Different Ways of Arguing for Reparations

Posner and Vermeule seek to describe the options available to those who advocate (or oppose) reparations. They do not take any position themselves on the propriety of reparations for slavery or other historical wrongs. Rather, they seek to identify the different ways of arguing for reparations.

What they find interesting about reparations

Suppose you break my pencil. Then we have a straightforward case for compensatory justice, where I am A and you are B.

  1. A has been wronged.
  2. B wronged A.
  3. B is capable of repairing the wrong done to A.

So you owe me a new pencil and an apology for snapping my Perfetto.

Here, the person who has to pay reparations, namely B, is identical with the person who committed the injustice. And the person who is to receive the reparations, namely A, is identical with the person who was wronged.

In most cases involving reparations, one of those identities does not hold. That is, either the person who pays is not the same as the one who committed the wrong or the person who receives is not the same as the one who was wronged.

That is what makes the moral case for reparations interesting, according to Posner and Vermeule.

Their categories

Posner and Vermeule draw distinctions between two grounds for reparations and four ways of characterizing the parties who either have to pay the reparations or who are to receive the reparations.

The two grounds for reparations are compensation for harm and restitution. The difference is that reparations owed as compensation for harm have to be paid by the person who committed the injustice. Reparations paid as restitution only require that the person making the payment has something that rightly belongs to the person being paid. The person paying need not have done anything wrong to the person being paid (other than holding the things in question, presumably).

They characterize Boxill’s article as basing the argument for reparations on a claim of restitution, for what it is worth.

The four ways of characterizing the parties are as follows:

  1. Hard ethical individualism: only individuals have rights or duties, so reparations have to be the responsibility of individuals and owed to indviduals.
  2. Soft ethical individualism: groups with defined decision-making procedures can have rights or duties, so these kinds of groups could either be responsible for paying reparations or entitled to receive them. Examples: corporations or governments.
  3. Ethical collectivism: loosely defined groups can have rights or duties even if they lack the ability to act as a corporate body. Examples: nations or races.
  4. Moral taint: people may have either duties or rights based on the “taint” that comes from their association with a group.

Note that as you go higher on the scale, you can mix and match with the lower parts. For instance, you can think that corporate bodies can be responsible for paying reparations to individuals. Only hard ethical individualism rules out the other views.

Moral taint is difficult. When I first read the article, I was under the impression that it was meant to be an extension of ethical collectivism. But having thought about it, it seems to me that it could apply to any of the first three categories, with the possible exception of hard ethical individualism. That is, you could feel tainted by your association with individuals, corporations, or collectives. So, I think that moral taint is really just a way of admitting vicarious responsibility, in which someone who did not commit a wrong is nonetheless responsible for it. If that seems exotic to you, think of someone who feels responsible to apologizing on behalf of a rude family or team member. Whether it ultimately makes sense or not, it is a fairly normal phenomenon.

The second thing about moral taint is that it does not apply only to the wrongdoers. Each of the first three categories (hard individualism, corporations, and collectives) could apply to either wrongdoers or victims. Moral taint appears to apply only to wrongdoers. But as you read on in the article, you see that they have a concept of “stigma” that applies to victims. Thus they describe black Americans living today as potentially bearing the stigma of slavery (Posner and Vermeule 2003, 741). I am not sure of what they mean by that. The only point I want to make is that moral taint also applies to both sides: wrongdoers as well as victims.


Posner and Vermeule believe that the case for reparations is going to most difficult to make for those who believe hard ethical individualism is true and easier if you assume that one of the other, more collectivist, accounts of moral parties is true.

There are two ways you can go with that kind of argument. Suppose you think that reparations really do not make sense unless ethical collectivism is true. You might reason like this: “I cannot believe that ethical collectivism is true, ethical collectivism is the only account that could make a case for reparations, therefore, there is no case for reparations.” Or you could reason like this: “I cannot believe that there is not a strong case for reparations, ethical collectivism is the only account that could make a case for reparations, therefore, ethical collectivism must be true.”

We had a quite thorough discussion. I am going to record two points out of the many that were made.

First, Harry expressed skepticism about soft ethical individualism. He thought that if you push on it, it would either amount to hard ethical individualism or ethical collectivism.

Second, Kamyab said that he thought that a lot of the arguments under discussion covertly assume a forward-looking rationale for reparations rather than a backwards-looking one. That is, they are really focused on making society function better going forward rather than repairing injustices committed in the past. Of course, the line between the two will be hard to draw sometimes. Sometimes, you can’t have productive social relations with someone until the past wrongs between you have been dealt with.

Key concepts

  1. The distinction between compensation for harm and restitution.
  2. Hard ethical individualism, soft ethical individualism, ethical collectivism, and moral taint.
  3. The advantages and disadvantages of each of those views, especially in making a case for reparations.

Update: Georgetown University

Audrey pointed me to a fascinating article in the New York Times about Georgetown University. Apparently, the Jesuit order that ran the predecessor of Georgetown University owned slaves and in 1838 it sold 272 men, women, and children to a plantation in Louisiana.

At Georgetown, slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked. The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.

Some of that money helped to pay off the debts of the struggling college.

“The university itself owes its existence to this history,” said Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown and a member of a university working group that is studying ways for the institution to acknowledge and try to make amends for its tangled roots in slavery.

An alumnus of the University, Richard Cellini, has established a fund to identify the descendants of the slaves who were sold. There should be between 12,000 and 15,000 of them.

The Times published an editorial this weekend pesuasively arguing that Georgetown owes reparations to the descendants.

Here we have a case where the individual descendants of those who were wronged can be identified and a corporation appears eligible to bear responsibility both for the original injustice and also for paying restitution now. Thanks Audrey!


Posner, Eric A., and Adrian Vermeule. 2003. “Reparations for Slavery and Other Historical Injustices.” Columbia Law Review 103 (3): 689–748.