The Ethics of Human Rights (73): The Link Between Corporate Social Responsibility and Reparations for Slavery

Daimler-Benz … avidly supported Nazism and in return received arms contracts and tax breaks that enabled it to become one of the world’s leading industrial concerns. (Between 1932 and 1940 production grew by 830 percent.) During the war the company used thousands of slaves and forced laborers including Jews, foreigners, and POWs. (source)

Can companies violate human rights and should they be held morally and legally responsible if they do? Or are companies just legal fictions that can’t do anything? In the latter case, if a company seems to be engaged in wrongdoing, then it’s really just the employees, the bosses or the shareholders – or all of them – that have done wrong. It’s therefore always the individuals who should be held responsible and not the company as such. This latter view is expressed in the following quote:

[C]orporate action and corporate responsibility is something of a metaphor. Corporations don’t misbehave, speak, think, and so on. People acting on behalf of corporations do. I support applying the First Amendment to the “speech of corporations” because I think the restrictions on such speech end up interfering with the rights of people, both as listeners and as people who associate in order to create an enterprise in which some of the employees speak on the enterprise’s behalf. “Corporations have First Amendment rights” is useful shorthand for conveying that, but we have to recognize that it’s just shorthand.

And because this is just shorthand, I find it hard to fault the Mercedes-Benz of today for the actions of the Mercedes-Benz of the Nazi era. Whatever Mercedes-Benz officers and employees did then is their responsibility — not the responsibility of the very different people who run the company today. And that action during the Nazi era strikes me as not really relevant to Mercedes-Benz’s current actions, or to what should be our attitudes with regard to the company and its products today. (source)

That sounds persuasive, until you start to think about the transtemporal aspect of things. Indeed, current Mercedes employees or bosses are not the same as those of the Nazi era, but the company is. It’s Mercedes now and it was Mercedes then. It’s not absurd to suggest that the company profited from its Nazi era wrongdoing – or from the wrongdoing of its people back then – and that this advantage extends to our current time.

I’ll explain. Suppose that the Nazis liked company X and its people, and that this liking led to the government backed discrimination or even elimination of competitors Y and Z. Y and Z never recovered after the end of the Nazi era, and hence company X continues to this day to profit from the absence of competitors Y and Z. And I could suggest numerous other examples of ongoing advantages resulting from actions taken decades ago (e.g. continuing returns on savings which accumulated while the wrongdoing took place and which resulted from the wrongdoing; continuing returns on expropriated goods, etc.).

This discussion is similar to the one about reparations for slavery. None of the current white citizens of the US are responsible for the slavery that ended more than a century ago, and yet they do still profit – as a group – from the defunct institution, even those whites who don’t have forefathers directly implicated in slavery or who came to the US after the end of slavery. Of course, those who do have implicated forefathers profit directly from the wealth their forefathers accumulated through slavery and subsequently transferred across generations. But whites in general profit from the fact that slavery has imposed disadvantages on blacks even after its demise (lack of education, lack of certain skills, segregation, forced migration etc.). These disadvantages were and still are benefits to whites. For example, they make it easier for whites on the job market and elsewhere.

However, the guy quoted above may insist that the “group of currently living whites” is a lot like Mercedes: the group is a social fiction in the sense that it can’t act and hence can’t be responsible. Only individual whites can act. And what they do today can’t have effects on the past. Hence they can’t be responsible for what happened in the past. A fortiori, the group of whites can’t be responsible either. I agree that all of this is correct, but it doesn’t follow that the group shouldn’t be forced to pay reparations. Just as Mercedes today, it continues to profit from wrongdoing done in its name in the past, and that is unjust. Hence they should pay compensation for the unjust profit they reap.

More on corporate social responsibility here and here.

What is Equality? (4): Equality of Opportunity

I wasn’t very pleased with my previous attempts, so here’s one more. Equality of opportunity is a type of equality that’s usually seen as a very moderate one, one that’s not too demanding – especially compared to other types of equality that focus on equal outcomes – and hence it’s supposed to be acceptable to those of us who are a bit squeamish about equality. However, I’ll try to show that this is a mistake. Real equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and difficult project. In order to show that, I’ll talk first about some of the causes of inequality of opportunity, and then about the things we can do to reduce this inequality.

Four source of inequality of opportunity

1. Unequal endowments and circumstances

Equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project, conditional on the willingness to invest an equal amount of effort. Of course, in reality, people will never have such an equal chance. The lottery of birth means that we are unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance our education and motivate us to achieve our goals. It also means that we can’t choose which talents and genes we are born with. Talents and genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of our parents. And genetic differences affect our talents, skills and maybe even our capacity to invest effort. (It’s not impossible that they even determine our choices of projects in which we want to be successful). So two people with the same life projects will only rarely have the same chance of success.

What can we do to equalize their chances? We can’t (yet) redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and we don’t want to intervene in people’s families (and force parents to behave in a certain way or possibly even redistribute children). So we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents. But we can correct it, partially. For example, we can compensate people born with a genetic defect that reduces their chances of success in their life projects. We can offer people suffering from a genetic disorder that has left them paralyzed certain instruments to enhance their mobility. We can offer children born in dysfunctional or poor families free education, child benefits and encouragement. Etc.

2. Discrimination

Equality of opportunity also means correcting for lack of opportunity not resulting from the lottery of birth. If African Americans are systematically discriminated in employment, then they don’t enjoy equality of opportunity. They don’t have an equal chance of success in employment. If working for a certain company is part of an African American’s life project, and this company prefers white employees, then this African American doesn’t have an equal chance of success in his life project compared to whites with the same project.

The rule of equality of opportunity is only violated when the African American is rejected for no other reason than his race, and when this rejection diminishes that person’s opportunities (in other words, when this rejection is common and widespread rather than occasional; see here). If his skills, talents, merit and efforts are equal to those of other candidates, he should have an equal chance of employment or advancement. Equality of opportunity means that he should be allowed to compete for positions on equal terms, and that the difference between winners and losers in such competitions can only be a difference based on skills, talents, merit or efforts. However, even when he is rejected for the position because his skills, talents, merit and efforts are below the level of those of other candidates, he may not have been granted equality of opportunity. That is because the lottery of birth (point 1 above) has landed him in a discriminated group and because his lesser skills and willingness to invest effort and strive for merit may be caused by this discrimination.

Even if all are eligible to apply for a … position and applications are judged fairly on their merits, one might hold that genuine or substantive equality of opportunity requires that all have a genuine opportunity to become qualified. (source)

3. Misfortune in life

The natural lottery can reduce your equality of opportunity. Misfortune in the circumstances of your upbringing (bad parents, bad schools etc.) can also do it. And discrimination throughout your life as well. On top of that, other types of misfortune can limit your opportunities: you may get sick or have an accident. So we have to promote equality of opportunity at every step in people’s lives.

4. Neglect of abilities and talents

And there’s yet one additional cause of inequality of opportunity. Until now, I’ve assumed that equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project. But maybe people have an equal chance of success in whatever life project they choose (as long as the project is morally acceptable of course). If society recognizes, rewards and encourages only certain talents and abilities, then some people will not be able to be successful in the life projects that they choose and that are compatible with their talents and abilities. For example, it’s fair to say that someone like Elton John would not have enjoyed equality of opportunity in Sparta or Saudi Arabia.

How to promote equality of opportunity?

If we accept all that, then the promotion of equality of opportunity involves different things:

1. Social structures or traditions

At the most basic level, it means getting rid of social structures or traditions that assign people to fixed places in a social hierarchy, to occupations or to life projects on a basis that has nothing to do with skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts. Patriarchy, in which women are forced to focus on family life and raising children, is incompatible with equality of opportunity. As is a caste society, a society in which racial or other minorities (or majorities) are systematically discriminated against, or a class society in which the class of your parents, your blood line, your religion, your friends and relationships (nepotism) determine your chances of success in life. Getting rid of such social structures and traditions may simply require legislation outlawing them, or may also require affirmative action or positive discrimination and other forms of compensation for past wrongs (if some still benefit in the present from past wrongs, then equality of opportunity will not be respected simply because the wrongs have ended).

2. Equalizing skills, abilities and talents

But the promotion of equality of opportunity also means equalizing skills, abilities and talents, to the extent that this is possible (e.g. offering poor children free education of the same quality as the education and private tutoring offered to children born in wealthy families). And compensating people when this isn’t possible (e.g. give a blind man some help if we can’t cure his blindness).

3. Upgrading ambitions

And the promotion of equality of opportunity means reducing differences in merit and effort that are not the consequences of people’s voluntary choices. E.g. a child raised in a poor and dysfunctional family may have involuntarily adapted her ambitions downwards. Helping her at a young age may allow us to prevent this down-scaling of ambitions. Perhaps this down-scaling of ambitions is the result of the structures and traditions described in 1 above.

4. Other types of misfortune

The promotion of equality of opportunity also means helping people whose skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts have been limited by misfortune different from the misfortune caused by the lottery of birth. If two people have the same ambition, talents and skill to become a lawyer – perhaps after social corrections to their initial starting positions in life (e.g. free schooling for the poorest one of them) and after legislation providing equal employment access (e.g. for the black lawyer-to-be) – but an accident leaves one of them blind, maybe society should provide that person with law books in Braille and such.

5. Recognizing abilities

And, finally, it means that a broad range of talents and abilities should be recognized and rewarded in society, with the exception of those that involve limitations of other people’s talents and abilities.

Limits of equality of opportunity

So equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and far-reaching project, contrary to what people usually believe about this type of equality. Hence we have to limit it somehow. For example, it shouldn’t extend to people’s private lives. You can’t demand that the girl next door marries you even if that’s your project in life and even if you think you’re the best candidate who didn’t have his equal opportunity. And the girl can decide not to marry you simply because you’re black. A club of racists can decide not to accept your membership request. A racist restaurant owner can decide not to serve you food on his private property. None of this diminishes your equality of opportunity, at least not as long as enough of the same opportunities exist for you elsewhere.

There will be a problem of equality of opportunity if all or many restaurants, clubs etc. turn you away. But if that’s not the case, and enough of the same opportunities remain elsewhere, even businesses can discriminate on the basis of race in their employment decisions, as long as this practice is not widespread and not part of a wider system of discrimination not limited to employment. If, in a perfectly tolerant and egalitarian society, there’s one bakery insisting on being racist and refusing to hire or serve blacks, who cares? (More here).

Equality of opportunity and statistical discrimination

However, discrimination in employment doesn’t have to be taste based, as they say. It can be mere statistical discrimination. Is that a violation of equality of opportunity? I would say yes, because discrimination is discrimination and whatever the motives are – a taste for discrimination or just prudence based of statistical averages – it diminishes the opportunities of those affected by it. People who engage in statistical discrimination make no effort to assess the skills, merit and talents of individuals.

Cultural Rights (13): Their Place in the System of Human Rights

I know I’ve neglected cultural rights on this blog. That’s not because I think they should be neglected. Cultural rights are indeed important and they deserve a thorough discussion. First, what are they? Cultural rights are the rights of

  • indigenous peoples,
  • ethnic, racial or linguistics minorities or “nationalities”,
  • immigrants
  • and perhaps also other marginalized groups.

In certain circumstance, some such groups can legitimately claim cultural rights because without these rights they will be unable to preserve, experience and act in accordance with their cultural identity. This cultural identity includes institutions, beliefs, practices, a way of life, a language etc., all of which can be under pressure from another, dominant culture or from some other hostile forces (e.g. globalization, capitalism etc.). Other, more commonly accepted human rights such as religious liberty, non-discrimination etc. are of course helpful as well but sometimes insufficient for this purpose. For example, a state can’t help but to impose an official language, and the users of this official language have therefore an unfair educational, economic and political advantage. Minority groups can then claim that they need the cultural right to receive education in their own language. Non-cultural human rights won’t be much help.

The background assumption of cultural rights is the equal value of all cultures. All cultures have an equal right to survival and all groups have an equal right to preserve their cultural way of life. The pressures that threaten cultures can take various forms, going from genocide (or ethnocide, or cultural genocide) at one extreme to milder forms of acculturation at the other extreme. Some typical forms of pressure are:

  • reducing birthrates through forced sterilization
  • forcibly transferring children to other groups
  • relocating entire groups
  • interfering with education or the transmission of culture to future generations of a group
  • forced conversion
  • erasing the group’s existence or practices from the historical record
  • attacking a culture’s resource base (e.g. deforestation)
  • etc.

The concept of cultural rights should be distinguished from related concerns about economic or political domination. Marginalized cultures can indeed suffer cultural as well as other types of oppression simultaneously, and depriving a culture of its economic base can be as lethal as a direct attack on its identity. However, I think it’s useful to isolate the cultural and identity issues. So I’ll focus on those, and I’ll also deliberately sideline the thorny question of the definition of “culture”, a notoriously overbroad concept: which groups can legitimately claim to be a “culture” deserving of cultural rights? Are cultures really distinct and self-contained? Let’s just assume that there are some such groups, and that some of those are threatened.

Which cultural rights?

Apart from the general right to cultural survival, it’s not very clear which are the more specific rights that are bundled together under the general right, and it’s commonly accepted that the concrete realization of cultural rights depends on the circumstances. In some cases cultural rights can imply a right to some form of affirmative action, in other cases a right to regional self-determination etc.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights only mentions a right of groups to enjoy and practice their own culture. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is somewhat more precise, but only somewhat. Hence, cultural rights are often attacked for a double vagueness: vagueness about the specific rights involved, and vagueness about the beneficiaries (which groups qualify as a “culture”?). However, we’ll see below that a more fundamental criticism of those rights is also possible.

Justifications of cultural rights

And yet, I do believe that cultural rights are an important addition to the body of human rights. The justification for these rights is based on two things:

  • the importance of culture for individuals, and perhaps also some vaguer notion of the general importance of cultural diversity and the “heritage of humanity” (in which case cultural rights are important for everyone and not just for members of threatened cultures)
  • the failure of more traditional human rights to protect culture in all cases.

People need a cultural life, a life in a community that transcends time. They want to belong to a group and share a traditional identity. These human values can only be enjoyed collectively and are often neglected in more individualist and liberal theories of rights. Individual human rights such as freedom of religion and association, anti-discrimination laws, tolerance, democratic pluralism etc. are helpful for the preservation of culture and other collective values (such as religion), but not in all circumstances. Take the example I gave before: the simple fact of an official state language and school language puts some minorities in a disadvantaged position, not just culturally but also economically and politically. And indeed there’s nothing that ordinary human rights or tolerance can do about that.

Another justification of cultural rights can be based, not on the value of culture, but on the need for reparations for past injustices. For example, indigenous people can claim that respect for their cultural rights is due to them because of the injustices perpetrated by past generations of the dominant culture, even if there are no present-day threats to their culture.

Criticism of cultural rights

Contrary to the more traditional, individual human rights, cultural rights don’t require the recognition of individuals as equal human beings, equally deserving of respect in spite of their differences. They demand, on the contrary, the recognition of differences and respect for those differences, and differences between groups of individuals rather than differences between individuals. Common identity, group difference and recognition are the keywords behind the notion of cultural rights.

This explains why these rights are often criticized in liberal democracies. Liberalism focuses on the individual. It recognizes group interests but those are typically understood as cooperative, associational and interest based. People, according to liberalism, voluntarily join groups in order to advance their interests. Groups are defined by shared goals and interests, not by the shared identity of the members. Individuals are there first, and groups are secondary. From this point of view, cultural rights can be seen as essentialist: they reduce the identity of members to the identity of the group to which they belong.

This essentialism can indeed be detrimental to individual group members. Because cultural rights are rights aimed at the preservation of cultures, there may be a temptation to use these rights in order to discipline members who deviate from the cultural orthodoxy. Such deviations can be viewed as a threat to the group’s identity and survival. In that case, cultural identity becomes a goal in itself rather than a good for the members. Ideally, cultural rights are valuable because the members of the cultural groups in question value cultural identity, cultural practices and language and can use these rights to protect what they value. It’s those members who have an interest in cultural preservation, not the cultures themselves. (Will Kymlicka has developed this argument). This means that when members lose this interest, they should be free to do so, and cultural rights should not be used to impose an identity, practices or a language. Individual members should be free to evaluate their culture and to reject it if that is what they decide.

It follows that cultural rights should not grant groups power or priority over individuals or over individual rights. If an individual member of a group decides to use her freedom of religion to change her religion, her freedom of movement and residence to physically leave the cultural group, her freedom of expression to decide to start speaking another language etc., then there’s nothing the group can do. The group’s cultural rights can’t trump the individual’s rights. And if individual rights are threatened by cultural rights, the latter should give way. For instance, if a religious group claims the right to oppress its female members or sacrifice its children, that group can’t claim cultural rights as means to protect those practices.

That doesn’t mean a group can never legitimately limit the individual rights of its members. It can, as long as it guarantees a realistic exit right. Individuals can waive their individual rights if they think the rules and practices of their group are more important than their individual rights. This exit right, however, should be realistic and not just formal. There should be no indoctrination and alternatives should not be cut off. For example, Muslim communities should be allowed to discriminate against their female members as long as these members have a realistic right to go elsewhere, realistic meaning that going elsewhere shouldn’t imply abandoning their religion, their family etc., meaning also that they have a real choice and haven’t been indoctrinated into submission (more here).

The priority of individual rights over cultural rights does not force us to adopt an extreme individualist philosophy in which the individual is always prior to the community or in which the community doesn’t count at all. This priority of individual rights is compatible with a communitarian stance. Cultures and cultural rights are important, and they are important for communitarian reasons, but they are not so important that they can trump individual rights. Cultures or other groups have value only in so far as they are of value for the individual members. They can’t have intrinsic value. In other words, they can’t have value for themselves.

The problem of enforced internal orthodoxy within cultural groups, which I mentioned above, may be exacerbated by the possible recognition of cultural rights. Group leaders may believe that they need to enforce orthodoxy and silence “minorities within minorities” in order to present a united culture. Presenting a united culture can make it more likely that the wider society recognizes cultural rights for the minority culture. For example, a leader (or leading class) of an indigenous group may believe that it’s necessary to emphasize the distinctive nature of the group by reviving traditional practices. This revival makes the group seem more valuable from a cultural point of view, and that’s something which will make it more likely that special recognition and special rights are forthcoming. Leaders may even have a personal and selfish interests in those rights, for example their personal leading role may be cemented after the recognition of those rights or during the struggle for recognition. However, some of these traditional practices can be harmful to the individual rights of certain members (e.g. gender discrimination, polygamy etc.) or can go against one particular current of belief within the minority group which is subsequently repressed.

So cultural rights may harm individual rights and may promote internal orthodoxy before they are recognized – and as a means to achieve recognition – as well as after they are recognized – for example, regional autonomy can imply restrictions on intervention by the central authority in the case of rights violations occurring within the regional group. It’s relatively easy to make the granting of cultural rights conditional on respect for individual rights within the group demanding cultural rights (and withdraw those rights when they result in violations of individual rights), but it’s a lot more difficult to avoid the dynamic of groups violating individual rights and suppressing internal dissent in the process of a struggle for cultural rights.

Actionability of cultural rights

Individual rights trump cultural rights, but this raises the question of the actionability of cultural rights: when exactly can they be used to protect cultures? They can’t if a culture’s preservation is in danger because individual members decide to leave, for example through voluntary assimilation into other groups, or decide to fashion the group’s identity differently. Neither can they be actionable when a culture dies because of low fertility rates for instance. Artificially propping up fertility rates for the sake of cultural preservation would harm the rights of individuals in a manner which few would accept. A culture that can’t gain the uncoerced adherence of its members or promote the vitality necessary for the reproduction of its members at replacement rates, doesn’t seem to be worth preserving. Again, cultures are important for individuals. And if individuals lose their interest or change their minds, there’s not much one can do.

If one were to limit individual rights in order to prop up a culture, one would violate the principle that culture are important because they are important for individuals. One would have to adopt the unlikely view that cultures are important in themselves whatever people believe, and that they have an intrinsic value even if no one wants to be a member. Of course, it’s sad when a language dies or when some cultural practices disappear, but this sadness isn’t enough to give cultures the right to force people to do something against their will. Even if it would be somehow morally OK to force people, it would be pointless. One may succeed in getting people to speak a language, take part in rituals etc., but that would happen for the wrong reasons. A culture has to come from within. It shouldn’t be an externally imposed duty.

Perhaps cultural rights become actionable when the preservation of a culture is threatened, not by the free choices of individual members, but by economic forces, migration patterns or political oppression. Indeed, it’s not entirely unreasonable for the French government for instance to subsidize French language cinema in order to protect it against the “onslaught” of Hollywood. Or for the Tibetans to complain of Chinese “demographic aggression”. (Similar talk about Eurabia seems a lot less reasonable). Or for native Indians in the U.S. to resist forced resettlement.

Realization of cultural rights

And when we decide that cultural rights are actionable in certain cases, we still don’t know which actions short of violations of individual rights we can take to protect them. Some possibilities:

  • An obvious policy could be some kind of federalism and limited self-government, primarily but not exclusively when the minority cultures are geographically isolated and when they haven’t voluntarily chosen to live within a larger political unity (e.g. tribal sovereignty for indigenous peoples).
  • Maybe some quota systems in representative bodies could also help to give culture a voice.
  • Affirmative action.
  • Reparations.
  • Special educational provisions (for example the provision of some hours of education in a native language) or other types of assistance to do things that the majority takes for granted (e.g. multilingual ballots).
  • Certain veto powers (for example, the right of indigenous people to veto the use of land).
  • Some group-based exceptions to general laws (such as an exemption to the rule forcing drivers to wear a crash helmet).
  • Granting jurisdiction over family law to religious or tribal courts.
  • A politics of recognition (e.g. teaching black history in U.S. schools).
  • And perhaps even a right to separate from the political community if nothing else works or if the claim to authority of the central state is weak (as in the case of colonies).

It’s clear from this that cultural rights can in some cases restrict the rights of non-members. For example, the use of English is restricted in Quebec; affirmative action restricts the rights of non-group members; veto-powers over land use restrict the property rights of outsiders etc. However, it’s not the case that cultural rights necessarily restrict the rights of outsiders. Subsidies or regional autonomy for example do not, by definition, involve such restrictions. But if they do restrict some of the rights of outsiders, then we should be very careful. As stated above, cultural rights don’t trump individual rights; the opposite is true. But this general priority of individual rights doesn’t mean that there will never be cases in which it’s better to give priority to cultural rights (the good this will allow us to do may sometimes far outweigh the harm to some people’s individual rights). The general priority of individual rights over group rights doesn’t mean that there can’t be specific cases where the balance goes the other way.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (15): Slavery

Income inequality doesn’t have the same causes everywhere, as is evident from this study which points to the fact that slavery in the U.S., which was abolished almost 150 years ago, still has nefarious effects today.

Within the US, the institution of slavery has historically been associated more heavily with specific areas – primarily the South. This geographic differentiation allows us to identify the link between past slavery and current outcomes. We start by reviewing, over a cross section of counties, the effect of the intensity of slavery in 1870 on the current level of income per capita. For the year 2000, we find no evidence that those counties that employed slave labour more heavily are poorer than those that did so to a lesser extent or not at all (even though a negative relationship between slavery and income was still present until 1970).

Next we turn to the impact of slavery on current income disparities and we find that it is indeed associated with a higher degree of income inequality. In other words, former slave counties are more unequal in the present day. They also show a higher poverty rate and a higher degree of racial inequality. Moreover, the data say that the impact of slavery on economic inequality and poverty runs through its impact on racial inequality, and not vice versa. (source)

How exactly does slavery lead to long turn income inequality? If slavery is seen as a symptom of feelings of racial superiority, then it’s not far-fetched to assume that those feelings didn’t die with slavery and continued to affect blacks by way of discriminatory policies and practices, including in wage determination and other areas that influence economic inequality, such as the provision of education.

This, by the way, also makes the case for reparations a bit stronger. More posts in this series are here.

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 (33): Different Types of Justice and the Link to Equality

What I want to do here is list some of the types of justice that are commonly identified, and see how they are connected to the concept of equality in order to find out if the traditional link between justice and equality holds up to scrutiny. So let’s first have a look at some possible meanings of the word “justice”.

1. Distributive justice

Distributive justice (often called social justice) is about the allocation of resources and burdens. Justice may require that this allocation is done in accordance with certain rights (e.g. an equal right to a basic standard of living), merit or other criteria. This type of justice is about the fairness of what people get (e.g. basic goods, recognition, rewards etc.).

2. Contributive justice

Contributive justice is the opposite: it’s about what people are expected or able, not to get, but to contribute to society. It’s mainly about work: should people be required to be productive members of society, and if they are, should they have a right to organize their contribution in a fair and just way (for example, is it fair or just that some people are bound to menial tasks while others have much more interesting work?).

3. Criminal justice

Criminal justice is about rectification of interpersonal harm, about the restoration (when possible) of an initial position disturbed by harmful behavior, about retribution and punishment, and about restitutions or reparations of previous harm. Criminal justice is therefore often called corrective justice, rectificatory justice or punitive justice. And sometimes these words are supposed to refer to entirely different (sub)types of justice because there can indeed be substantial differences: criminal punishment may be intended to correct or rectify a wrong (e.g. theft), but it can also be used as plain retribution or even vengeance when the wrong is such that it can’t be corrected (e.g. murder).

Some argue that criminal justice is a type of distributive justice. One interpretation of distributive justice sees it as the distribution or allocation of rewards and punishments according to merit or desert. Punishment for a crime is then distributive justice. But that seems to be stretching the meaning of the word “distribution”. A judge in some case does not distribute anything from the offender to the victim and the victim recovers nothing (e.g. in the case of murder). Those are precisely the cases in which criminal justice is not corrective. I think it’s preferable to keep these concepts separated.

Criminal justice includes the work of the Courts, but also less formal corrective or reparative models, such as truth commissions, apologies etc. Transitional justice, some forms of transgenerational justice, mob justice or vigilante justice also fall under this header.

4. Procedural justice

Procedural justice, unlike the previous types, isn’t about certain just or fair outcomes (just distributions, contributions or punishments), but about fair procedures. The focus is on the processes of arriving at a certain decision (judicial, political etc.). The rules governing the fairness of trials are an example of procedural justice, as are the rules governing legislation in a democracy. People will differ over the fairness or correctness of the legal or political decisions, but they can agree on the fairness of the process. In many cases, defendants in criminal trials or losers in democratic elections may be disappointed in the outcomes but accept them nonetheless because they see that there was fairness in the process; for example, they were allowed to make their case in public with equal resources, there was an impartial judge who weighed the different arguments and so on.

5. Other types

Other types of justice include divine justice (usually a mix of distributive justice for the poor and criminal justice for the sinful), poetic justice (the fateful infliction of harm upon the harm-doer), instrumental justice (doing justice in order to achieve something else, e.g. deterrence) etc.

The link to equality

How are these different types of justice linked to equality?

Distributive justice is often seen as the most egalitarian type of justice, because most interpretations of distributive justice see it as a kind of equalizer of basic goods. Everyone needs a fair share of basic goods, and that means an equal share. Poverty reduction is typically seen as an exercise in distributive justice. However, distributive justice doesn’t need to be egalitarian. Aristotle for example claimed that justice wasn’t merely equality for the equal but also inequality for the unequal: we usually sense that there is an injustice when a teacher gives the same grades to everyone, the meritorious as well as the lazy. However, you could say that even this merit-based type of distributive justice implies equality, namely equality between reward and merit.

Contributive justice as well focuses on an equal contribution in life’s pleasant and unpleasant tasks. Regarding criminal justice the picture is more blurred. Originally, criminal justice focused heavily on equality. The biblical lex talionis – an eye for an eye – was an explicitly – and horrendously – egalitarian form of punishment. The wrongdoer should suffer the same injury as his victim. That’s not fashionable anymore, but still we see that criminal justice strives towards some degree of equality or at least proportionality or correlation between the type of harm inflicted and the nature or weight of the punishment. It’s unfair to impose a life sentence for the crime of not paying your debts, or a fine for murder. Strict equality is, of course, often impossible: you can’t execute Hitler 6 million times. But sometimes it’s possible – i.e. in the case of theft or property damages – and we can demand full correction or rectification from the criminal. Most of the time, some kind of proportionality is more appropriate, not only because we want to avoid cruel punishments but also because we don’t have any other choice.

Procedural justice as well relies heavily on equality: an equal right to call witnesses, equal weight given to testimony, equal duration of arguments, equal access to courts and media etc. Even poetic justice is a form of equality because the wrongdoer suffers the same harm as he inflicted on or intended for someone else. In the story of Esther, for example, Haman is executed on the gallows he prepared for someone else. Something similar can be seen in all examples of poetic justice.

So, whereas justice is not the same as equality, the links between these two concepts are quite strong.

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.