ethics of human rights, human rights violations, justice, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (41): Human Rights of Past Generations?

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(source, image by Andrew J Krug)

In a previous post I discussed the claim that future generations of people have human rights claims against those of us who are currently alive. I argued that they probably have. The “sister-claim” is, of course, whether the same is true for past generations. Obviously past generations had human rights, just like you and me and everyone who comes after us. The question however is whether current generations can violate the rights of past generations.

For starters, it’s obvious that past and future generations should be viewed differently. Future generations can incur harm following our actions, and can therefore, prima facie, invoke rights claims against us (namely for those types of harm that are rights violations). Past generations, on the contrary, can’t be harmed by current actions, since they are dead (assuming, theologically, that deceased people are gone; if you believe that your ancestors are in heaven watching you, your actions may still harm them in some sense, although I doubt they need human rights in heaven).

If past generations can’t be harmed by current actions because they are dead, then current generations shouldn’t and even can’t adapt their actions so as to respect the rights of past generations. However, perhaps we should carve out an exception here. Maybe there are cases in which we can convincingly speak about harm done to people in the past.

Take the following example. It’s reasonable to assume that past generations – like all generations – valued the future and posthumous state of their society or the world. For example, if freedom was important to them when they were alive, they may have felt distressed about the possible prospect of a posthumous totalitarian world government. They may have been distressed because they valued freedom and/or because they were concerned about the fate of their descendants. The harm to one’s descendants is typically viewed as something of concern to oneself. We all care about the fate of our children’s children’s children, even if we may never see them. So, past generations can be harmed by current (or future) generations if the latter are seen as a threat by the former.

However, I object to calling this harm a rights violation. The harm we’re discussing here may be immoral and even unjust, but the infliction of distress still isn’t a human rights violation. The actual totalitarian government and the harm it does – as opposed to the threat – are imposed on living generations, not past generations. So unless someone comes up with a better example, I guess it’s indeed useless to speak about present generations violating the rights of past generations.

More posts in this series are here.

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economics, education, ethics of human rights, human rights violations, justice, philosophy, poverty

The Ethics of Human Rights (31): Reparations for Violations of the Human Rights of Past Generations

reparations

(source)

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.)
  • 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.

Derek Parfit

Derek Parfit

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.

Something on the related topic of affirmative action is here. More on slavery is here. More posts in this series are here.

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