Reparations for Slavery

Boxill’s article falls into two parts.

In the first part, he distinguishes what he calls “compensation” from what he calls “reparation.” The idea is that compensation is forward looking while reparation is backwards looking. A society compensates for unequal opportunities in, say, education, in order to ensure that economic competition in the future will be fair. A society pays reparations in order to make up for injustice that happened in the past.

In the second part of the article, he makes the case for reparations from white Americans to black Americans to make up for the injustice of slavery.

Reparations for slavery

I proposed three conditions that have to be met in order for reparations to be appropriate.

  1. There is a victim of injustice (an injured party).
  2. There is someone who committed that injustice.
  3. The second party is capable of repairing the injustice suffered by the first party.

On the face of it, the most obvious problem with reparations for slavery is that none of these conditions are met: the victims and people who injured them are all dead and so there is obviously nothing that the one can do to repair the injury suffered by the other.

Boxill has a clever way around this problem: inheritance.

The victims are black Americans living now whose ancestors were enslaved in the past. The black Americans living now would have inherited resources from their ancestors. But those resources were wrongly taken from their ancestors through slavery. So black Americans living now have been wronged: they do not have resources that belong to them.

The parties in the wrong are white Americans living now. They have the resources that belong to the black Americans living now. The present generation of white Americans may not have done anything wrong in getting these resources: maybe they just inherited them. But their ancestors definitely did something wrong: they took them from their slaves, the ancestors of black Americans living now.

So, just as Harry (in Boxill’s example) has to give the stolen bicycle in his possession to Tom’s heir Jim, the present generation of white Americans have to give the ill-gotten gains from slavery to the present generation of black Americans (Boxill 1972, 119–20).

Our discussion

We had a very rich discussion of Boxill’s proposal. I will do my best to get it down here.

One thing to note right off the bat is that this will only work for losses of resources like money (e.g. the wages that would have been paid for the slaves’ labor). There is no way of making reparation for the psychological suffering of the people who were enslaved because they are dead. Rosie is quite right to have observed that this does not seem adequate. It may well be that the appropriate moral response to the injustice of slavery will have to involve something other than, or in addition to, monetary reparations.

(Could the psychological suffering of the present generation that is due to historical injustices fit into this scheme? I do not know. It’s an interesting question. If not, maybe we need a different scheme. Or maybe this scheme is the right one and that kind of suffering calls for compensation or something else other than reparation.)

Most of our questions surrounded how we were supposed to calculate just what was unjustly appropriated. One way of doing it was laid out by Nozick in explaining his principle of rectification.

This principle [of rectification] uses historical information about previous situations and injustices done in them … and information about the actual course of events that flowed from these injustices, until the present, and it yields a description … of holdings in the society. The principle of rectification presumably will make use of its best estimate of subjunctive information about what would have occurred … if the injustice had not taken place. If the actual description of holdings turns out not to be one of the descriptions yielded by the principle, then one of the descriptions yielded must be realized. (Nozick 1974, 152–53)

In other words, first we have to determine what the present generation of black Americans would have had if slavery had not happened. Then we calculate the gap between that and what they actually have to see what they are owed.

(Neither author mentions running a similar calculation for the present generation of white Americans. That is, calculate what they would have had if slavery had not happened then subtract the difference between what they actually have, given slavery, and what they would have had without slavery. I would think the difference would be what they owe as reparation. But what happens if the number is zero or negative?)

We had questions about this way of calculating repartions. For instance, Will used Boxill’s example and asked what would happen if Tom had won the lottery because his bicycle had been stolen. Does it follow that Dick and Harry do not have to return the bicycle to him (or Jim)? Looking at the passage from Nozick again, I would say the answer is no and that they do have to return the bicycle.

Kamyab and Audrey both asked whether what is owed is the value of the bicycle or the value of what the bicycle would have been used for (such as a paper route)? In the case at hand, the question would be whether what is owed is reparations for the wages not paid to the slaves or reparations owed for the value of whatever they would have otherwise done, presumably in western African societies that were not disrupted by the slave trade.

Alex asked about what would happen if American slavery made at least some people better off than they would have been. Suppose there was a war and they would have been killed instead of being enslaved. Speaking for myself, I would feel odd saying that this cancels the case for reparation: the wages were still stolen. But I am not sure how to express that thought using Nozick’s principle of rectification. Maybe Boxill’s scheme of inheritance still works: the wages were owed, they were not paid, and now the debt has been inherited by the present generation. After all, if I save your life, I don’t get to claim you as a slave. Why would saving someone from dying in a war have different consequences?

The Non-Identity problem

Finally, I described something that bothers philosophers a lot. It is called the Non-Identity problem. The idea is simple enough: the members of the present generation would not exist if slavery had not happened. So they cannot complain about being worse off than they would have been if slavery had not happened. If slavery had not happened, they would not be here at all.

At the very least, this is a twist that Boxill’s example of the bicycle theft does not take into account. So more has to be done.

Nonetheless, I expressed some skepticism about the Non-Identity problem on the grounds that if we took it seriously we would dismiss the interests of future generations as well as injustices to past ones. Suppose we pollute the planet, making life horrible for future generations. Would that be OK on the grounds that those people would not have been born if we had been more ecologically conscientious? I don’t think so. In other words, since I think the Non-Identity problem has unacceptable consequences for thinking about the future, I am reluctant to apply it when thinking about the past.

I really wish that I had a better response to the problem than this, however. Fortunately, we have an expert in Claremont who knows all about it: Prof. Weinberg at Scripps. I’m going to read her book, The Risk of a Lifetime over the summer and see why she thinks this is not a problem worth worrying about.

Who owes reparations?

Boxill proposed two different classes of people who owe reparations for American slavery.

  1. Each white person individually owes reparation to the black community
  2. The white community as a whole, considered as a kind of corporation, owes reparation to the black community: “it is the white community as a whole that prevents the descendants of slaves from exercising their rights of ownership, and the white community as a whole that must bear the cost of reparation” (Boxill 1972, 120).

It is going to be hard to make this work for individuals. Don’t we have to trace the history of each individual’s stuff back for over a hundred years? Ellelan thought it would work better with groups: the two groups, blacks and whites, have remained the same over time even though the individual members have changed, we can roughly measure the resources that went from the one to the other, and that will tell us how much reparations should be paid.

It would be nice if we had more information about what makes up one of these groups. On Hobbes’s theory of corporate persons, for example, neither blacks nor whites are a corporate body because they have not authorized representatives to speak and act for them. Is there an alternative? That is what we will talk about next time.

Key concepts

  1. The difference between reparations and forward-looking considerations
  2. Boxill’s bicycle
  3. Nozick’s principle of rectification

Extra: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic Monthly in 2014 (Coates 2014). It’s a great article that I recommend highly. In fact, it was one of the last cuts I made for this class. The reason why is that the writing style is journalistic and I’m teaching philosophy. I went with Boxill’s piece because it better exemplifies the type of writing that is the subject of this course.

But, in many ways, I find Coates more persuasive. Coates builds his case for reparations on housing discrimination. He argues that this was pervasive and cost blacks loads of anguish and money. Most importantly, it is recent: the victims are still alive. In fact, Elizabeth Anderson, one of my first philosophy professors, makes a strong case that it is an ongoing problem.

Coates followed up his article with a narrative bibliography that describes the course of his thinking about this topic and things he read. One of the points he makes is that a case for reparations based on housing discrimination can avoid some of the puzzles that dog arguments for reparations based on slavery.

One critique made by those who oppose reparations holds that the claim is null because it was made so long after the actual injury, when all members of the injured class were dead. But this is not true of a claim rooted in housing discrimination. Maps show who lived where. Records of the policies are clear. Histories have been written outlining the execution of these policies and their effects. Indeed, a paper trail probably exists for those who'd been directly refused loans. I knew a reparations claim could be made by living victims.

As Posner and Vermeule will point out, arguments for reparations are usually made when there are no avenues for compensation through the law. This leads to a question that I have about what Coates is doing. If there are identifiable victims of illegal housing discrimination, do they have legal remedies to recoup their losses? If so, it looks less like a case for reparations than a case for hiring lawyers and filing lawsuits. That is something I would like to pay more attention to when I re-read Coates’s piece.

Anyway, if you find this discussion of reparations at all interesting, or if you just want to understand a bit of recent American history, you will probably enjoy Coates’s article a lot. I know that I did.


Boxill, Bernard. 1972. “The Morality of Reparation.” Social Theory and Practice 2 (1): 113–23.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2014. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic Monthly, June, 54–71.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.