Intrinsic Value and Conservation Treatment Decision-Making

February 12, 2010

Heritage conservation is driven by ideas and implementation, theory and practice.  The technical side of practice receives the lion’s share of attention in the literature and research (as well it should), but the theoretical questions of decision-making are the ones that have dogged me thus far: how do we determine which items we treat and how we treat them?  The answers always return to amorphous articulation of value that I find vaguely dissatisfying on a conceptual level.  Particularly in a library setting, contrasting the value of one rare or unique item against another to determine priorities comes across as an Herculean, if not impossible, task.  Surrounded by vast quantities of such material can we claim that each item has an intrinsic value that must be accounted for, or can decisions be based upon a more utilitarian view of instrumental value?  Lynn Maguire and James Justus make a strong case for the latter:

Conservation requires decisionmaking, and here intrinsic value falls short. Decisionmaking requires tradeoffs: competition among conservation projects for limited funds and personnel, compromises between preservation…and other human uses, and even conflicts between conservation goals…Trade-offs require comparative evaluation of competing claims, whether this evaluation is done explicitly (e.g., by eliciting preferences, as in multicriteria decision analysis, or by monetizing value, as in contingent valuation [Chee 2004]) or implicitly, by taking a particular decision…

Although proponents of intrinsic value hope that it will take priority over competing socioeconomic demands, it is more likely that conservation goals will be cast aside in favor of those more easily computed in familiar metrics such as dollars. This is not unique to conservation decisionmaking.

Now seems like a good time to point out that Maguire and Justus are discussing that other conservation field, ecological.

Undoubtedly, arguing that instrumental value is more useful for conservation decisions than intrinsic value will not satisfy everyone. The essential tension between the emotional appeal of intrinsic value and the trade-offs required by conservation decisions is probably irreconcilable. Using instrumental value to bring aesthetic, spiritual, and cultural values of biota into conservation decisionmaking will not satisfy deep ecologists and others who find weighing one form of value against another abhorrent. But those defending conservation against competing uses and allocating scarce resources among conservation actions are better served by building their decisions on a strong foundation of instrumental value rather than on the weak concept of intrinsic value.

Whichever the field, conservation treatment seems determined primarily by instrumental value: high monetary worth, exhibition needs, digitization demands, or curatorial whim.  Riegl’s monumental values influence our understanding of all this, but as background considerations that feed into our interpretation of the object, not at the fore of decisions in comparing priorities against one another.

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