Friday, August 8, 2008

PEA Soup: Reparations for Slavery

On a subject near and dear to my heart:

I haven't read the chapters in Boonin's book yet, but I am planning to, perhaps on the plane on the way to the States in a few weeks, but I think most arguments for reparations are weak and overly charged with hidden emotion.

Boonin's argument, as summarized by Michael Huemer:

(1) The United States federal government (hereafter, the govt) performed unjust, harmful actions pertaining to slavery.
E.g., not only failing to stop slavery but legally protecting and enforcing slave ownership.

(2) These past actions are a cause of certain harms suffered by many present-day black Americans.
E.g., blacks have much lower socioeconomic status, higher rates of incarceration, illegitimacy, and a host of social problems. It's plausible to think that this is at least partly a consequence of slavery, and of the govt's unjust slavery-related acts.

(3) If someone performs an unjust action that causes harm to someone else, then the perpetrator normally has an obligation (prima facie) to compensate the victim.

(4) The principle in (3) also applies to organizations such as governments.
E.g., suppose a company illegally buried some toxic waste in a populated area 40 years ago, and the waste is now causing current residents to suffer from cancer. Then the company would owe compensation to the current residents, even if the leadership of the company has changed during the last 40 years. A similar point applies to governments. (This case also illustrates that the victims of the unjust action need not have existed at the time of the action.)

(5) So it looks like the govt owes compensation to present-day black Americans, for its earlier slavery-related actions.
Huemer goes on to say that "[he is] not using this argument, only mentioning it. Previously, [he] thought the Reparationist position was crazy and illogical. But now it seems to me less crazy. Is this a good argument?



Point (1) is fine and valid. I mean, I don't think anyone would argue with it. Are there people that deny slavery in the same way that people deny the Holocaust? Just wondering...

Point (2) is where the argument very quickly starts to fall apart. I personally don't understand how any self-respecting philosopher could think that they can so quickly jump from A to B and claim that slavery is a direct cause of 'certain harms suffered by many present-day black Americans.' I give it to him that he uses the phrase 'at least partly a consequence,' but how do you know what part? How much? How far reaching are the consequences of slavery!?!

Point (3) also sits unwell with me. As far as slavery goes, in my opinion, the perpetrator consists of the slave owners and possibly the government during the period in U.S. history in which slavery was legal. The victim were the slaves and their DIRECT dependents. Not some people on the decades-convoluted family tree. Are Jews still going to be asking for Holocaust reparations in the year 3000?

Point (4) is trying to compare apples and oranges. It's like a provable direct cause vs. what I like to think of as a speculated cause. I mean, it is theoretical that blacks would still have a low socioeconomic status, even if they hadn't been enslaved.

Point (5): Um, no.

I know this is probably a caustic and provocative post. I feel VERY strongly about this subject, though. I have a 20 page paper on it from undergrad where I go into it in great detail. If anyone is offended by this post and wants to read it, leave a comment.

I can't write anymore in this post because even considering the possibility of reparations for slavery gives me a headache because it's so illogical and implausible in scope.


1 comment:

MrsKatherineA said...

interesting post sara, on a very difficult subject. xoxo