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Some thoughts on reparations

Consider the following case. Imagine you inherit a fortune from your parents. With that money, you buy a luxurious house and you pay to get a good education, which later allows you to find a job where you earn a decent salary. Many years later, you find out that your parents made their fortune through a very bad act—say, defrauding someone. You also find out that the scammed person and his family lived an underprivileged life from that moment on.

What do you think you would need to do to fulfill your moral obligations?

Here are some possibilities:

  1. Nothing. After all, you are not to blame for your parents’ moral faults. You have no moral obligations because, even though you benefited from the fraud, you did it unknowingly and innocently.
  1. Find the scammed person and give her your house (or the money you get from it after selling it). It is a way of returning at least part of the fortune to its rightful owner. There is no need to return the money you spent on your education because education is not something that can be sold or transferred. If the wronged person has died, your moral obligations died with her.
  1. Find the wronged person and give her your house (or the money you get from it after selling it). If the person has died, you should give that money to her descendants, who are the rightful heirs to the stolen fortune. Children of the wronged person are bound to have inherited at least some of the difficulties and pain that resulted from the scam, and they too deserve to have at least some of their fortune returned.
  1. Giving your house to the scammed person or her descendants is not enough because that is only one part of the fortune. You would also have to repay the money you spent during your education (adjusting for inflation). If you do not have enough cash, you should give a part of your salary each month to the wronged person or her descendants until you manage to give back all of the money.
  1. Returning all of the money to their rightful owners is not enough. In addition, you are required to provide compensation for moral damages—for all the suffering caused and the years in which the family lived precarious lives. You may compensate monetarily and maybe by putting at the service of the wronged person and her descendants your professional skills and time. (Perhaps you are only required to provide compensation provided it does not represent a great sacrifice for you.)

I recently asked this question at a Spanish forum of scholarship holders. To my surprise, most people who answered (admittedly, not that many) chose the last option.

It seems to me that the last option is supererogatory. In order to fulfill his moral duties, the scammer would certainly need to return the fortune and provide compensation for damages, but his descendants should not be burdened with compensating for an action they did not do. Descendants of wrongdoers should not be punished. If they are obligated to return a stolen fortune it is only because the offspring of the scammed person have a stronger claim to that fortune in virtue of it rightfully belonging to their parents.

In other words, it seems to me that the descendant of the wrongdoers bears harms in returning the stolen fortune. He was misled to believe he was the rightful owner of a fortune, and with that money he made himself a life that he has to give up in order to right a wrong he did not do. In this way, he is harmed. The harm that he suffers, however (which, incidentally, was indirectly caused by his parents), is less than the harms suffered by the scammed person and her descendants. The scammed person and her descendants suffer from the damage of having had their property stolen and they suffer from the precariousness that is caused by a lack of resources.

How much should the descendant of the wrongdoer give back to the offspring of the wronged? I suspect it will partly depend on how wealthy is the former and how badly off are the latter. If, through no fault of his own, the descendant of the wrongdoer lost the fortune in some mishap, it would be unfair to demand that he pay up something he did not know was stolen and does not own anymore. If, at the same time and thanks to some unexpected turn, the offspring of the wronged have done very well, it seems to me that they are owed less.

This is a simplified example. Real world scenarios invite many other factors to take into account. For instance, many cases feature grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond. Perhaps moral obligations get diluted with every generation that creates distance between the wrongdoing and the present. (However, it seems to me that a proper argument needs to be offered as to why it makes a moral difference to inherit stolen property as a grandchild rather than as a daughter or son).

Simplified cases such as this one, however, can inform our moral judgments and may have important implications for international relations. A couple of days ago, Jamaica asked Britain to pay billions of pounds in reparations for slavery. One might object that the case discussed is a disanalogy with respect to Jamaica’s request because slavery is nothing like a scam. Britons would not be giving anything back to Jamaicans—they would not be returning stolen money. Rather, they would be giving compensation for moral damages, for the harms involved in slavery. I suspect it is a mistake on the part of Jamaica to frame this case as a case of compensation (if that is in fact what they mean by “reparations”). It seems to me that compensation is only owed by the wrongdoer, and not by his descendants.

Furthermore, for the purposes of this case, slavery can be cashed out as a forceful theft. Slaves worked and produced for others without getting anything in return: the fruits of their work were stolen. There were many other abominable harms involved in slavery, of course, but those were not committed by present-day Britons. It is easier to argue that present-day Britons have nonetheless benefitted from inheriting wealth produced by slaves (arguably, they have not benefitted as much from the other harms perpetrated on slaves). Perhaps Jamaicans would do better in claiming that Britain should return what is theirs, rather than asking for reparations.

In any case, in order to (morally) assess Jamaica’s claim, some of the variables to think about are the following: How well off Britain is (and how much of that wealth can be attributed to gains from slavery), how badly off Jamaica is (and how much of that poverty can be attributed to slavery), other reparations Britain would have to make to other countries, whether we think it makes a moral difference how many generations have passed since slavery, how to calculate the amount owed, how much of a sacrifice that would mean for Britons, and whether what is owed is a matter of returning money to their rightful owners or compensating for moral damages.


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13 Comment on this post

  1. David Boonin has a really great discussion of the case for reparations in his book “Should Race Matter?” His discussion is focused on the US, but I think a number of the points he makes are relevant to your points. For example, you say: “I suspect it is a mistake on the part of Jamaica to frame this case as a case of compensation … It seems to me that compensation is only owed by the wrongdoer, and not by his descendants.” But Jamaicans could claim that the obligation to pay compensation is one that falls on the British state, rather than on individual British people. As Boonin notes, it’s generally agreed that, through their actions, states may incur obligations which persist beyond the lifetime of the politicians and/or people who initiated those arrangements. If Britain signs a treaty like the NATO pact, it retains its obligations under that treaty even after the politicians who signed the treaty on behalf of the UK go out of power (and after they die, for that matter). Similarly, we may suppose that through its past unjust actions the British state has incurred an obligation to pay compensation for the wrongs of slavery and colonialism. That the original perpetrators aren’t still around does not seem to invalidate the persistence of the obligation, given the capacity of states’ obligations to outlive those immediately responsible for generating those obligations. We could put the point in this way. It’s true that compensation is only owed by the wrongdoer, but in this case the wrongdoer is still around: the British state.

    Another important point that Boonin raises is that it’s false to say that if A benefits from B’s unjustly taking something from C, then A is guilty of unjust enrichment and owes C some portion of those benefits. For example, suppose a dealer steals your paintings, exhibits them, and makes a lot of money charging admissions to see them. Because the exhibition is very popular, the coffee house next door makes more money than usual, as people stop off for refreshments. Almost everyone would say that the art dealer would have to give you back your paintings and the money she’d earned from exhibiting them. But few people would say that the owner of the coffee house owes you anything, even though she benefits from the dealer’s theft. The worry, then, is that the manner in which most contemporary Britons benefit from the legacy of slavery/colonialism is similar to the way in which the coffee house owner benefits from the theft of your paintings: the benefit is too indirect to generate an obligation of reparations. Boonin claims this is true of contemporary (white) Americans with respect to the benefits generated by slavery in the US.

    Based on these considerations (and more besides), Boonin argues that there is a convincing case for reparations based on the principle of compensation for wrongful harms, but no convincing case based on considerations of unjust enrichment.

  2. Personally I think the US case for reparations is stronger than the international case, because the injustices are more recent, more persistent, and have taken place within a single political entity with clearly defined rules/ideas about justice. International cases are far harder, because international politics is anarchic. Even if you take seriously all the international posturing on human rights today, such that you think there really is something like a shared, legitimate international conception of justice at the nation state level, it’s pretty clear there wasn’t back in 1800 (or if there was, it didn’t prohibit the ubiquitous institution of slavery).

  3. The Jamaican government is apparently following Robert Beckford’s proposals. His figures (for the Carribean) are:

    (1) Unpaid Labour: Beckford’s team estimated that for unpaid labour Britain owes £4 trillion;
    (2) Benefit to the economy or unjust enrichment: His team said Britain earned £5,000,000 per year from sugar during the peak of the industry, thus over a century alone Britain made £500,000,000. Calculated at today’s rate, that amount equalled to £2.5 trillion;
    (3) Calculation of human cost/pain and suffering: Using the estimate £12,500 average compensation granted to a British citizen for bondage in prison and/or wrongful imprisonment, multiplied by the average 20 years of labour for an enslaved African, the total cost for an individual African would be £250,000. When this is multiplied by the estimated number of Africans who survived the Middle Passage, plus those who were born into slavery, the total cost for pain and suffering is estimated at £1 trillion.
    From the Jamaica Observer.

    The proposal can be disqualified entirely, because the claim is for payment to nation-states. This is where the analogies quoted by Carissa Véliz fail. We are not talking about individuals at all, but about a wholly different entity, whose existence is contingent, disputed, and morally questionable. Now if the issue were payment to individual descendants of slaves, there might be something to discuss, but that’s not what slavery reparations are about, not at present. As far as Jamaica goes, it is a sovereign state which did not exist before 1962. Like all other nation-states, it has no valid claim on anything whatever, not even its own existence. Until the slavery reparations issue is detached from the monetary claims of nation-states, discussion of the ethics seems pointless.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Excellent points.

    I have some trouble accepting Boonin’s idea that the obligation falls on the British state as an entity that is still around and can answer for past deeds. In what sense is Britain still the same “agent” who committed the crimes related to slavery? Its boundaries are not the same, its people are not the same. Countries change too much. Furthermore, that kind of argument creates all sorts of injustices. The most common example is when a dictator borrows money in the name of a country to enrich himself and oppress people, and when he leaves, it is the people who have to pay back that debt.

    Paul Treanor might be right that it would be ideal to pay individual descendants of slaves. It would be hard to figure out who is owed what though. In this case, I understand “Jamaica” and “Britan” to be proxies for “the descendants of slaves” and “the descendants of slave owners,” even if some people will be involved who are not actually part of those two groups. I think one could leave it at that, and accept that some people who shouldn’t have to pay and who shouldn’t receive payment will do, just because it’s too hard to trace exactly what is owed to each individual and by whom.

    Another way to go is to say, “Well, that’s okay because those people are likely to have been affected nonetheless. Britons have become better off thanks to slavery, even the ones who are not direct descendants of slave owners.” Boonin would say that is not a valid argument, because of the coffee house example. I’m not sure what to make of that example. Let’s imagine that the dealer in question steals a painting from Gallery A and shows it in Gallery B (incidentally making Coffee House B better off). Suppose that there was also a Coffee House at Gallery A. Before the steal, Coffee House A did very well. After the steal, it goes broke. Are our intuitions still that Coffee House B owes nothing back? I’m not too sure. If Coffee House A had chosen to be at Gallery A strategically because of the stolen painting, it seems that they were wronged as much as Gallery A was when the dealer stole the painting. It’s not that Coffee House B would owe something back because they did something wrong, but rather because they profited unknowingly from a misdeed. I admit I’m not too sure about this, but I think Boonin’s point is contestable.

  5. I have some trouble accepting Boonin’s idea that the obligation falls on the British state…Its boundaries are not the same, its people are not the same. Countries change too much.”
    I don’t agree with this. It is the very nature of an entity that we don’t ask questions about its composition: a company can change CEO, in fact fire every one of its workers, and it still has the same legal obligations as it had before. A claim against a state might well be one of the few ways in which a reparations for slavery claim could work legally, though in this particular case the fact that Jamaica didn’t exist then would count against it.

    I think that attitudes towards reparations are often conditioned by one of two basic stances toward harms: backward looking, in which harms should be righted as much as possible; or forward looking, in which the primary goal is to prevent future harms. Obviously self-interest is also a major confounding factor!

    I think some of the criticisms of Jamaica’s claim here don’t make much sense. It is precisely the role of the state to advocate for its citizens in the international arena; it is not necessary that the state represent precisely every one of its citizens in every interaction; and there was undisputed state action by the UK in support of the slave trade, in the form of legislation and military action. So the basic conditions for the claim seem to me to be met. I have no expectation of its success, but that’s a question of realpolitik, not moral apt ness.

  6. It is not the role of the state to “advocate for its citizens in the international arena”. Citizenship itself, in its modern sense, is an artefact of the nation-state. That’s why Hungary builds fences to keep Syrian refugees out, but fast-tracks citizenship for ethnic Hungarians from Romania. That’s why Hungary wil complain if Romania mistreats its Hungarian minority, but rejects complaints about the way it treats Syrian refugees. The nation-state is not “the state”, it is a specific form of state, which is unavoidably and inherently racist. A moral state would not ‘advocate for its citizens’ in the international arena: it would make no distinction on the grounds of ethnicity and origins. The ‘international arena’ itself is a creation of the nation-states, as the name implies, and no-one owes it anything either.

    Jamaica is in no way entitled to represent its citizens. You can see why by asking whether the UK is the representative of Scottish nationalists. They don’t think so, and they never consented to being citizens of the UK, whose existence they generally reject. Jamaica is in no way a “proxy of the descendants of slaves”, as Carissa Véliz says. It is a wholly contingent entity, which was created by the United Kingdom in the first place. To illustrate the absurdity of such claims, consider that about one-fifth of ‘Jamaicans’ lives in Britain anyway. By that logic Britain would get compensation for slavery. In fact the United States would get the largest share of reparations for the Atlantic slave trade, since it has the largest population of slave descendants. And that’s not even considering the ten of millions of slaves who were not traded across the Atlantic, and whose descendants live all over the world.

    Jamaica is a racist state with endemic corruption. It deserves nothing. It was never held in slavery, and it is by definition not the descendant of slaves. Nation-states have absolutely no claim on reparations for historical injustices which preceded their existence. The classic case of how that can go horribly wrong, is that the Federal Republic of Germany armed the State of Israel, as misplaced compensation for the mass murder of Jews in German-occupied Europe. That resulted in more wars, more bloodshed, and more injustice.

  7. Hi, Paul. I don’t disagree strongly with much that you’ve written there about the state. But it does not constitute an argument against they role of the state. You seem to be saying that the state as it currently exists is a deeply imperfect construct; I agree. But in the absence of anything better, the imperfection of the state does not disqualify it from representing its citizens.

    1. No, I am not saying that ‘the state’ is an imperfect construction. The nation-state is a contingent, disputed, political and ideological construction, which can not be regarded as moral. I clearly distinguished between ‘the state’ and the nation-state. True, many people do simply assume that nation-states are the only form of state, although with even limited education they should know about some non-national states.

      1. My comment stands. You say that the nation-state is not moral, and I’m happy to stipulate that. It still doesn’t stop nation-states from representing their citizens. We are represented by immoral people all the time: I have little trust in my MP, in fact the MP where I used to live was named and shamed in one of the recent expenses scandals, but the fact remains that he represented me, legally and socially. If I am charged with a crime, I will be given a lawyer, and I probably won’t ask about that lawyer’s conduct, only hope that she works within the rules of the system to plead my case. If you require perfection in your institutions, you will end up without any institutions at all, and that would be worse than the situation we have now.
        Alternatively, if you are arguing that the UK and Jamaica are seriously delinquent (nation-)states, and that other states in the world are in fact much better, then I think you’re just wrong empirically.

        1. States are there first and foremost to guarantee the security of their citizens/subjects. Inevitably, given the inequality between the respective powers of peoples and states, this leads to power asymmetries. And given the fact that the international system is a self-help system, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” If the strong do not “do what they can” then they will become weaker in short order. The incentives determine the behaviour, at least to first order. Quibbling about morality in such a system is like choosing a car on the basis of smell – you could do it, but the choice of decision variable is irrelevant to any reasonable performance indicator of the entity in question.

  8. The general problem with this post by Carissa Véliz is that she presents a hypothetical case involving private individuals, property, inheritance, restitution and and compensation. She then claims that

    Simplified cases such as this one, however, can inform our moral judgments and may have important implications for international relations.

    That is extremely unlikely, because international relations are not about private individuals, or property, inheritance, and not formally about restitution and and compensation either. In fact the whole idea of ‘international relations” is heavily contested: it is sometimes described as the “Westphalian model”, although its present form is more recent than the Westphalian treaties (1648). Carissa Véliz goes on to imply, that the hypothetical case can be directly applied to a Jamaican claim for reparations for slavery. That is a stronger claim than that it might ‘inform our moral judgments’, and it is clearly wrong.

    The problem is that she starts with simple things like a case of scamming, parents, children, and an inherited house, and goes on to present these as an analogy for the Jamaican claim. In fact there is no Jamaican claim at all, not yet: the Guardian headline is wrong. Until there is a formal claim we can not judge the grounds for the claim, or what is being claimed exactly, or who is supposed to get it. Without that information, analogies are misplaced. What we can say, is that states are not individuals, and that slavery was not a house, which can be unambiguously owned and inherited by individuals. But what concerns me most is that a Jamaican claim is treated as unproblematic, although Jamaica is a nation-state.

    Before you can even talk about the morality of ‘reparations’ for slavery, you must establish what entity would qualify. That is missing from the debate about slavery reparations. For that reason, I think it would be better to take the real-world example of compensation for the mass murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. That case illustrates what can go wrong with ‘reparations’: it is well-documented, and still a live political issue in Germany. The case comparison would make clear, that if we are considering the morality of reparations to a state, we start by asking whether that state should exist at all. In the case of Israel, the answer is no, and that should have been clear in the 1950’s, when reparations became a political issue. Israel’s existence, and its claim to represent every Jew on earth, are 100% contested. So for a start, the Jamaican government could explain why there ought to be a Jamaican nation-state at all, since there are certainly alternatives, just as there are for the territory of Palestine. It ought to explain just who appointed it as representative of ‘descendants of slaves’, and why paying money to the Jamaican government constitutes a ‘reparation’ in the first place.

    Extreme scepsis is justified on any claim for reparations, by Jamaica or any other states. No-one could name even one Jamaican politician, who can be trusted with trillions of pounds of ‘reparations’. Certainly the poorest sections for the Jamaican population will never see any of the money. If ‘reparations’ are in the form of debt relief and other financial constructions, the money will disappear into the black hole of the global financial system, and quite possibly re-emerge as profits for western banks. Slavery reparations in that form are not a progressive or anti-racist issue, and any attempt to present then as ‘moral’ is fraudulent.

  9. When did slavery become immoral? At the time of the big bang (13 billion years ago)? Two thousand years ago when Jesus was alive? 1807? 1962? IS doesn’t think it is immoral now. This date matters. Isn’t it 1807?

  10. True justice requires a consideration of all possible claims between both parties. In this case, that would mean balancing gains and losses on both sides. What did Jamaica gain from the English presence? What value to assign to a justice system, rational laws, education, sanitation, modern agriculture, centralized ordered government and countless other advantages enjoyed today by all the citizens of Jamaica. Advances and advantages that would not be present on that island without the British. To many of us, the colonial powers gave far more than they got and Jamaicans are the net beneficiaries of that relationship. In a fair world, they would be saying “thank you” not ” pay us. “

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