A city acquired a vacant industrial building as part of its development of a nature sanctuary, and many nearby residents wanted the city to tear down the graffiti-covered former factory, which they saw as an eyesore. However the four-story brick building remained structurally solid and large enough to accommodate a number of nature-related activities, including a charter school, a natural history center, and offices for nature organizations. The city had to decide whether to bend to the political pressure or find someone to rehabilitate the building.
In a famous article on the ethics of abortion, the philosopher Don Marquis argued that we don’t allow murder because it causes its victims to lose all of the “activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments” that they would have had. “What make killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his or her future,” wrote Marquis.
We can extend that same argument to the premature ending of the life of a perfectly good building, as in the case here. While the word “life” has a different meaning when we apply it to a living being as opposed to an inanimate object like a building, the ethics related to terminating a life appear as relevant to buildings as much as bodies. Demolishing something that still has a promising future raises the same kind of objections we have when we see someone negligently or intentionally killing someone else. It deprives people of the “activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments” that they might have had in that building.
Drawing a parallel between killing a person and demolishing a building may seem extreme. Buildings have no political rights, no feeling of pain, no interpersonal relationships or any of the other characteristics of a human life that make murder so immoral. Nor, since the abolition of slavery, do we allow one person to own another, the way we do buildings. The private-property rights that accrue to the owner of a building gives that person relatively free reign to tear it down except in those few instances where historic designations or other contractual agreements prohibit it.
Law and ethics, though, almost never perfectly align. What the law allows us to do does not necessarily make it ethical, which Marquis’s argument highlights. We can legally engage in war, for example, but that does not make the killing of other people ethical because, as Marquis observes, it deprives them of their future, which we have no right to take. At the same time, Marquis argues for the ethics of mercy killing, of ending the life a terminally ill person who wants to die because of the pain and suffering that their foreshortened future holds for them, even though this remains illegal.
This gives us criteria of when to save a building and when not to. If a structure still has “life” in it, with enough structural integrity and physical capacity to accommodate a variety of new uses, we should do all we can to preserve and rehabilitate it. And if not – if its deterioration has so shortened its life and made its reuse almost impossible without a nearly complete rebuilding – we should not hesitate demolishing it unless there is some extraordinary historical value attached to the structure to merit its reconstruction.
In the case of the solid industrial building in that nature preserve, the city needs to do whatever possible to find a new owner or developer willing to rehabilitate the structure. While the city has no political advantage or legal requirement to do so, it does have an ethical responsibility, and for many people, that’s reason enough.