The Ethics of Human Rights (42): What’s the Best Approach to Distributive Justice?

What is distributive justice?

Distributive justice is a set of normative principles designed to guide the allocation of the benefits and burdens of economic activity. These benefits and burdens can be material goods and services, income, welfare or something else. Whatever they are, a theory of distributive justice will claim that they should be distributed or allocated to people according to some morally justified and morally just set of rules.

The assumption is that all government activity in some way affects the distribution of those benefits and burdens, whatever we do or believe, and that it’s important to guarantee that this distribution is done in a just way. So a theory of justice will propose rules for taking some benefits and burdens from people and giving them to others in a way that corresponds to ideals of justice.

Different types of distributive justice

Unfortunately, there isn’t one commonly accepted theory of justice. Different people have proposed different theories that describe different ideal methods of distributing different types of benefits and burdens. Some theories propose a more or less equal distribution of income; other theories focus on a more general understanding of benefits and talk about “welfare”. And some theories do not accept equal distributions and focus on desert. Etc. There are even some schools of thought that deny the justice of any sort of redistribution and argue that justice is about respecting property rights (libertarianism for instance). However, I’ll focus in this post on those who think that some kind of distributive justice is an important concern (which doesn’t imply that I believe that libertarianism is completely wrong about everything).

Let’s look at some of the more common theories and try to assess – superficially, I admit – what their respective merits are.

Strict egalitarianism

This theory of justice claims that all people should have the same level of material goods.

  • Advantages. This does seem to correspond to the basic moral rule that all people are owed equal respect.
  • Disadvantages. Different people have different needs, and so they need different and different amounts of goods. There’s also the problem of economic efficiency: strict equality removes incentives for economic productivity. Hence, it may result in overall wellbeing at a rather low level, making things worse for everyone. Conversely, everyone, even the worst off, can be made better off if goods/income/whatever are not distributed equally.

The Difference Principle

That last point was probably the origin of the so-called Difference Principle. This principle is part of John Rawls’ theory of justice. It does not demand strict equality as long as unequal distributions make the least advantaged in society better off than they would have been under strict equality. More precisely formulated: inequalities are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This principle is also called the maximin rule: an unequal distribution can be just when it maximizes the benefit to those who have the most minuscule allocation.

The justification of this principle is that higher incomes for more productive members of society provide those people with an incentive to be productive. And if they are productive, they produce more wealth, which can be used to benefit the least advantaged.

(Similar ideas can be found in sufficientarianism and prioritarianism).

  • Advantages. Contrary to egalitarianism, the focus is on the absolute wellbeing of the least advantaged, rather than their relative wellbeing, i.e. their (un)equal position. Hence, we avoid the egalitarian destruction of incentives and the resulting risk of leveling down.
  • Disadvantages. People’s relative positions are to some extent morally important. See this older post for a list of reasons why this is the case. Rawls does have a partial response to that concern because he argues that the inequalities permitted by the difference principle should be consistent with another rule of justice, namely the equality of rights and liberties. For example, high income inequality may make it impossible for people at the wrong end of this inequality to participate in democracy, to have their views represented and to get elected. Hence, Rawls argues for some corrections of inequality when inequality of resources negatively affects equal liberty. However, other disadvantages of inequality receive less attention. Another disadvantage of the Difference Principle is that it ignores desert.

Desert-based principles

It’s plausible to claim that a just distribution of goods should give people what they deserve, at least partially. We intuitively believe that at least some of the inequalities in life are deserved. People who work hard or contribute a lot to society deserve a higher level of wealth/income/welfare etc., even if such inequalities do not improve the position of the least advantaged. The hard working should not be forced to subsidize the lazy. They don’t deserve to be forced in this way, and the lazy don’t deserve to benefit in this way. (Many desert-based theories of justice are based on Locke’s theory of property).

Desert-based theories of justice claim that distributive systems are just insofar as they distribute benefits and burdens according to desert, at least partially. (This goes back to Aristotle).

  • Advantages. Desert is a strong moral intuition and it is therefore important to incorporate it in a theory of distributive justice. Theories that fail to do so will always seem unjust.
  • Disadvantages. We can make mistakes when deciding that some or other activity is deserving or meritorious. Distributions based on such mistakes will only be just by chance. But even when we don’t make these mistakes, it’s hard to measure and compare desert (is art more meritorious than science?). In addition, we can fail to identify real desert. Apparent desert may in fact be based on undeserved endowments. And that’s where luck egalitarianism comes in. (More problems with desert are described here).

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism can be viewed as a desert-based type of justice. It proposes to redistribute the benefits and burdens that people don’t deserve and that result from bad luck, for example the bad luck of being born poor, in a poor country, without talents etc. Bad luck in the initial distribution of natural or social endowments should not affect one’s life prospects or distributions of income/wealth/etc. People don’t deserve those endowments and hence don’t deserve the distributions that result from it. These distributions therefore need to be corrected and equalized. After having equalized people’s starting positions in life, we have to let people free to decide what to do with their lives. Those decisions are their responsibility and hence they deserve the outcomes of their decisions. After corrections for endowments, people who work deserve the benefits of their work, and people who are lazy or careless deserve the results of their laziness or carelessness.

  • Advantages. Luck egalitarianism avoids the pitfalls of both crude desert-based justice and strict egalitarianism.
  • Disadvantages. There may be cases in which people who bring bad luck or suffering on themselves still have a claim to assistance. Also, luck egalitarianism produces some bad incentives and can be seen as demeaning (go here for more detail).

International distributive justice, or cosmopolitan justice

A small detail in the theory of luck egalitarianism has far-reaching consequences. Among other things, people don’t deserve the places in which they are born. And yet, those places can determine whether you are rich or poor, free or persecuted etc. To some extent, poverty and persecution are just bad luck, the bad luck of being born in the wrong country. Residency and citizenship are as morally arbitrary as race, gender, natural endowments etc. No theory of justice that takes the equality of human beings serious can ignore the unequal distributions caused by the place of birth, and has to correct these distributions. Arbitrary facts about places of birth, border, residency or citizenship – just like genetic defects, race, gender etc. – cannot be allowed to determine people’s lives. Limiting the principles of justice to citizens or residents is unacceptable.

That means that redistribution should be international and not just between citizens of a particular country. Of course, it’s plausible that people have more responsibilities to those closer to them: parents have more responsibilities towards their children than towards the rest of humanity; friends should help each other etc. Closeness is morally relevant because it means more power: the closer you are to someone, the easier it is to help. But equal dignity and equal respect for all human beings is also morally relevant, and closeness therefore doesn’t mean that people who are far away and who are unknown to you and unrelated to you can’t legitimately demand assistance.

Preference to people close to you – and those people can perhaps include fellow nationals rather than just family and friends – shouldn’t be the only or overriding concern. We want to avoid chauvinism, parochialism and egoism. The metaphor of the family can turn nationalism into something very nasty. And anyway, the salience of closeness has been substantially reduced by technology: nowadays, it’s easy to send money abroad for example.

Still, in some plausible conception of international justice there can be room for some form of differentiation of duties towards fellow citizens and foreigners. International or cosmopolitan justice is therefore possibly coherent with the Difference Principle: international inequalities are acceptable if they improve the position of those who are globally worst off (although Rawls himself did not believe this because he correctly pointed to the absence of global institutions, and institutions are crucial to his theory).

  • Advantages. International (or cosmopolitan) justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities and people burdened with bad luck should be treated equally, why not foreigners? Borders are indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as gender, race or talent and they can’t, therefore, determine distributions. International justice assumes all the consequences of the theory of human equality and makes the theory of justice more coherent compared to theories that focus on domestic distribution only.
  • Disadvantages. International justice can burden the citizens of wealthy countries with extreme and unbearable responsibilities. After all, we want a coherent system of justice that treats people equally regardless of their place of birth. So it’s not just that rich countries have to prevent starvation and genocide abroad. That seems to be difficult enough already, but international justice makes things even more difficult because it gives people abroad the same benefits and burdens as citizens. That can imply, for example, completely open borders or far-reaching redistribution leading to substantially reduced welfare levels in rich countries. Another problem is more practical: it’s not clear how international redistribution should take place. In the case of national distribution there is a state taking care of it. Not so on the global level.

Distributive justice across generations

The same reasons that argue against the moral salience of closeness in space argue against the moral salience of closeness in time. The fact that some people will be born after our death isn’t a good reason to impose burdens on them. Hence, our distributive principles should take into account the interests of future generations. It wouldn’t be just to design a system of distributive justice that takes care of the least advantaged among us, that removes the influence of bad luck suffered by the living, that preserves a place for desert, that is insensitive to borders, and that at the same harms the interests of future generations (for example because it fails to provide a good system for the management of natural resources). More here on transgenerational justice.

  • Advantages. Like international justice, transgenerational justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities, people burdened with bad luck and foreigners should be treated equally, why not future generations? Time is indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as borders, gender, race or talent and can’t, therefore, determine distributions.
  • Disadvantages. Again, like in the case of international justice, we run the risk of imposing enormous burdens on the present generations. Moreover, there’s the so-called repugnant conclusion: if we multiply the number of future people – which is potentially a very large number of people – then we run the risk of drowning the interests of present generations. A small benefit for a very large number of future people will then justify a very heavy burden on the limited number of people currently alive. However, this doesn’t mean that we should neglect the interests of future people.

Welfare-based principles

Theories of justice can also focus on welfare. According to welfare-based theories of distributive justice, the only value of goods, resources, desert-claims, equal freedom and even equality is their positive effect on welfare. Distributive principles should then be designed so that they enhance welfare. Welfare maximization is the only criterion to decide distributive rules.

Utilitarianism is the main welfare-based theory of justice. “Utility” can be understood as more or less identical to “welfare”. It can be defined as pleasure, preference satisfaction, happiness etc. According to utilitarianism, distributing benefits and burdens means distributing them in such a way that we maximize overall utility (i.e. overall preference satisfaction, happiness etc.). We have to choose the pattern of distribution that maximizes the sum of all satisfied preferences, of all instances of happiness etc. (unsatisfied preferences or unhappiness count as negatives, and some “higher” or more intense preferences may be weighted higher, depending on the type of utilitarianism we are talking about).

  • Advantages. Utilitarianism’s main advantage is its compatibility with freedom: it doesn’t prefer particular types of preferences, pleasure, happiness etc., and it therefore allows people to realize their own visions of the good life.
  • Disadvantages. What about evil preferences, such as hate and racism? If those kinds of preferences are widespread and the individual targets of those preferences are a minority, then the latter will suffer because overall wellbeing will be increased by allowing the realization of evil preferences. Also, it’s not because it’s rational for an individual to sacrifice some present preferences for a larger future gain, that it’s moral for a society to sacrifice individuals for the gain of the whole, as utilitarianism often requires. That is why some utilitarians have added rights or rules to their equations: preferences can only be satisfied when they don’t violate the rights of others.

Feminist approaches

Feminism has convincingly argued that the traditional theories of justice described above tend to ignore how distributive principles affect the fate of women, especially given the fact that women still have primary responsibility for child-rearing. Distributions within the family are usually not discussed in theories of justice. Therefore, these theories can be criticized as paternalistic or at least unwittingly supportive of paternalism. Many theories of justice include specific rules about the protection of the private sphere as an area that is off-limits for the government and hence for distributive efforts. So theories of justice have made themselves powerless to address gender inequality.

Conclusion: What’s the best approach to distributive justice?

So, after all this and if you’re still with me, what do we take away? Strict equality and simple utilitarianism seem the least appealing. And any coherent approach has to include rules that apply both nationally and globally, has to be gender sensitive and has to reserve some attention to desert. Intergenerational concerns are also hard to avoid if we want to maintain coherence, although perhaps we could limit the impact of the demands of future generations by claiming that actual suffering is more urgent than possible suffering.

This brings back the concern of the burden justice imposes on people. If we want to take the best of all the previously described approaches to distributive justice, we necessarily end up with a “thick” conception of justice, imposing a heavy burden. We have to take into account all people currently living, not just our fellow citizens, as well as people not yet born. And we have to give special attention to gender. But at the same time we don’t want to have a theory of justice that’s so burdensome that people will say: thank you but no thanks. It’s fine to have a coherent theory of justice but if this coherence leads to impossible demands on people or demands they are not (yet) willing to accept, then the practical use of that theory is nil.

One possible reaction to this concern about the burden of justice is the adoption of a prioritarian approach, and more specifically a global gender sensitive prioritarianism with a time preference: the worst off should get the most attention. For example, poor women currently living in a patriarchal society should be the first beneficiaries of redistribution. The disadvantage of this is that it will force us to abandon, temporarily, a lot of people we don’t want to abandon, for example welfare beneficiaries in rich countries. Or we could bite the bullet and say with Peter Singer that the burden is what it is and we should carry it. Morality may be more demanding than we had initially thought. Rather than adapting morality in order to diminish its burden, we just accept the burden.

More posts in this series are here.

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

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.

The Ethics of Human Rights (40): Human Rights of Future Generations, Ctd.

Do future generations of people have human rights claims against those of us who are currently alive? Can we who are currently alive violate the human rights of future generations? And if so, what should we do to avoid it?

Future generations – as opposed to past 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).

One thing to keep in mind when discussing the rights of future generations is the following assumption: future people have the same values and preferences, and the same impediments to these values and preferences. Human rights are in essence tools to realize values and preference, and often take away impediments to values and preferences. Following this assumption, future generations can be said to require human rights to the extent that those currently alive impede their values and preferences. However, that need not be the case. Maybe future generations will have other values or preferences, or maybe they will face different impediments that can’t be removed by human rights, or maybe they’ll have found other ways to remove certain impediments. Maybe in the future there won’t be religion, scarcity, states or animosity, but different values and impediments. Still, I’ll keep the assumption in place, both because I think it’s likely that future generations will be much like ourselves, and because the concept of “human rights of future generations” wouldn’t make any sense if that is not the case (and I really want to write this post).

Actions which affect the human rights of future generations

The easy thing to understand about the harm we, the present generations, can do to future generations is the consequentialist part: it’s fairly obvious that, given the stated assumption, some of our – potential and real – current actions can or will have negative consequences for future generations, and that some of these consequences can become worse as time goes on (see this post on the effect of time on rights violations).

Take resource depletion for example. If we now squander all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it’s likely that future generations, and particularly those generations somewhat further in the future, will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights (again, given the assumption that they need fossil energy because their preferences haven’t changed or because they haven’t found an alternative).

Present generations therefore exercise power over future generations, much like a state exercises power over its citizens. And much like a state, the present generation can be said to be bound by the human rights of those who are subjected to its power. With the exercise of power comes the duty to respect the rights of those who are subjected to power.

Risk

There may be a problem with all this, however. Contrary to the harm that is inflicted on currently living people, by their state or their powerful fellow citizens, the harm inflicted on future generations is rarely if ever a certainty, and never verifiable.

If we again take the example of resource depletion (but many other examples would do just as well), it may be the case that future generations will have invented the technology necessary to adapt to a world without oil. The chances of this happening may be small or may be large – we just don’t know and so we can’t take it into account in our considerations as to whether to adapt our behavior as a way to respect the rights of future generations.

We may assume that our actions (or inactions) can lead to rights violations in the future, but we’re never certain. So should we adapt our current behavior or not? We can verify if certain types of behavior lead to rights violations in the present, and – if they do – consequently adapt our behavior. (If lowering taxes increases poverty then we should avoid that policy). We can never verify if certain types of behavior lead to rights violations in the (distant) future. We can only guess that there’s a risk, perhaps based on similar past or present experiences. But the quality of those guesses remains uncertain.

Hence, it would seem that future rights violations can’t have the same moral standing as present and real rights violations. Or maybe they’re not even rights violations at all. Indeed, we normally don’t view the risk of a rights violation as equivalent to or as equally damaging as a real violation. Or maybe a very, very high risk of a future rights violation – assuming a good guess – equates an actually occurring rights violations?

I think all this is to some extent moot. When faced with a risk of a rights violation – or better the perception of a risk – the moral thing to do is to try to avoid the rights violation from occurring in the future, and adapt one’s behavior, in the same way as one would do when faced with a risk of causing a violation of the rights of people currently living. So the uncertainty of violations of the rights of future generations makes them no different, in some respects, from violations of the rights of current generations. Also the latter are – ex ante – uncertain, and the moral thing to do is always to adapt one’s behavior in order to minimize the risk of immoral behavior.

Some would claim that comparing future violations of the rights of living people to future violations of the rights of future generations is a mistake. Living people have rights which can – given a certain risk – be violated in the near or distant future (depending on the lifespan of those people) by our current behavior. Future generations on the other hand don’t exist, yet (and may never exist, see below), and hence can’t have anything, including rights. However, they will have rights in the future, when (and if) they live. To claim, as I do here, that we can violate future rights now doesn’t mean that we have to claim that these future rights have to exist now.

Tradeoffs between the present and the future

What to do when faced with a tradeoff between violating the rights of future generations and violating the rights of present generations? It depends on the best risk estimate of either, as well as the gravity and the number of people involved in either case, keeping in mind the fact that risk, gravity and number estimates of violations of the rights of present generations are probably better (because we can test them). Given this relative ease, we should give additional weight to the simple fact that we are dealing with really existing people as opposed to potential future people.

For example, we know that closing down an opposition newspaper is very likely to stifle free speech for a significant number of currently living people. We’re not absolutely sure of this consequence, but the risk is very, very high. We know this risk because we or others have tested it in the past. Now, suppose that we should choose between this policy and another one, for example allowing a substantial increase in green house gasses. Suppose also – I know, it’s weird but bear with me – that these two policies are, for some unspecified reason, mutually exclusive. The policy of increasing green house gasses risks putting future generations in danger of survival. When comparing the costs of both policies, we conclude that the level of risk is roughly similar (say 90% probability that the expected consequences – respectively stifling free speech and increased global warming – will indeed occur), but the gravity of the consequences is obviously much greater in the case of the second policy, as are the number of people concerned. Yet, we may still reasonably choose to implement the second policy and avoid the first because we’re more certain of our risk estimate for the first.

Actions which affect the existence or composition of future generations

Let’s take another example of current actions that have an impact on future generations: in this example, our actions do not deplete resources but have an influence on the very existence of future generations. We may destroy the earth for instance, making the very existence of future people impossible. Or we may intervene in procreation in such a way that future people will be completely different people than those who would have lived had we not intervened (that’s Derek Parfit’s so-called non-identity problem).

In both cases, our actions affect the very existence of future people, rather than their rights. And an effect on the very existence of people can’t, in itself, be considered a rights violation since there’s no right to exist. I’ve argued elsewhere why this is the case. (Of course, actions which affect the existence or composition of future generations can have, additionally, other consequence beside the existence or composition of future generations, and some of those other consequences can imply rights violations).

In other words, only the rights of actually existing persons – whether they exist now or in the future – are important. Potentially existing persons who will never exist because of our actions, do not count. Or, putting it in yet another way: the non-identity problem is not a problem in this context. The fact that the very existence or composition of future generations depends on our actions doesn’t have, in itself, any consequences for the human rights of future generations. The impact of our current actions can result in rights violations of future generations, but not if this impact is limited to the existence or composition of future generations. And the reason for this is the absence of a right to existence.

Duties instead of rights?

In order to avoid the problems created by talk of rights of future generations – namely the problems of uncertainty and of tradeoffs – it would perhaps be better to abandon all talk of rights of future generations, and focus on the duties of present generations towards future generations. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect the promises I make to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

The Ethics of Human Rights (39): The Effect of Time on Human Rights Violations

What is the effect of the passage of time on violations of human rights?

  1. Perhaps there’s no effect: a crime remains a crime, and a rights violation remains a rights violation, even if all the victims have died long ago and their descendants don’t continue to suffer from the fact that their ancestors were wronged.
  2. Perhaps the passage of time erodes the severity of rights violations.
  3. Or perhaps the passage of time makes rights violations worse.

I think all these three effects can occur. Let’s look at them in turn.

Time has no effect

We have to distinguish this kind of case from cases in which the descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors (I’ll deal with those latter cases below). What we’re talking about here are rights violations that have occurred many years ago, perhaps centuries ago, but don’t have an impact on the distant descendants of the initial victims. (All severe rights violations are likely to have some impact on a generation or two of descendants, but the question here is how the passage of time affects rights violations, and hence we need to imagine a sufficiently long period of time).

An example could be the execution some centuries ago of a group of political dissidents. Contrary to the case of slavery for example, you can’t reasonably claim that the descendants of the dissidents still suffer from the original rights violation centuries after it has happened. What you could claim, however, is that the passage of time didn’t reduce or increase the importance of the original rights violation: it’s still a stain on the nation’s self-image.

The significance of the original rights violation doesn’t lie in the impact it has on descendants who are presently living – like it’s arguably the case with the impact of slavery on currently living African Americans for instance. It’s significance lies in the impact on the whole of the nation. The rights violation took place in the past, but it didn’t end there. The victims are dead, but the crime reverberates throughout time.

So what should we do? We obviously can’t compensate the victims. They’re gone. We can’t compensate the descendants because they don’t suffer like for instance the descendants of slaves suffer. What we can do to make things right is to acknowledge, to apologize, to memorialize etc. Otherwise, no amount of time will reduce the impact of the original rights violation.

Time erodes the rights violation

Case number 2 seems counterintuitive. How can the simple passage of time make things better? We’re not talking here about things getting better simply because people forget or have a lack of historical sensitivity. Something more profound can cause historical rights violations to dissipate or even disappear. Jeremy Waldron has given an interesting example of the way in which the passage of time diminishes or even removes the impact of an injustice.

Say tribe A steals a water hole from tribe B after it has used force to remove tribe B from the territory. That’s, in some sense, a violation of the property rights of tribe B. However, after some time, an ecological catastrophe occurs, resulting in the said water hole to become the only one in a vast area. It can be argued that tribe A now has a right to use the water hole, and to do so to the same extent as tribe B. If tribe A grants equal access to tribe B there is no longer an injustice.

Another example is a rights violation that has an impact on the descendants of the original victims, say slavery. These descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors, as is arguably the case for slavery in the U.S. However, even if the descendants suffer, it’s likely that the suffering diminishes over time. We can assume that both suffering and the struggle against suffering are to some variable extent attributable to people’s own actions (or inactions) and to current events, and not entirely to historical events. So if we decide to pay restorations to descendants of the victims of historical rights violations because the consequences of these rights violations reverberate to some extent throughout time in the sense that they still harm people today, we should apply a so-called discount rate.

Time makes things worse

An example of case number 3 is resource depletion. If past (or current) generations squander(ed) all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it is likely that their descendants will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights, and that the standard of living will go down as time goes by.

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

How should we deal with the violations of the human rights of past generations? This question is similar to one I already discussed 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.

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 (at least in most cases, or I’m completely wrong about humanity). 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.