Reparations for Slavery

This is posted at PEA Soup (a site dedicated to philosophy, ethics, and academia).  I will just present the argument here but if read the rest of the comments on the site, it’s interesting what the replies have been towards this argument.

David Boonin, a professor at the University of Colorado, presents an argument in favor of reparations. Now this argument has been around for a while, but this is the first time I’ve seen it presented in a deductive fashion.  Here’s the argument:

(1) The United States federal government (hereafter, the govt) performed unjust, harmful actions pertaining to slavery.
E.g., not only failing to stop slavery but legally protecting and enforcing slave ownership.

(2) These past actions are a cause of certain harms suffered by many present-day black Americans.
E.g., blacks have much lower socioeconomic status, higher rates of incarceration, illegitimacy, and a host of social problems. It’s plausible to think that this is at least partly a consequence of slavery, and of the govt’s unjust slavery-related acts.

(3) If someone performs an unjust action that causes harm to someone else, then the perpetrator normally has an obligation (prima facie) to compensate the victim.

(4) The principle in (3) also applies to organizations such as governments.
E.g., suppose a company illegally buried some toxic waste in a populated area 40 years ago, and the waste is now causing current residents to suffer from cancer. Then the company would owe compensation to the current residents, even if the leadership of the company has changed during the last 40 years. A similar point applies to governments. (This case also illustrates that the victims of the unjust action need not have existed at the time of the action.)

(5) So it looks like the govt owes compensation to present-day black Americans, for its earlier slavery-related actions.

This is just a simple argument, but for the full reading of the argument, you can check out Boonin’s website on the book.

What do you think?

I’m still unsure when it comes to the reparations aspect, but I’ll explain it when the comments come in.

Also, I’m sure that people are going to be against it, but I’d like to see which part you find suspect.  In other words, which premise do you question?


About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
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4 Responses to Reparations for Slavery

  1. Killer J says:

    Okay, I’ll bite. 🙂

    I question #4. Governments and companies differ in scope too much to judiciously apply punishment to both in the same manner.
    I haven’t quite worked it out in my head yet, but it seems citizens of the government are less culpable than employees of a corporation. Maybe something to do with it being an easier choice to be an employee as opposed to a citizen?

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, am I making any sense?

  2. Kyle says:

    I guess I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the premises (although I haven’t thought about it a whole lot yet); I’m just not sure what form “compensation” can possibly take. In the example of the corporation and the cancer-causing agents, it seems clear and obvious that the company should do something for the victims. But it cannot compensate them for the harm done. Real compensation would be to get rid of their cancer, and they obviously cannot do that. If I steal $5 from you, compensation is easy. I give you $5. But in the case of slavery, it’s much harder to define what “compensation” actually is. Sure, black people are worse off now than they would have been if not for slavery, but how much worse off are they? We don’t know. And will monetary payments from the government to black people bring them to where they “should” be? We don’t know.

    I guess I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I think something should probably be done; I’m just not sure that anything that can be done will be adequate or sufficient.

  3. shaunmiller says:

    Killer J, I think I know what you mean. It seems that there’s a difference between governments and companies. I can see it go both ways: companies are mainly in charge by the top execs, and so if something bad happens (like toxic waste dump), the top execs will be in trouble even though the company is being sued.

    The government, on the other hand, comes together because the citizens form a government (in theory at least). And so if any form of racism happens, then it’s not only the governments fault, but the citizens as well (after all, they form the government and so they are held liable as well). But here’s the problem: it seems that in a government, the people are held more liable, not less.

    I’m assuming the main argument against reparations is because this happened a long time ago and so the white citizens of today had nothing to do with the detriment and hardship of the black citizens of today.

    So how about this for a possible reply to this: suppose you’re great-great grandfather was ripped off at his job a long time ago. But your great-great grandfather didn’t really have the power to fight back. Now, the company (or govt.) has realized it made a mistake and that your great-great grandfather should have gotten the earnings that he deserved. Here’s the question: would you, as an heir of your great-great grandfather, fight for some compensation?

  4. AlexM says:

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

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