The worst argument against reparations for slavery (and a qualification on arguments in its favor)

It is argued that contemporary whites—the ostensible “reparators” for black slavery—were “not there,” didn’t hold or trade slaves or otherwise commit the associated wrongs, thus it would be unjust to hold them accountable for another’s crimes.

The argument fails in supposing the only way to be responsible for something is to be “at fault.” Human experience is replete with counterexamples: There is, for one, a sense that a parent should pay when his child’s baseball breaks a window. One could, of course, answer that this “responsibility” amounts to merely a useful legal fiction, just a scheme for ensuring windows get paid for in view of the likelihood that the average child is penniless. But a person of this view shouldn’t be opposed to some other arbitrary scheme, whereby, say, the victim of the broken window, or the nearest adult to his left, or sharing his initials or taste is television comedies, is legally responsible for the window. Instead, we have some sense that the legal arrangement reflects, or ratifies, some real, underlying norm that would remain in effect with or without the law’s recognition.

There is the further sense that a person can be responsible when nobody is at fault: The baseball player might not have been able to prevent the ball from hitting the glass. Maybe no one could have. The child remains “at fault” in some sense—a causal and (again) legal one—but not in the moral sense invoked by those opponents of reparations. Strictly speaking, no real “fault” has occurred. But a responsibility remains.

Finally, there is the sense that persons sometimes have a responsibility to act in some way when sheer dumb luck places them between another person, or persons, and some undesirable outcome. An island castaway with survival skills may be morally responsible to step up and lead the group, whether or not he wishes to; and someone at an intersection of railroad crossings may be responsible to throw the switch that diverts the crosswise passenger trains from colliding. In such cases there is no implication that either person, or any person, is “at fault” for the shipwreck or the train mix up.

In these ways, the scope of moral responsibility exceeds the scope of “fault.” The reparations opponent must give us more.

* * *

But the problem runs deeper. For it is arguable that nobody is ever strictly “at fault” for anything at all—that is, that “fault” is a pretty sketchy concept in the end. The point is “philosophical” and like many such points, counterintuitive. (Thankfully, this doesn’t make it false.)

Common sense tells us that when we hold another responsible, the self at “fault” is the same entity as the self which committed the transgression; anything else would be unfair. However, as the Buddhists and process philosophers show, this identification cannot be made. Those things which give the self its character—that make it the self that it is—are in a state of restless change. One’s field of experience or mind-state alters from moment to moment.[1] It follows that a new self replaces its predecessor with each change. “Me” at time t is not the same as “me” at time t+1. I do not get sick; rather, a new, sick self succeeds a healthy one.[2] What common sense thinks of as the self—for example, what we call “John”—is an abstraction from the processive “chain” of one-instantaneous-John-after- another.[3]

Thus, it does no good to plead that modern whites “weren’t there” for slavery. Nobody who is ever responsible for anything “was there” either. Accountability is always “for another’s crimes.” The transgressing self, by metaphysical necessity, never sticks around long enough for sentencing.

It does not follow from this that nobody is ever responsible—any more than it follows from the common sense view that no parents are ever responsible for their children’s actions. (It does follow that our metaethics is due for a reconception.[4])

* * *

All the above being said, I suspect that reparations concedes too much to bourgeois procedural justice: Slavery stole something that belonged to black slaves, and contemporary blacks, as their ostensible heirs, are owed what was due them from the white heirs of slaveowners.[5] In my view, such things as “natural rights” to property (in one’s labor or anything else) simply don’t exist, and thinking of them as existing is one of many ideological girders of capitalism.

I do support a radical redistribution of wealth in favor of American blacks; I would support a distributional outcome which is more generous than what most reparations proponents envision. But I support this because blacks need it, not because their or their ancestors’ property rights were violated.

At the same time, I understand the strategic value of speaking to “power”—in this case, bourgeois power—in its own language, of demanding that it be consistent with its own rules, even if these rules are not our own. In this way, Marxists use the theory of worker exploitation to show that capitalism is unjust according to its own laws of “equal exchange.” However, while Marxists are quite open that the goal is not merely a more consistent system of “equal exchange,” I don’t see a parallel qualification emerging much from the reparations camp. This could be because that camp, unlike the Marxist one, includes bourgeois-minded persons—but still.

Finally, I am compelled to solidarize with those black comrades who are directly affected by the debate and who in my experience are largely wedded to the reparations framework. By no means am I prepared to break common cause with the program. But I have my ‘druthers.

* * *

[Postscript: I just read a transcript where Chris Matthews accuses Al Sharpton of “wanting us to pay reparations because we happen to be white.” This is like saying we wanted O.J. to go to jail because he happened to wear Bruno Magli shoes.]


[1] This is not to identify the self with a “field of experience” or “mind-state”; only to say that if these things change, so does the self.

[2] Even this simplifies, as both the healthy and the sick selves are composed respectively of many sick and healthy, momentary selves.

[3] Social intercourse is possible because each “John” closely resembles its predecessors; they are not “the same,” but are similar enough for identification in practice.

[4] At the least, holding people responsible becomes (or becomes consistently) a matter of managing behavior rather than punishment. It is about treating present selves in such a way that later selves are influenced in a certain direction. This could include treating them as if they are “at fault” for the behaviors of earlier ones; but this would be merely a corrective device, a useful fiction.

[5] Granted, there are other arguments for reparations. But these are either (a) less coherent; (b) reducible (I argue) to a bourgeois property rights schema in the end; or (c) simply not the ones I’m talking about here.


2 responses to “The worst argument against reparations for slavery (and a qualification on arguments in its favor)

  1. It seems to me that the reparations argument should be not even vaguely be about ‘fault’ but about the fact that the West is still benefiting today (by increased wealth) from the legacy of slavery. If we were not still benefiting today, then there would be no sense to the reparations argument, it would just be a historical tragedy. The same type of argument would suggest that women could demand reparations from men, and that the poor could demand reparations from the rich. The logic of reparations is essentially the logic of redistribution/socialism/communism. My thoughts on reparations in more detail here.

  2. The issue of reparations, as I see it, is intended simply and only to incite further division and strife between the various “races” of people.

    To see what I mean, let’s take a look at what you are saying.

    In law, what you are referring to is the issue of “liability.” Liability is not necessarily equivalent with “fault,” as you clearly and accurately explained.

    However, part-and-parcel with the issue of liability is the issue of “proximity.” For instance, a driver who rear-ends a car in front of him is liable for the damages incurred on that car. He is not liable for the injury to a child that steps in the way of the police cruiser that is responding to the accident. The issue is proximity — how far down the chain of events can one reasonably attribute to the person who is liable?

    So, let us extend your argument. If someone is liable because they are merely the direct decedents of (or ancestor to) the person(s) at fault, how far does this liability extend? Indefinitely (as you seem to assert)?

    Think, then, what manner of crimes and offenses we should ALL be liable for. Say your great-great-grandfather robbed and murdered my great-great-grandfather. Should I not be within my rights to seek reparations from you?

    What if we reach back into antiquity, and speak, say, of the Greek wars, or the Franks’ advancement on the Bar’bars. If I could demonstrate some reasonable ancestral link to the Bar’bars, could I not, then, head to Frankfurt and demand of some poor German couple my “ancestral home”? Where does this end?

    If we are to hold all generations to account for all the crimes that all of our forefathers ever committed in any place in history, we should ALL be guilty of capital murder.

    Furthermore, to hold this standard out against some, but not against others, would be a crime in itself. To say that you are due reparations from me, despite the fact that NONE of my ancestors who immigrated to America EVER owned slaves, and yet I would not be entitled to reparations from you for damages my ancestors may have endured from yours in, say, the Chicago riots, is unfair and absurd.

    You need to realize that history is littered with tragedy, and seeking revenge NEVER mitigates the tragedy. It only exacerbates it. Remember that, one man’s “reparations” is another man’s “war crimes.” And the cycle goes on forever…

    Forgive, and move on. If you live in the past, you will ever remain a slave, though no man is your master.

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