Some Of Our Books


« Job Announcement | Main | Ethics and Disability Conference »

August 07, 2008


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I find the argument pretty compelling. However, a lot depends on how "reparations" are defined. The basic moral principle seems to be that perpetrators of a moral wrong must do their best to right that wrong. Thus, the responsibility on the US government is to remove the social inequality that African Americans face.

If this is true, then it becomes a policy issue. What's the best way to, for example, lift the inner cities out of poverty? I suspect the answer will be more along the lines of improving schools, and less along the lines of sending people checks.

Something is wrong with this argument, because this is sound:

1. Z is only permitted to compel X to pay Y compensation for some ill if X has visited (or had a hand in visiting) that ill on Y.
2. If the government pays the ancestors of slaves reparations then the government compels taxpayers to pay the ancestors of slaves compensation for harmful effects of slavery.
3. No taxpayers have visited (or had a hand in visiting) the harmful effects of slavery on the ancestors of slaves.
4. The government is not permitted to compel taxpayers to pay the ancestors of slaves compensation for the harmful effects of slavery. [1, 3]
5. The government is not permitted to pay the ancestors of slaves reparations. [2,4]

I think the problem with the argument you put forward for consideration that premise (4) is false. You argue for premise (4) by noting that if an action performed by company X 40 years ago (when it had one set of employees and investors) harms some group of people, then X is obliged to pay that group of people compensation even if X has a completely different set of employees and investors. Analogously, if an action performed by country Y 200 years ago harms some group of people, then Y is obliged to pay that group of people compensation even if Y has a completely different citizenry.

If sound, this argument certainly does justify paying reparations. So it must be unsound. I think the best line of objection acknowledges that the company owes compensation, but denies that the country does, and this because there is a relevant difference between citizens and employees/investors, which is that when one becomes an employee or investor in a company one thereby assumes responsibility for any actions the company has performed, whereas this is not the case where citizens of a country are concerned (although, if their country is a democracy, they might assume responsibility for some of the actions their government performs during their lifetime as enfranchised citizens).

The suggestion that company employees accept (by becoming employees) responsibility for all of the company's previous actions receives additional support from the fact that if all working at some company decide they want to break with that company's traditions, and they go out and found a different company, we're no longer inclined to hold them responsible for the previous company's transgressions; being employed (or investing in) a company is what renders one responsible for that company's actions.

On a completely unrelated note, Professor Huemer, I loved Ethical Intuitionism -- what a great book!

Sorry -- I meant to add that, while I'm intuitively attracted to this employee/citizen distinction, I can't think of any airtight explanation for why the distinction holds. My fear is that its just an ad hoc rule we thought up to try to get compensation to people who have been harmed. Or maybe we anthropomorphise corporations? This mystery isn't too big a problem for my overall anti-reparations stand, though, as if either of these explanations is right, so much the worse for the suggestion that collectives, as opposed to persons, ever owe compensation for anything.

I think there are three problems with the argument:

(1) Adding to the investor/citizen issue above: The ancestors of many of the taxpayers were not even in the US at the time. So even if we assume some sort of implicit social contract (which is kind of a problematic theory in any case), there is the further issue that many--if not most--of the lineages of current citizens (and ALL of the current citizens) signed a contract with a post-emancipation America.

(2) The assumption that slavery contributed to ongoing harm is by no means obviously true. For example, the current socio-economic disparities may be a product of widespread racism, which is certainly reprehensible but not the government's fault.

(3) Determining harm requires a standard for comparison. People who were established citizens of the US were not enslaved. People from Africa were enslaved and brought over to the US. Now slavery was unquestionably a great evil to its victims, so there is no question that there was harm done to slaves. But what this argument has to show is that there was harm done not to the slaves, but to their descendants. This is significantly less obvious. Can one establish this conclusively? Can one establish it without drawing comparisons between modern Africans and modern African-Americans?


Do you believe your own premise (1), or not? You say that the argument it includes is sound, so that means you believe it. But you agree that in Mike's example the company owes compensation even if the leadership of the company has changed, so you agree that your (1) is not true.

Also, you seem to think that if the employee/citizen distinction that you want to maintain doesn't stand up, that means the Boonin premise (4) is false for both nations and corporations. Why don't you think it would instead be true for both?


Suppose that as you are waiting for the light to turn so you can cross the street, I maliciously push you off the curb and you fall and break your wrist and your iPhone. As I'm chuckling, the light does turn green, and then a truck barrels through the intersection and skids through the crosswalk.

We know I owe you compensation for your broken wrist and iPhone. We don't have to determine first whether the truck would have hit you and how much damage it would have done.


Suppose that as you are waiting for the light to turn so you can cross the street, I maliciously push you off the curb and you fall and break your wrist and your iPhone. As I'm chuckling, the light does turn green, and then a truck barrels through the intersection and skids through the crosswalk.

We know I owe you compensation for your broken wrist and iPhone. We don't have to determine first whether the truck would have hit you and how much damage it would have done.

Why would the government be treated differently than the descendants of the owners of slaves?
The argument proves too much, as the government stood in essentially the same relation to all other unpunished misconduct.

Illegitimacy is not in itself a harm.


I fully grant that slavery involved grave harm to those who were slaves. The question is whether it involves harm to their descendants, and I think this is much harder to determine. So I have a sneaking suspicion that the curb-pushing case is really a bit of a red herring here. At least, its dissimilarities from the case at hand seem greater than its similarities. Also, it can be manipulated in the opposite direction, though I wouldn't base an argument on this: If I SEE the truck heading toward you and then maliciously push you out of the way, it might seem that I owe you less compensation.

What I am really suggesting is that an a priori argument like the one above just isn't going to cut it, because there is no a priori fact about (1) whether there are currently living people who were in a clear way harmed, (2) whether the entity that inflicted the harm still exists--at least in the strong sense required for moral responsibility, and (3) even granted all that, whether the constituents of that entity can reasonably be held responsible for the activity of the entity (or do we apply the "seventh generation" rule?).

Also, sorry for posting anonymously. It isn't normally my style, but somehow being untenured and arguing against an argument for reparations doesn't sit comfortably with me.


Sorry, maybe I wasn't clear. I was contesting your

(3) Determining harm requires a standard for comparison

I thought the malicious pushing example shows that (3) isn't true. No?

Jamie, sorry, I was being a bit daft. I should rephrase that sentence to say, "In the case at hand, determining harm requires a standard for comparison." So what's the relevant difference between the reparations case and the pushing case? In the pushing case there is obvious harm done to my wrist and iPhone (why would I have an iPhone? I don't get these thought experiments). But the reparations case is different because we are not talking about harm done to the slaves (which is obvious), but harm done to their descendants. And, it also seems, we are not talking about direct harm, but harm that is somehow done indirectly, through a complex chain of historical and social factors. So there are two clear differences between the reparations case and the pushing case as far as harm goes. These seem relevant, for one, because determining harm--both the extent and the responsibility--in the reparations case is significantly more complicated. And it is further complicated by the fact, again, that we have to somehow factor out any features of the current inequality that are due to racism rather than the direct consequences of slavery. I'm not saying that there is no way to determine harm here, just that it is extremely difficult and cannot be taken as given in a premise.

As for the comparison point: I just haven't a clue as to how one might go about calculating harm done to currently living descendants of slaves by the institution of slavery. We seem to either need some point for comparison, or a social science precise enough to calculate the causal effects of slavery.

I like the argument but I wonder whether it suffers from Parfit's non-identity problem when phrased in terms of harm to individuals. This would be a problem for

(2) These past actions are a cause of certain harms suffered by many present-day black Americans.

It easy easy to read harming as being worse off than otherwise. But, many (if not most) of the current black Americans would not have existed without the unjust actions and policies of the past governments. So, they are not worse off than they would have been and thereby not harmed. I do find the argument compelling if it would be phrased perhaps to be about a group.

A small point: You don't need the premise that past slavery harms present african americans. The US gov. harmed people by supporting slavery. Those harmed acquired a right to compensation from the US gov. Those harmed were not compensated. Present day descendants of those harmed are the rightful heirs to whatever compensation their ancestors were owed.

Peter B:
I think you can compensate someone by giving them money, without removing the harm for which you're compensating them. E.g., if I broke your iPhone, I can compensate you by paying you the amount the iPhone was worth; I don't have to actually repair your iPhone. However, social programs like improving schools would be a more efficient way of compensating, since that would probably reduce the need to compensate the next generation as well.

And to Jussi:
Here's an example: I buried some toxic waste 40 years ago in a wrongfully unsafe way. Now, a child has cancer caused by my toxic waste. The parents sue me in court. Suppose I argue that I didn't harm the child, because after burying the toxic waste, I interacted in various ways with various members of the community (including the child's parents). If I hadn't buried the toxic waste, these interactions would have been slightly different, occurring at slightly different times, etc. As a result, this child probably wouldn't have been born, since its parents would have had sex at a slightly different time, or might not have even married. I don't know what the solution to the non-identity problem is, but intuitively, it seems like I shouldn't get away with this.


Thanks for the kind words about my book. I'm sympathetic to your argument, but consider another example:

You're minding your own business one day, when the cops decide to arrest you for no particular reason. If you like, you can suppose they were ordered to do it by the mayor and the city council, who don't approve of your blog posts on PEA soup. They then beat you in prison. After you escape, you sue the city. Now imagine that the attorney for the city comes to court and argues before the jury: "Look, if you find the city liable, it's actually the taxpayers who are going to pay for the compensation to the Angus. But the taxpayers didn't do anything wrong, so they shouldn't have to compensate Angus. Therefore, you should find in favor of the defendant (the city government)." Is this argument convincing?

Or how about this one: Dismayed at the mounting federal debt, President Obama finally conceives of this way of eliminating it: He (with the agreement of congress, etc.) issues a declaration defaulting on all obligations to holders of government securities. Some of the security-holders bring a class-action suit against the federal government. In court, the administration's attorney argues: "Okay, this debt was incurred by the federal government during about the past 20 years. But if we pay it, it is actually the taxpayers who will be paying it off. But the individual taxpayers didn't agree to assume this debt, so why should they have to pay?"
Is this right?


I don't find either of those arguments too convincing, but maybe there is a way to reject them without also tossing "Z is only permitted to compel X to pay Y compensation for some ill if X has visited (or had a hand in visiting) that ill on Y" out the window.

In the police brutality case (assuming they are not to be praised!) you could say that the taxpayers "had a hand in visiting" the harm on me. Assuming they are enfranchised, their responsibility is to make sure that public officials are honest and virtuous. This response receives some validation, in my mind, from the fact that we'd (or, at least, I'd) be less inclined to demand that the city pays compensation if it is run by an autocrat who seized power in a coup; then I hold merely him and his minions, not the city, responsible for actions done in their official capacity.

In the second case, I'm inclined to bite the bullet and say that if (a) the taxpayers really do not agree to assume the 20 year old debt, and (b) they were not around twenty years ago to have a hand in incurring it then the administration's argument succeeds. (Although, for what it is worth, I find it unlikely that (a) would ever obtain -- as a general rule taxpayers are not wildly imprudent. That's why I say the administration's argument isn't too convincing -- it will almost always rely on a false factual premise.)


You're right, in order to allow that the company can be compelled to pay compensation I need to modify my premise (1) so that it reads something like:

(1a) Z is only permitted to compel X to pay Y compensation for some ill if X has visited (or had a hand in visiting, or assumed responsibility for visiting) that ill on Y.

Then the questions become (i) is (1a) true, (ii) can say that taxpayers "assume responsibility" (by continuing to live in a State, or voting in a pro-reparations candidate, etc.) for past atrocities committed by the State, (iii) can we say that employees/investors assume responsibility (by investing in a company, etc.) for the past atrocities committed by that company.

I have qualms about (1a) -- especially the idea of (ex post facto) "assuming responsibility" -- and if (1a) is really unworkable then I'll have to deny that the corporation in Mike's example can be compelled to pay compensation.

But assuming (1a) is correct and I still want to distinguish taxpayers from employees, I might say that when an employee joins a company he "vouches for" or "endorses" that company's prior behavior, whereas a citizen and taxpayer does not vouche for his government's past behavior. (Why? Maybe because we can reasonably expect an employee not to work for a bad company -- he (usually) has plenty of other options -- whereas the same cannot be said for citizens.) And so, as you only assume (ex post facto) responsibility for some action if you "vouche for" the actor, the employees assume responsibility while the citizens do not.


Just thinking out loud here…

1. Even granting the truth of all the premises, what follows is that the US govt has a prima facie obligation to pay reparations. It does not follow that reparations ought, all things considered, be paid. For example, if the amount owed is unpayable, say ten quadrillion dollars, then that amount of reparations ought not be paid. If paying reparations would, say, aggravate racial tension in the country, that might also be a reason not to pay reparations.

2. Whether or to what degree slavery is a cause of the ills of present-day black Americans is extraordinarily difficult to figure out. The longer time period elapses, the harder it is to say, and the less likely one is intuitively to think reparations are required. For example, the British government caused the French people harm by fighting the Hundred Years War; probably that harm still echoes today somehow, but it would be crazy to try and figure out what compensation the British owe the French. The very difficulty of coming up with a figure in such a case is a prima facie reason not to even try.

3. The question of what constitutes “harm”, and where to draw a baseline, is not easy at all. The early settlers of Sierra Leone and Liberia were freed and to some extent compensated fairly early on, but their descendants are vastly worse off today than black Americans. One might think that slavery did not cause this present-day catastrophe. But maybe it did, since it destroyed societies all over West Africa. Does the US govt owe those descendants more? less? than contemporary black Americans? Nothing at all? Do we owe all of West Africa reparations?

4. At some point, the historical determinism in “slavery caused X, two hundred years later” denies agency to the people involved in X. At some point, respecting people involves crediting them with the responsibility for their choices. At the same time, where this point is, is hard to say.

5. Supposing that reparations are owed, there is still the question of what form to pay them in. For example, the original justification for affirmative action was explicitly reparative: to level the playing field caused by historic injustice.

6. According to the argument, reparations will be owed as long as people continue to be harmed by slavery’s legacy. In other words, the reparations do not constitute restitution, after which what’s done is done. Plausibly, the wrongs of slavery cannot be “righted” by the US govt’s unilateral action (or anyone else’s), in any meaningful sense. In such a case, is compensation still a good idea, especially if, after the first grant, we can envision generation after generation of historical victims (of all sorts of groups) demanding reparations? I would think this, too, would be a prima facie reason not to pay anything.

couldn't the costs of fighting the civil war be considered reparations?

[couldn't the costs of fighting the civil war be considered reparations?]

(1) Costs of stopping an evil vs costs of compensating it.

(2) Slavery, which continued into the 1940's - see Douglas Blackmon - and segregation would remain.

A few points to Angus:

a) I don't think employees are liable for what a company does. You probably don't really think so either. Here's a case:
After all the toxic waste dumping that's been going on, the company's liabilities now exceed its assets. The company has gone bankrupt and all its assets have been sold to pay its victims. But some of the employees still have money in their personal bank accounts. May the victims now go after that money? I take it the answer is no. (Whether they should be able to go after the shareholders is a more difficult question.)

b) Return to the National Debt case. (I'll ignore the police brutality case, since I don't think it raises any additional issues.) Suppose the following, which I think are in fact true:
- Of the current taxpayers who will have to pay the national debt, some were of voting age when the present debt was incurred, while some were of voting age during only some of the borrowing but not during all of it, and some of them only just turned of voting age.
- Of these taxpayers, some would agree to pay the national debt, while others would not. Of the latter, some would like other people to pay it and themselves individually not to have to pay; some would probably like the whole debt to be written off (it's only owed to rich people, after all). (Btw, I disagree that taxpayers are not wildly imprudent!)
- Finally, of these taxpayers, some voted for politicians who they (the voters) had reason to suspect would borrow more money, and who subsequently in fact borrowed more money. Others voted for politicians who promised to help balance the budget but who, when elected, did not in fact do so. Others voted for politicians who lost. And still others didn't vote at all.

So with all that, may the federal government use taxpayer funds, collected coercively from all taxpayers, to pay the national debt? If so, is this really because all taxpayers have agreed to assume the debt?

I don't know exactly what to say about these questions myself, but I will observe (what might be obvious) that
1) If the govt cannot legitimately pay its debts, it's in trouble; if you hold this view, you might as well be an anarchist.
2) If the govt can legitimately pay its debts, I don't think that is because all the taxpayers have either had a hand in the creation of that debt or agreed to assume it.

If we think that a government is responsible for ensuring some substantial level of social justice, then the argument for reparations seems to become less important. The emphasis in the argument is on contemporary harms that are the causal corollaries of slavery (though we shouldn't forget the Jim Crow legacy...). The harms mentioned are: "lower socioeconomic status, higher rates of incarceration, illegitimacy, and a host of social problems". Reparations are to alleviate these ailments - which (largely) removes the existing harm.

Most of the better defended theories of social justice, though, also require (at the very least) addressing these social problems. Whether the product of a history of oppression or not, a society (including the government) is morally required to ensure equal treatment under legitimate laws, that inequalities only exist to the extent they are justifiable, overall equality of opportunity, etc. The point is that the controversy about whether the descendants of slaves deserve reparations (at least if framed as above in terms of social ills) is probably not that important from a strictly policy standpoint. Whatever the theory of reparations defines as a case of harm deserving repair will also require alleviation on terms of any plausible theory of social justice. (And then we don't have to worry about problems of causation over time, non-identity problems, and the like.) People deserve the alleviation of injustice (whenever possible) whether it is the result of a history of injustice or not.


First, you're right about point (a); employees aren't liable for what a company does and if I'd bothered to really consider what I was saying I would've agreed from the start.

As to the questions you raise in (b), I can think of one position that satisfies the twin desiderata (for the sake of argument I'll suppress my anarchic sympathies) of (1) permitting the government to coerce all taxpayers to pay the national debt even if it is not the case either that all taxpayers had a hand in the creation of the debt or that all agreed to assume it, while (2) not admitting that the government may coerce party A to pay party B compensation for some ill A did not visit / have a hand in visting on B.

This position says that all people living in a community (e.g. a contemporary nation-state) have an obligation to provide for the common defense (and all the way up to cradle-to-grave coddling, if you're of that particular political bent). They cannot provide for the common defense, etc. unless they pays off the national debt. So they have an obligation to pay off the national debt (and the government may compel them to do so).

The reason this doesn't admit that the government may coerce party A to pay party B compensation for some ill A did not visit (etc.) on B is that it does not posit that the taxpayers have an obligation to pay the national debt because they owe the national creditors compensation. Rather, they have an obligation to provide for the common defense and in order to do that they must pay off the national creditors (who, if the view I've outlined is correct, in a sense aren't "creditors" at all).

Note that it is very difficult to gin up an argument to the conclusion that the government must pay money to the descendants of slaves without positing that the government owes them compensation. The closest you can come is to say that there is a general obligation to correct for the disadvantages delivered on slavery's descendants, but this only gets you to the government's being obliged to pay descendants of slaves wherever it finds them. So the strategy outlined in the previous two paragraphs has the implication that, probably, the US government may not give special benefits to the descendants (and only the descendants) of those enslaved within the United States.


you are right about that. I think that's the most plausible way of putting the argument. The conclusion will be slightly different - the government wouldn't be compensating the present generations but rather the sufferers of the original harm. The present generations would inherit these benefits. But, I wonder if the present generations itself isn't owed something too because of the situation it is as a result of past injustices? Inheritence of compensations would not capture this.


I agree that you shouldn't get away with it. One way that you wouldn't is to think that morality isn't wholly captured by person-affecting principles that refer to harming particular individuals. So consequentialists won't have a problem with your case. You might also think as a deontologist that killing someone by causing them to have cancer is just plain wrong whether or not any individual gets harmed as a result.

I think Boonin's argument is more persuasive than the one you suggest. That's because I think your version requires more controversial assumptions about the "heirs" of some owed compensation. You're assuming that, if A suffers a harm for which A does not receive compensation, then A's heirs inherit the right to be compensated. Furthermore, if they don't get it, then the heirs of the heirs of A inherit the right, and so on. You're also assuming, I guess, that a person's heirs are all of his genetic descendants. I don't find these assumptions obvious. I find it much more obvious to say that a person who is actually harmed now is owed compensation.
Boonin's argument also generates a different conclusion about who should be compensated. E.g., suppose there's a rich & successful black person, who doesn't appear to be suffering any harm related to slavery. Then on Boonin's argument, you don't have to compensate that guy. But on yours, we would compensate him just as much as the people who are apparently suffering the most harm. Also, suppose there is a black person who is suffering a lot of harms, but he is not the genetic descendant of any slave. On Boonin's argument, he gets compensated, but on your version, he doesn't.

I also think Boonin's argument is more persuasive than yours. I think you're assuming too much about what is a "plausible theory of social justice." E.g., you might be assuming that wealth inequality is a social injustice. That might be taken for granted where you come from, but it isn't where I come from. Boonin's argument, on the other hand, relies on much less controversial principles of justice: (a) that you have to compensate people when you harm them unjustly, and (b) that slavery was unjust.
This is what I found impressive in Boonin's discussion (which, again, I recommend to everyone): it tries to derive the conclusion from moral assumptions that *virtually everyone* accepts, whether Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc. (Anarchists are just about the only people who would probably reject an important moral premise in the argument--they might deny that governments can have debts, because only individuals can have debts.)

I certainly agree with you that Boonin's arguments are persuasive. This is really a quite different argument. It's not even mine; it's Bernard Boxill's.

However, I was not assuming heirs inherit a right to compensation. I'm not assuming that it is they who need to be compensated--it is their ancestors. Present day african americans are simply the inheritors of the value of the compensation itself.
I agree with you that if a case can be made that slavery back then harms people right now, then it would be an argument for compensating people right now for the harm done them by slavery. But the causal chains are messy going backward, and it looks quite contentious. Also, there are other reasons (e.g., from Levin) to worry about the argument. The argument goes that present day african americans wouldn't exist if their ancestors hadn't been slaves. So how can you argue that you are harmed by an institution that is responsible for your very existence?

By contrast, we know that there are rightful heirs to slaves existing now, whether harmed by slavery or not. And we know that the US gov. owed compensation to those slaves, but didn't give it. If we know that a given population of people contains a large number of heirs to slaves that were owed but not given compensation, then it does not seem to me to be at all absurd to award the value of that compensation to the group -- no matter some get that value without being heirs.

Notice that if you are the heir to something in the possession of another, it doesn't matter whether you are harmed by being deprived of your inheritance or not. It's yours whether or not you are better off having it. Moreover, if the US Gov. must pay the value of that compensation owed slaves, then there's no room for argument that doing so would wrong current citizens who are in no way responsible for slavery by depriving them of access to US Gov. wealth. Since the compensation owed slaves was not rightfully the US Gov.'s to keep, it is not rightfully the possession of US citizens.

Interesting post and discussion! I find myself quite at a loss to reach a confident verdict here, which is interesting at a meta-level. Just what is so complicated about the moral considerations at stake that makes it difficult to decide the principles to solve a case like this?

I do have one concrete point to make: we don't generally hold agents morally responsible for compensating truly unforseeable harms caused by their unjust actions, nor for mediated harms resulting from causal chains that pass through the agency of others.
For example, suppose I steal your bicycle from your place of work. On your walk home, you are the victim of a mugging, and lose your wallet. Finally reaching home exhausted due to the long walk, you throw a pop tart in the toaster and fall asleep. You wake up to find your house on fire.
We would want to say I think, that I owe you due compensation for your loss of your bicycle, not for your wallet as well (the mugger surely owes you compensation for the wallet), and not for the damage to your house, which, unfortunately, is just bad luck for you.

If that's right, then there seems to be a gap in Boonin's argument (at least as you present it) at this point. It's hard to imagine that the American government (even as late as the early 20th century) could have foreseen what the consequences of slavery in the present time would be for African Americans. And even if they could have, it's hard to imagine that that any of the causes of present day harms are directly attributable to the actions of the slaveholders and the complicit government, rather than mediated by some other agents along the way. (The agents along the way might well include the same government, though later, but then the compensation would be owed not for earlier slavery-related actions, but for later and even present day harmful actions or inaction).

A final thought. There might be a way to split the difference: the government is obliged to pay reparations for the reasons Boonin voices, but it is also obliged to refrain from compelling any taxpayers to fund its compensatory scheme (because the taxpayers aren't obligated to compensate blacks for harms they didn't inflict, and so can't be compelled to do the same). The government's only option, then, is to raise the reparations money non-coercively (a la state lotteries). A little off the wall, but not an outrageous conclusion.

I don't think being unforeseeable is enough for the harm to be removed from the demands of compensation. Suppose you deliberately leave a banana peel on the floor of my foyer, just to see, and through a Clousseauian piece of acrobatics I end up with a trash can stuck on my head. You definitely owe me compensation.

If you add mediation though other agents, it's somewhat less clear. Suppose as an act of sabotage I cut 3/4 of the way through your laces just before the tennis tournament, and as a result your nose is broken by Dave Sobel's 130 mph serve as you fall. I'm liable, even though Sobel's agency mediates and the result was freakish and unforeseeable. (He always aims for the kneecaps.)

I agree that the bicycle thief isn't liable for the harms of the mugging or fire, I'm just skeptical that you've identified the reason.

Hi Jamie,

I'm late to the discussion here, but I think we should distinguish between Simon's claim that we aren't *morally responsible* for unforeseeable harms, from your claim that one can be *owed compensation* for such harms. If my child damages your window, I may certainly owe you compensation, but I'm not morally responsible for it.

Indeed, we might think that the criteria that justify compensation might well be weaker than those that justify attitudes and reactions closely associated with moral responsibility, like resentment or gratitude. Or those that justify closely related practice like punishment.

Lastly, I'm not sure that you slipping on Simon's banana peel counts as an unforeseeable harm. It may - depending on Simon's mental states at the time of dropping the peel. But if he was aware of the risks of harm he was posing, and just wasn't sure of the specifics, then he likely acted recklessly, which means resultant harms wouldn't count as unforeseeable.

Jamie: Ha, nice.
I like what Matt said in reply about acting recklessly (though Matt should have held *me* rather than Jamie responsible for slurring between owing compensation and being morally responsible. I should only have been talking about compensation.)

The tennis example Jamie gave can be interestingly adapted: suppose we take Jamie's case, but modify it slightly by saying that Dave *intended* to cause physical injury with his extraordinary tennis serve, and had a reasonable chance of success (say, he intended to break my big toe). We can also suppose that he was inspired to cause injury to me by Jamie's example of meanness; he just felt like piling on. Jamie's shoelace cutting led to my falling, and Dave's serve ended up breaking my nose instead of my toe. Let's just suppose that it's an equally harmful injury to the one intended. We'll then want to say, I think, that it's not Jamie but Dave that owes me compensation, or at the very least that the obligation to compensate me is now split between the two.

If that inutition is correct, then what was going on in Dave's head - his intentions and the reasons he acted on - make a difference to what compensation Jamie owes me, even though the entire causal chain leading from Jamie's action to my injury is describable in *physical* terms in precisely the same way. And this leads us to a deep problem in Boonin's argument. In more than one place in his chapters on reparations (I just read them and highly recommend them, it's some excellent writing), Boonin argues, putting things very bluntly, this way: Uncontroversially, black Americans are worse of as a group than white Americans; this must be explained either by genetic differences, or by differences in environment; since it's not genetics, it must be differences in environment - in particular the historical aftermath of slavery - that explains the difference; therefore the Government's complicity in slavery caused harm to present-day black Americans; therefore the Government owes them compensation. But now Boonin faces an objection: what if it's not differences in environment, but differences in individual decisions, or a dysfunctional group culture, that is to blame for the present problems of black Americans? He replies this way: Asking whether the present problems are caused by failures of individual character (or failures of group culture), or by the consequences of slavery, presents a false dichotomy. If it's true that black Americans have embraced a dysfunctional culture, or have make especially bad decisions, then we must ask: what causally explains that? Our answer can only be: genetics or environment. So, he concludes, we can still establish the claim that the historical aftermath of slavery caused the present harm, and compensation is owed.

The tennis example shows that Boonin's argument might only seem convincing because it equivocates on "cause". There's a moralized sense of "cause" in which we want to say that the difference between Jamie's tennis case and mine is that Dave rather than Jamie (or in conjunction with Jamie) caused the injury in my case, but not in Jamie's original. It is this moralized sense of "cause" that the uncontroversial truth of premise (3) in Huemer's post depends on. But premise (2) would be highly controversial if "cause" in it is read in that moralized way. The uncontroversial truth of premise (2) depends on another, purely explanatory sense of "cause". But this is not the relavant notion of "cause" for establishing when compensation is owed

[The problem is partially hidden by premise (3)'s requirement that the action in question be "unjust". But we have seen (from the bicycle case) that an action's injustice is not sufficient for compensation to be required for its effects, so long as the injustice and the effects are not linked in the right way].

Some excellent points have been made. I've discussed some of this with Boonin. Here is a relevant point in tort law:

If someone else harms you, you have a kind of duty to mitigate the harm (when feasible); that is, you may only collect compensation for the harm you would have suffered had you acted properly to mitigate. E.g.:

Suppose you have a 1 year lease with me, and after 3 months, you break it and move out. I should now advertise my property for rent. I can then collect from you the amount of lost rent for the time my place was vacant due to your breaking of your lease. But I cannot just choose not to advertise the property and then collect the entire 9 months' worth of rent that I lose.

Analogously, contemporary black Americans might be able to mitigate the harm that they are suffering in the aftermath of slavery. If they fail to do so, they can only collect compensation for the amount of harm they would have suffered if they had acted to mitigate the harm. I could see someone arguing that if contemporary black Americans mitigated the harm as much as they could (and should), there would be no harm left.

Notice that, even though this argument sounds like "blaming the victim," it does not require the assumption that there is anything specially wrong with blacks. It is consistent with the argument that white people are just as irresponsible as blacks, in that whites, too, would fail to mitigate similar harms, were they subject to them.

Of course, the central empirical claim would nevertheless be controversial.

Quite right, Simon. Apologies to Jamie for the slip. Now who do I owe compensation to?

But doesn't the known history of african american struggles surely make the 'mitigation' issue moot? From african americans working in the underground railroad and in the Union army, to civil rights workers and movements, the facts are pretty clear about that. We know blacks have spent unbelievable energy trying to mitigate the harm done them.

Anthony notes upthread that if we were more worried about injustice in general we wouldn't have to worry so much about the effects of past bad acts on current people. He thinks that makes responsibility less relevant, but I actually think it helps show responsibility by the government, country and even current individuals. I once argued (in a relatively obscure article on AA in Public Affairs Quarterly) that when past bad acts lead to current harms that is often mediated by social institutions for which everyone is partly responsible. That slavery and the sorry history since has the current effects it does is due in part to our social institutions which allow the bad situation of one's folks to be somewhat heritable. If everyone really got equal schooling no matter what their background for example, the effects of past racism would be much less. Since we, even those here now (and certainly the country if you like group agents) are responsible for the institutional setup that allows distant events to have some of their current effects, we are somewhat responsible.

Note too that this helps somewhat with Jussi's non-identity worry, which I think is relevant here. Even if some current people who are disadvantaged by slavery would not have been born without it, it is hard to argue that they would also not have been born in the absence of our current tax policies which fund schools mostly through local property taxes and hence make one's parents ability to buy a house in a certain neighborhood more relevant to one's prospects than it would otherwise be.

Geez, I go away to a conference (RoME in Boulder, along with a number of Pea Soupers including Mike H who started this thread) and this place breaks out in a bunch of philosophy.


Sorry, I didn't make the mitigation idea clear. Its plausibility depends on which harms you're thinking of. Let's say you're concerned with the higher rates of drug use, illegitimacy, incarceration, and dropping out of high school. Then these harms could be mitigated by the following measures: not using drugs, using contraception or abstaining before marriage, not committing crimes, and staying in school.

Someone in an above comment worried about "denying agency". Here is where I think that comes in: to deny that the things I just mentioned count as some of the appropriate harm-mitigation, I think you'd have to either deny that they were things that black Americans *could* do, or deny that they are things that *should* be done even if they could be. The former denies free will to some degree, while the latter is just implausible.

Of course, those things wouldn't necessarily mitigate certain other harms, like ongoing racism.

On the non-identity problem, Mark, right: Boonin elegantly presents just the sort of argument you suggest in his draft chapters. More generally, I agree that the current institutional setup is at least partly responsible for the disadvantages of black Americans as a group, and that that makes the current Government responsible. The problem for Boonin is that this is a controversial premise: conservatives quite often claim that there was no doubt racial injustice in the past, in the present the situation is quite different; look at all the unfair advantages minorities now get, they say, as a result of positive discrimination(!) Boonin wants to get to the conclusion that compensation is owed from uncontroversial premises, and unfortunately that argument doesn't seem to work.

Mike, since Boonin aims to produce an argument from uncontroversial premises, your points about mitigation are a serious objection. But I don't think it's true that you have to "deny free will to some degree" or say anything else implausible to deny that people could have or ought to have taken *all the possible mitigating actions* though. Surely the fact that someone was poorly educated and thus ignorant (and that this was itself part of the harm inflicted on them) could potentially in itself excuse them?
But anyway, I think that mitigation not performed by the victims is only part of the problem for Boonin's argument. The more general problem is that all sorts of institutional and non-institutional actors have played a role in producing the present effects of the historical past. But for Boonin's argument, it needs it to be the case that the Government is the cause (in the moralized sense) of the present harm. Even if the present effects of slavery were all attributable to racism, conservatives could argue that it is only individual racists are now at fault, and that the Government is not now complicit in the harms in any way.

Matt: I just realized that I let you put words in my mouth for which only you were responsible! ;-) Go back and reread my first post, I was talking clearly about compensation all along (We are talking here about moral rather than legal responsibility for compensation, so my original choice of phrase was correct).


I don't think the victim of a harm is obligated to take all the possible mitigating actions. For instance, let's say I've had my TV stolen. One way I could mitigate the harm to myself is by stealing your television--but I shouldn't do that.

The victim is only "obligated" to take the mitigating actions that he should take. So which ones should be taken? I don't know all of them, but it seems to me that, in the present case, measures like refraining from drug use, refraining from other crimes, and finishing school are included in the things that should be done.

Importantly, though, the question isn't really one about whether the victim should be blamed or excused for failing to mitigate. This is why I don't like the use of "obligation" and "duty" here, even though I used them. The idea isn't really that the victim is *obligated* to do X, or that he's to blame for not doing X, etc. The point is just that *other people* won't be obligated to compensate a victim for the portion of a harm that results from his voluntary failure to do X.

For instance, suppose you're intentionally using drugs. I don't want to say, "Oh, you're bad, so I don't want to help you." Rather, I want to say, "Okay, you can use drugs, but now you can't claim compensation for the harm caused by drugs, because you are choosing to do it." I think that's true even if some unjust action increased your probability of using drugs (as long as your choice is still free).

So, even if your unwise choice is fully excusable, that isn't relevant: its excusability might make you not responsible or less responsible for the harms resulting from it, but it does not make *someone else* responsible for those harms. It might just mean no one is to blame.

Mike: Sorry, I should have been clearer. I meant to indicate both that a bad education may excuse certain of a person's poor decisions, and that when the bad education is a harm inflicted on them by the Government, it may make the Government liable for compensating (some of) the harms the poor decisions cause. I don't want to say that these two features are necessarily linked, but I think they plausibly could be linked in the case at hand.

You say: "suppose you're intentionally using drugs. ... I want to say, "Okay, you can use drugs, but now you can't claim compensation for the harm caused by drugs, because you are choosing to do it." I think that's true even if some unjust action increased your probability of using drugs (as long as your choice is still free)." I disagree, at least for some types of case:
Suppose a cigarette company found a certain additive that they could add to food products such as breakfast cereals that has the effect of inducing a craving, but a controllable craving, for cigarettes, even among non-smokers. Suppose that they introduced this additive without making its effects known, and the rates of smoking and of smoking-related illnesses and deaths doubled. I would think that they were liable not just for compensating the smokers for the original unjust action (using a special additive without informed consent that induces unwanted cravings), but for (at least some of) the harms that resulted from their new smoking habits, even though we may suppose that everyone who smoked made a free choice to do so.

Simon: I think in your example it very much depends on the circumstances whether we should hold the cigarette company responsible for both the harms resulting from the new smoking habits and being misleading about the ingredients in Marlbor-O's. To see why, consider this alternative example.

Suppose that a company has put some sort of aphrodisiac in its cereal. As a result of consuming the aphrodisiac some sexual assailants up the frequency of their sexual assaults (because they are more frequently excited, not because their motivational structure is in any way altered). I don't think we want to hold that company responsible for the harms inflicted by the sexual assailants, and I think the key is that the drug didn't render the assailant irresponsible.

Returning to the cigarette company case, it seems to me that it all depends on the details of the craving. Can we still in good faith say -- like we can say of the sexual assailants -- that the new smokers are blameworthy for have started smoking? If we can then I'm not inclined to hold the cigarette company responsible for anything but being misleading. (Just like I'm not inclined to hold a mobster any less responsible for murder when I learn someone's offered him $1,000,000 -- a pretty sizable alteration to his motivational structure but of the wrong sort, viz. the sort that doesn't render the mobster irresponsible.)

I think the same goes in other situations where we initially want to say that someone is responsible for another's misdeeds. If Bill goads Joe for hours on end, and Joe finally lashes out and strikes at Bill, I want to know whether Bill caused Joe to completely loose control, or whether Joe said to himself something like "you know what, that's enough, it's time for Bill to get his comeuppance." In the former case, I exempt Joe from blame completely. In the latter case, I hold Joe exclusively responsible (and whether he's blameworthy is contingent on whether Bill got what he deserved).

In any event, it seems to me that nobody is rendering those African Americans who, say, "succumb" to drug use irresponsible for their actions, so I agree with Mike that we can't demand that anyone compensate them for so doing.


1. I've never seen or heard anyone use 'irresponsible' in the way you used it.

2. I don't understand why one person's being responsible for a bad consequence rules out some other person's being responsible. In your examples I think the 'instigator' is responsible even though the 'actor' is responsible. (For instance, I think the person who puts aphrodisiac in the sex assailants' cereal is responsible for the ensuing harm even though the sex assailants are responsible for their own actions.)

Do you have some particular reason in these cases to think that responsibility is conserved, so to speak, or is that a general view of yours?

Hi Simon,
Fair enough - though I need some clarification. I'm not sure I know what you mean by an agent's being "morally responsible for compensation." Does that simply mean having a duty (or obligation) to compensate? Because that's not what I would call standard use of an agent being morally responsible for something.

It could be that one who is morally responsible for a harm is thereby (morally) obligated to compensate for it. But it could also be that one is (morally) obligated to compensate even if one is not morally responsible for the harm. My point about having weaker criteria to justify compensation would then hold, issues about legal responsibility aside.

I basically agree with Jamie. One thing we should think about is whether the government owes compensation only if it is responsible for the harms themselves. This might be the case - cases demonstrating the intervening actions of agents might support such a conclusion. The other line of thought here is that contributory actions may indeed be relevant to one's obligation to compensate. Iago doesn't kill Desdemona; Othello does. And Othello is surely responsible for killing her. But surely we wouldn't be remiss to condemn Iago's role in the affair, and it isn't obvious that Iago might not owe some compensation to, say, Desdemona's family.


1) Is that just an (admittedly apt) comment on an idiosyncrasy of usage, or are you also expressing confusion as to what I'm trying to say? (If the latter, I meant by "irresponsible" "not responsible" as opposed to "reckless")

2) I would hold the company responsible for upping the odds that sexual assaults occur and the assailant responsible for a particular sexual assault. Correspondingly, each actor is responsible for different consequences: the company for the increased risk of sexual assaults and the assailant for some actual sexual assault. We seem inclined to say that the appropriate punishment for someone's upping the odds that something else occurs is that he compensate whomever is harmed when that something else occurs, but that is different from saying that he is responsible (or even partly responsible) FOR that something else's occurring. (I simply can't see how the corporation is responsible for the sexual assault, given that the assailant is, ex hypothesi, the one who freely decided to commit the action.)

However, I think there's a difference between the sex assault case and the smoking case (the relevance of which I didn't see clearly until now). In the sex assault case, the company ups the odds of people's being the victim of some action (by upping the odds that more sexual assailants act), whereas the company in the smoking case only up the odds that soon-to-be smokers act. But, just like I don't want to hold the company culpable for the sexual assailants' actions, so too I don't want to hold the cigarette company responsible for cigarette-smokers' actions.

In the smoking case, then, I would not hold the company responsible for the smokers' starting to smoke; if they truly acted of their own free wills then they, and they alone are responsible for their actions. (Just like I would not hold you responsible for an akratic foodie's eating a cookie you put in front of him -- if the foodie really is merely weak-willed, and not out of control, it is his choice whether he eats the cookie and so his fault. You are, though, no doubt blameworthy for something like trying to compel him, or (if that wasn't your intention) for doing something that you could reasonably expect would induce in him the unpleasant sensation associated with resisting temptation.)

I'd add, in support of my claim that we hold the sex-assault company responsible for upping the risk of the occurrence of sexual assaults and not for any particular sexual assaults, that we would want to condemn the company equally harshly regardless of whether any extra sexual assaults occurred.


1. I was pretty sure I knew what you meant, and I was wondering if it was a dialectical difference.

2. I asked why you thought that one person's being responsible for a bad consequence prevents someone else from being responsible for it. Do you have a reason for that?

Maybe this is a reason:

(I simply can't see how the corporation is responsible for the sexual assault, given that the assailant is, ex hypothesi, the one who freely decided to commit the action.)

I don't see the problem, unless we assume that the assailant's responsibility rules out the corporation's. The corporation knowingly acted to increase the chance of the bad outcome, right?

In any case, I see now that you aren't disagreeing with me about the more important issue:

We seem inclined to say that the appropriate punishment for someone's upping the odds that something else occurs is that he compensate whomever is harmed when that something else occurs,

I agree (though I was thinking of liability, not punishment). So, we agree that the corporation would owe some compensation to the assault victims. And that's the point that bears directly on the question of slavery reparations.

Well, ok, those are ills that require us to take into account individual responsibility. But I was thinking the argument was that to some degree that african americans now are not trying to mitigate the harm that past slavery is doing to them, they are responsible for that harm. But does that harm really include current higher rates of drug use, illegitimacy, incarceration, and dropping out of high school among african americans? Maybe indirectly. I thought it included discriminatory practices, lower average incomes, lack of political power, lack of bases of self-respect, things such as that. Those things, at least, one can't argue are things for which present african americans are, in any meaningful sense, partially responsible for.

2a) You write: "I don't see the problem, unless we assume that the assailant's responsibility rules out the corporation's. The corporation knowingly acted to increase the chance of the bad outcome, right?"

I would agree, the corporation knowingly acted to increase the chance of the bad outcome and it should be held responsible for THAT action and the consequences thereof (which are, simply, an increase in the likelihood of the bad outcome). But it isn't responsible for the assailants' actions. I say this because I would levy the same amount of blame against the corporation regardless of whether any extra sexual assaults actually took place. (And this because it seems wrong to exempt the corporation from blame just because it gets lucky, which, in effect, you would do if you exempted it from blame because the number of sexual assaults just happened not to have gone up.)

2b) You write: "In any case, I see now that you aren't disagreeing with me about the more important issue...So, we agree that the corporation would owe some compensation to the assault victims. And that's the point that bears directly on the question of slavery reparations."

We do not agree (maybe I should agree with you, but that is in dispute); in my previous post (3rd and 4th paragraphs) I drew a distinction between the sexual assault case (in which the corporation owes compensation to some sexual assault victims) and the smokers case (in which the corporation does not owe compensation to some smokers). This distinction follows from my distinction between holding the sex assault corporation responsible for "upping the risk of sexual assault" but not for any individual sexual assaults; just like the sexual assailants themselves are solely responsible for their attacks, so too the smokers are responsible for their smoking.

So, at any rate, I claim. No doubt you disagree. Maybe for good reason. But reports of my concession have been greatly exaggerated.


This is what made me think we were agreeing on an important point:

We seem inclined to say that the appropriate punishment for someone's upping the odds that something else occurs is that he compensate whomever is harmed when that something else occurs,

Do you mean that although we are inclined to say this, it isn't true?

I think I understand what your view is about the other stuff. I was wondering *why* you think someone's being responsible for something precludes someone else's being responsible for it. If responsibility were conserved, then of course the more responsible you were for some event, the less responsible anyone else could be. But what reason is there to believe that responsibility is conserved? (It isn't a substance, after all.)


One reason I think that someone's being responsible for something precludes someone else's being responsible for it is that I cannot explain my intuition that (e.g.) the sex assault company deserves the same punishment regardless of whether incidences of sexual assault actually go up without assuming that "responsibility is conserved." If the sex assault company were partially responsible for certain sexual assaults (if they occurred), then I would think that it deserves harsher punishment if the assaults occur than it does if they do not (for if the assaults occur, and if the company is partially responsible for them, it is responsible for more harmful consequences than it would be had the assaults not occurred).

Maybe you think the sex assault company DOES deserve harsher punishment if the incidences of sexual assault go up. But it seems then that you are holding the sex assault company responsible for actions beyond its control (sexual assaults that, we've posited, are done freely by agents). Put another way, in the world in which the incidences of sexual assault go up and in the world in which they do not increase the company has performed all of the same actions; why, then, does it deserve harsher punishment in the first world than in the second? And if it doesn't deserve harsher punishment, what would it mean for us to hold it responsible for the actions of the sex assailants? If in W1 A is responsible for harmful action x, and in W2 A is responsible for harmful action x and harmful action y, don't we think that (ceteris paribus) A deserves greater punishment in W2 than he does in W1?

So thats a reason I believe that one and only one agent can be held responsible for any given action.

As for my statement -- "We seem inclined to say that appropriate punishment for someone's upping the odds that something else occurs is that he compensate whomever is harmed when that something else occurs" -- I should have been MUCH clearer (in fact, what I will write below contradicts what I just quoted -- it was a huge flub).

I should have said that the appropriate punishment for A's upping the odds that someone is victimized is not contingent in any way on whether that someone actually is victimized, but that nonetheless IF that occurs A owes compensation to the victim. So, for example, if two cars are driving equally recklessly and the first just happens to hit someone while the second does not, I think the drivers of each car deserve equal blame (and equal punishment), but the first driver must compensate his victim whereas the (obviously) second owes no compensation at all.

Does that mean that, in the case of the cigarette company, it is equally to blame regardless of whether incidences of smoking rise, but that if incidences of smoking rise then it owes some smokers compensation for their being "victimized" by deciding to smoke? No, I would say that in this case nobody is victimized, because one cannot victimize oneself. A fortiori, the cigarette company does not owe anyone compensation. (Note that this suggestion -- that one cannot victimize oneself -- is not some ad hoc attempt to continue defending cigarette companies; rather, it explains why -- in the sex assault case -- we don't say that the drug company owes some assailants compensation for the time they spend in prison even though, by lacing their cereal, the drug company upped the odds that they'd commit a sexual assault (and so be caught).)

For the foregoing reasons I deny that A can be responsible for B's actions and I deny that, if A is not responsible for B's actions, A can be made to compensate B for harm B inflicts on B's self.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ethics at PEA Soup

PPE at PEA Soup

Like PEA Soup

Search PEA Soup


  • Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in any given post reflect the opinion of only that individual who posted the particular entry or comment.