How should we deal with the violations of the human rights of past generations? This question is similar to one I already discussed here and here, namely the rights of future generations. The difference, however, is that our current actions can influence the well-being of future generations, but cannot mean anything for past generations since the people in questions are already dead. However, many people favor reparations for past rights violations that benefit the descendants of the deceased victims of those rights violations. It can be argued that these descendants still suffer the consequences of the violations inflicted on their deceased relatives.
Such reparations – also called restitutions – can take different forms:
- restoration of lands owned by previous generations but expropriated
- financial compensation for goods that cannot be restored (such as desecrated burial grounds)
- financial compensation for financial loss (theft)
- merely symbolic restoration (public apologies or amendments to textbooks etc.)
This kind of intergenerational justice is – just like but even more so than the forward looking kind – fraught with difficulties. I’ll describe some of those problems below, but if you want a more systematic treatment there are two good papers by Tyler Cowen here and here.
Since we have to deal, necessarily, with the descendants of the victims rather than the victims themselves, we have to take into account the time element. The claim that the descendants should be compensated somehow, at least in the case of gross violations with lasting effects such as slavery, quickly faces the difficult question of “how much?”. How much did the descendants exactly lose as a result of the ancient theft, and how much should be given back? That’s extremely difficult to determine. First you have to calculate the initial loss for the original victims. In the case of slavery for example, how much did slavery represent in financial terms: how much value did slaves produce for instance. That’s already very difficult.
But then you have to calculate the loss over generations: imagine the counterfactual that slaves could have kept the proceeds of their work, weren’t deprived of education opportunities etc., then how much would their capital have grown over time, given investments, savings etc., and how much would they have profited from their education had they received it? It’s clear that the descendants of the original victims have lost more than the initial sum of the theft that was caused by slavery. They have forgone investment opportunities, educational opportunities that can also be translated in loss of income, etc. But how much? If you take all the lost opportunities – investments, education and many others – into account, and if you deal with an original crime that is relatively far in the past, you can arrive at huge sums, perhaps even sums that are larger than the current wealth of a society.
Likewise, the descendants of the thieves – the slave owners in this case – have gained more than the amount of the initial theft, since this theft has allowed them to invest, and their better education has allowed them to compete inequitably with the descendants of the slaves. And so on. But how can you possible calculate all this? Also, how can you ever know what the descendants of the slaves would have done with the capital – financial and human – if it hadn’t been stolen from their forefathers? Can you just assume that they would have done the same thing as anyone else and use market interest rates? No, I don’t think you can. There is an infinite number of possible counterfactuals.
And that’s just one problem. You also have to make some dubious assumptions. First, you have to assume that you can unequivocally identify the original victims and their descendants, and the original perpetrators and their descendants. How else can you redistribute? If you just assume that all whites in the U.S. are to blame for slavery and all blacks are to benefit from reparations for slavery, you’ll be punishing and rewarding people who don’t deserve it. Some whites fought against slavery and some blacks collaborated. The descendants of those whites don’t deserve to pay restitutions. Also, you have to assume that there hasn’t been any genetic exchange between the victims and the thieves, and that’s demonstrably wrong. How will you treat the descendants of a child born from a slave and her owner? As a victim or a perpetrator, or both? That doesn’t make any sense.
There’s also the point, made by Derek Parfit, that the exact individuals who comprise the descendant generations would not have been born had the initial violation not occurred. A state of slavery for instance has enormous consequences for marriage, intercourse etc. In other words, since the descendants would not have been born without the initial violation, in a sense they can be said to have benefited from the violation. They now exist, where otherwise they wouldn’t have existed. To exist is obviously better than not to exist. In another counterfactual you can claim that the descendants of slaves for instance don’t actually benefit from slavery, but that the negative consequences they suffer from the slavery of their forefathers don’t grow worse over time (see above) but tend to fade away. Their current predicament is caused by more recent events rather than old history.
And there are numerous other problems (for example, if you go back sufficiently far in time, all of us have ancestors who were oppressed; should we all receive restitutions?). So, given all this, does justice require some form of reparation for the most serious and widespread human rights violations of the past? We may not know exactly how much we have to pay or what exactly we should do to right the wrong. We also don’t know exactly who should benefit or pay. And maybe there are conflicting movements: for some reasons, the injury grows over time, but perhaps for other reasons it diminishes (genetic exchange, diminishing rates of return on capital etc.). Nevertheless, it may be good public policy to admit the mistakes of the past and also to put your money where your mouth is, especially when it’s obvious that current generations continue to suffer to some extent (as is the case for African-Americans for instance).
However, personally I feel that the focus should be, not on restitutions for violations of the past but on protection for violations of the present. If African-Americans in the U.S. are currently in a disadvantaged position (which is often the case), then their current rights are violated and we should do something about that, whatever the causes of those violations. These causes are in part the violations of the rights of their ancestors, which still have an effect today and produce violations of the rights of descendants. If these descendants suffer from poverty and poor education, it can be helpful to know the causes, even if some of these are far back in time, but ultimately these causes don’t change the nature of the current violations, or the nature of current obligations. These people have a right to assistance and education, just as much, not more or less, as other people who suffer the same violations but who are not descendants of people who suffered centuries ago. So in a sense we don’t need restitutions to do something. Current rights violations are sufficient reasons to act.