develop an account of how duties of conservation might put practical constraints upon the exploitation of this resource.

Fuelling the Insurgency? Antiquities in Iraq
Victvs, July/August 2014. (Victvs was then commissioning articles as a cultural intelligence and security consultancy, prior to its shift of emphasis onto counter-radicalisation training.)

Explaining the wider context of ISIS and the trade in illicit antiquities.

We Didn’t Start the Fire Either

This was drafted in response to a c.f.p. on youth representation and intergenerational justice, but for reasons I don’t fully remember I left it unfinished instead of writing the concluding section I intended; perhaps I suspected that what I wanted to say was diverging from the call’s remit.

Trouble With the Short Term
ORG Zine, October 2013

A feature examining the risk of short-term thinking in digital policy.


We have a moral vocabulary of democratic citizenship, and a moral vocabulary of environmental sustainability—but can our ethics encompass both in harmony?


Other Times and Other Peoples

Endorsed by the editor thusly: ‘This article is a total tease!’ A short piece for a general audience, raising questions about the extent to which we can compare cross-cultural encounters in different eras.

Blue Reread

A brief critical retrospective of William Gass’s On Being Blue.

Motherlands and Museum Pieces

This article briefly explains some of the moral and political problems occasioned by contested cultural heritage. A descriptive summary with lightly analytical commentary, intended for a non-specialist audience with an interest in cross-cultural relations.

Clutter, Memory, and Living Well

The rise of the professionalised organisation of living spaces has attracted remarkably little critical attention or reflection on its social and personal implications; yet if the therapeutic terms in which these services are routinely advertised are to be even half-believed, no comprehension of the good life can be quite complete until the domestic obstruction has been acknowledged as a candidate for exorcism. Beginning with these claims I consider the role of accumulated material possessions in the not-yet-wholly-flourishing life: specifically, I discuss the possibility that our stuff, as the residue of a personal past including our abandoned and unfinished projects, might be an obstruction to our wellbeing not merely by inconveniently taking up space in our homes, but as a medium through which dead pasts cling to our present selves. Considering two possible forms of memory (drawn from the work of Eli Zaretsky), I suggest that the implications of clutter’s presence and removal are no less mixed than our multiple ways of remembering, and that it is no simple question whether the life lived well is one which acknowledges or which smooths over the messiness of leading a human life in the modern world.

Getting ‘Virtual’ Wrongs Right

DOI: 10.1007/s10676-012-9304-z

The final text is archived here, minus the publisher’s layout and pagination.

Whilst some philosophical progress has been made on the ethical evaluation of playing video games, the exact subject matter of this enquiry remains surprisingly opaque. ‘Virtual murder’, simulation, representation and more are found in a literature yet to settle into a tested and cohesive terminology. Querying the language of the virtual in particular, I suggest that it is at once inexplicit and laden with presuppositions potentially liable to hinder anyone aiming to construct general philosophical claims about an ethics of gameplay, for whom assumptions about the existence of ‘virtual’ counterparts to morally salient phenomena may prove untrustworthy. Ambiguously straddling the pictorial and the performative aspects of video gaming, the virtual leaves obscure the ways in which we become involved in gameplay, and particularly the natures of our intentions and attitudes whilst grappling with a game; furthermore, it remains unclear how we are to generalise across encounters with the virtual. I conclude by briefly noting one potential avenue of further enquiry into our modes of participation in games: into the differences which a moral examination of playfulness might make to ethical evaluation.

The Ethical Patiency of Cultural Heritage
Doctoral thesis, Durham, 2011. This version corrects some minor textual errors which escaped both my and the examiners’ notice.

The thesis was supervised by Geoffrey Scarre, and examined in November 2011 by Peter Lamarque and Elisabeth Schellekens-Dammann.

[Erratum note: p. 30 conflates the Kumasi palace looting of 1874 with that of 1896.]

Current treatments of cultural heritage as an object of moral concern (whether it be the heritage of mankind or of some particular group of people) have tended to treat it as a means to ensure human wellbeing: either as ‘cultural property’ or ‘cultural patrimony’, suggesting concomitant rights of possession and exclusion, or otherwise as something which, gaining its ethical significance from the roles it plays in people’s lives and the formation of their identities, is the beneficiary at most of indirect moral obligations. In contrast, I argue that cultural heritage, as something whose existence can go well or badly, can itself qualify as a moral patient towards which we may have obligations which need not be accounted for in terms of subsequent benefits to human beings. Drawing inspiration from environmental ethics and suggesting that heritage, like an ecosystem, is a complex network of interrelations which invites a holistic understanding, I develop a framework for thinking about cultural heritage which shows how such a thing can feature in our ethical reflections as intrinsically worthy of respect in spite of its most obvious differences from the ‘natural’ world: the very human origins of cultural heritage and its involvement with human life in all its forms. As part of the development of this framework I consider the epistemic difficulties which arise when for all our holistic sophistication we do find ourselves in the predicament of having to judge the moral worth of some item of heritage, possibly someone else’s heritage and possibly something which we find ourselves disposed to value more because of than despite any mysteries surrounding it. I conclude by offering some tentative illustrations of how such a framework might operate in the practical course of normative moral reasoning about what should be done with items of cultural heritage.

Fernando Pessoa As Philosophers
From a February 2010 seminar.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was a Portuguese literary figure and philosophical dabbler notable for being not only authorially multiple, as with Kierkegaard, but psychologically so: the ‘heteronyms’ under which he frequently wrote were, he declared in an unpublished draft, ‘lived by [him] within himself’. The close association between each heteronym’s pseudobiography, style, character and opinions doesn’t obviously sit neatly with any vision of philosophical writing as the presentation of impersonal deductive arguments; on the other hand, if we think philosophy should be life-changing and the philosopher ought to embody his philosophy then we’re also in difficulty, if we take that view to demand a psychological unity which Pessoa rejected. So I’d like to talk to you about how the case of Fernando Pessoa might offer some metaphilosophical insight into the interrelation between life and idea in philosophy.

From an August 2009 seminar: an attempt at self-exemplifying metaphilosophy. This was later to be cannibalised for parts when I needed to discuss the museum as applied moral epistemology as part of my work on heritage.

In this exploration I suggest that the visionary imagination can be understood as a specific mode of philosophical practice. If More’s Utopia and Bentham’s Panopticon qualify as philosophical writings, perhaps we could read the very environment around us as a massively collaboratively authored philosophical work; and, given this conjecture, it follows that an imaginative project which envisages possible environments can be read as a kind of speculative metaphilosophical reflection in dialogue with concrete practice. I present an interpretation of the visionary individual as someone imaginatively opening up possibilities for engaging philosophically with ideas embedded into the world.

Presented at the 2008 Durham-Bergen Conference, and would have been in Proceedings of the Eleventh Durham-Bergen Postgraduate Philosophy Seminar if the Proceedings backlog had ever been resolved.

To hint is to guide one’s audience to some thought while avoiding open endorsement of it: an uneasy ambivalence develops in a subterfuge which must fail, since the message has to be conveyed, but which nevertheless must succeed in preventing oneself’s being understood, for to be understood would be to be unmasked. This paper distinguishes hinting from other forms of indirect communication, and calls into question both the rationality and the moral permissibility of the practice.