Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

The Principle of Reparations

During his now famous sermon at Trinity United, Father Michael Pfleger said the following:

We must be honest enough to address the one who says, “Don’t hold me responsible for what my ancestors did.” But you have enjoyed the benefits of what your ancestors did. And unless you are ready to give up the benefits, throw away your 401 fund, throw away your trust fund, throw away all the money that’s been put away in the company that you walked into cause your Daddy, and your Granddaddy, and your Great-Grandaddy… Unless you are willing to give up the benefits, then you must be responsible for what was done in your generation, cause you are the beneficiary of this insurance policy.

This comment, among others, has brought Father Pfleger in for a great deal of criticism. Yet while his statement was more than a little intemperate, at the core of his argument is a perfectly respectable philosophical principle, which for lack of a better term I shall call the principle of reparations. According to the principle, if a given act of injustice X results in A being better off than he would have been absent X, and B being worse off than he would have been absent X, then A owes reparations to B, regardless of whether A was in any way responsible for X. The advantage of the principle of reparations is that it allows us to explain how members of one group might have special obligations to members of another group based on historical injustices without having to invoke some notion of “sins of the father” or collective guilt which would be morally problematic to say the least.

I said that the principle of reparations was philosophically respectable. I did not say that it was right. In fact, I think the principle is at root nearly as problematic as the idea of collective guilt itself. To see why, take the most obvious case of white and blacks in modern day America. The argument made by many, is that since American whites are better off as a result of slavery while American blacks are worse off because of it, under the principle of reparations American whites owe a moral debt to American blacks, which can only be repaid by either improving the condition of American blacks to what it would have been absent slavery, or decreasing the condition of American whites to what it would have been otherwise.

Both premises in this argument are open to serious challenge. Take the first premise, that whites in American are better off than they would have been absent slavery. This is, at best, a highly debatable point. While slavery was certainly beneficial in the short run to slave owners, over the long term it tended to impede industrialization, to the ultimate economic detriment of society as a whole. Certainly if one were to compare those parts of the U.S. were slavery was once widespread to those where it was not, one would find higher levels of average income and standard of living in the latter than in the former, suggesting that the long term economic impact of slavery on American whites has been negative.

Likewise, the claim that American blacks are worse off than they would have been absent slavery, while plausible sounding, is false. For one thing, absent slavery, it is doubtful that any black American alive today would so much as exist. Taking people from Africa to America radically rearranged the distribution of these people, such that for any American black living today, the chances that there parents would have met and married (and their parents met and married, and their parents met and married, and etc.) absent the slave trade is virtually nil. And even if we were able to somehow sidestep this problem, the truth is that by any objective measure the standard of living of American blacks is higher than the standard of living of blacks in Africa (the fact that many Africans have and/or wish to move to the United States, while few if any Americans have or wish to move to Africa corroborates this). So, strange as it may sound, it would seem that to the extent there is even a fact of the matter on the point, the American blacks today are better off than they would have been had it not been for slavery.

Acknowledging this fact, of course, does nothing to justify or excuse (even partially) the horror that was slavery. Slavery was, and is, a monstrous evil. The reasons for its being evil, however, have very little to do with the effect it may have on the lives of the decedents of slaves several hundred years in the future. We can condemn slavery without having to deny that the standard of living of American blacks is higher than the standard of living of African blacks, just as a man might condemn the Holocaust as a great evil while recognizing that, if the Holocaust hadn’t happened, his parents would never have met and married.

That American whites today are worse off than they would have been absent slavery, and that American blacks today are better off than they would have been absent it are both at least debatable propositions. Unless both of them can be shown to be false, the case for reparations will not go through. Note though, what happens if both propositions are true. If American whites today are worse off than they would have been absent the injustice of slavery, and American blacks today are better off than they would have been absent that injustice, then according to the principle of reparations it is American blacks that would owe reparations to American whites. But that is absurd, and not just because one or the other of the propositions is doubtful. Even if slavery did retard economic growth in the U.S., leading to a lower standard of living for American whites than would have otherwise obtained, and even if slavery had the unintended consequence of improving the lives of the decedents of slaves, it still would not be the case that American blacks owed reparations to American whites. But if that is the case, then the principle of reparations must be false.

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July 6, 2008 - Posted by | Morality, Philosophy, Race

2 Comments »

  1. I’m impressed by this very well-reasoned essay.

    However, at a critical stage in the argument, you assert, “While slavery was certainly beneficial in the short run to slave owners, over the long term it tended to impede industrialization, to the ultimate economic detriment of society as a whole.”

    In fact, the opposite is true. While slavery generated short-term profits to slave owners and, indirectly, to the rest of the economy, its greatest effect was long-term.

    The impact of cheap, slave-produced commodities (especially cotton) on the ability of the U.S. to take its first steps in industrializing (particularly in the textile industry) cannot be understated.

    Industrialization also required significant surplus capital for investment, and much of that capital came from slave owners and slave traders. For instance, Senator James D’Wolf, arguably the nation’s most successful slave trader, invested much of his profit from slave trading in the earliest textile mills in the north.

    Without slavery, it’s likely that the U.S. wouldn’t have been able to industrialize in time to secure a commanding position in the world economy, one which it has benefited from ever since. This means that all Americans enjoy a standard of living today that is much higher than they would have had otherwise.

    Comment by James | July 6, 2008 | Reply

  2. If American whites today are worse off than they would have been absent the injustice of slavery, and American blacks today are better off than they would have been absent that injustice, then according to the principle of reparations it is American blacks that would owe reparations to American whites. But that is absurd, and not just because one or the other of the propositions is doubtful. Even if slavery did retard economic growth in the U.S., leading to a lower standard of living for American whites than would have otherwise obtained, and even if slavery had the unintended consequence of improving the lives of the decedents of slaves, it still would not be the case that American blacks owed reparations to American whites. But if that is the case, then the principle of reparations must be false.

    While agreeing with you on the principle of reparations (at least when applied to whole ethinic groups rather than specific individuals) is false, I am not sure this represents an inverse test case. Your original formulation was that injustice X benefits A and hurts B, then A owes B reparations. Now, implicit in this (or at least, so I assumed) is that A perpetrated the injustice upon B.

    In the inverse case, we have A perpetrating an injustice on B, which ends up backfiring by hurting A while benefiting B. In that case, I think no one would say that any reparations apply — but that’s simply because A was at fault to start with.

    Comment by Darwin | July 7, 2008 | Reply


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