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 will be fair in the future. 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

Boxill’s idea is that reparations are similar to everyday cases of righting wrongs. The clearest everyday cases have three features

  1. There is a victim of injustice (an injured party): B.
  2. There is a transgressor who committed the injustice against B: A.
  3. A is capable of repairing B’s injury.

When these conditions are met, it is usually easy to conclude that A owes something to B in order to make up for the wrong that A did to B.

In the case of historical injustice, there isn’t really much doubt about the first two points. When we are talking about slavery, for instance, there is no doubt that there are B’s who were wronged and A’s who wronged them. What is interesting about these cases is that the A’s and B’s are usually dead. So if someone owes reparations, the case has to be made that C owes something to D in order to make up for the wrong that A did to B (where C and D are not identical with A or B).

Boxill has a clever way around this problem: inheritance (Boxill 1972, 119–20).

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. (They are represented by Jim in Boxill’s third version of the bicycle case.)

The people who owe reparations are white Americans living now. This is so even though they have not (necessarily) done anything wrong themselves. They have inherited, perhaps innocently, the resources that should have gone to black Americans. Just like Harry in Boxill’s second version of the bicycle case, they have to give the resources back, even if they did not do anything wrong to acquire them in the first place.

Individual and Collective Responsibility

Boxill believes there are two classes of white Americans who owe reparations (Boxill 1972, 120–21).

  1. Each white person individually owes reparations to the black community.

  2. All white people collectively owe reparations to the black community.

As I understand Boxill, he thinks that this is a kind of redundancy: either one would do. We talked about how they differ from one another, since I suspect that most people will find one significantly more compelling than the other (opinion usually splits about 50-50 about which one it is, for what it’s worth).

Individual Responsibility

If we go with the individualistic conception of responsibility, we will have to start by being more discriminating. We can’t just say that all white people owe reparations to all black people. As Taylor’s examples showed, white immigrants whose ancestors had nothing to do with slavery, and black immigrants whose ancestors profited from it, ought to be left out of the reparations scheme. This strikes me as an important, but relatively friendly, amendment. I have no idea what to do with Berto’s example of people whose ancestors were on both sides of the slave trade: they might both owe reparations and receive them. (Or only one: it depends on what their ancestors did.)

The larger problem will come from tracking down exactly who lost what and who gained what. That is what you will need to know in order to arrange a reparations scheme. We will have to find all the Jims and their corresponding Harrys, if you will.

This may strike you as completely hopeless. Maybe Nozick can help. Here is what he proposed for 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)

So for Nozick, what we should do is trace out all the possible outcomes that would have happened if the injustice had not occurred. The task of reparations would be to move the actual world as close as possible to one of those outcomes. I would think that as long as you could trace out some possible just outcomes, that would be enough. Does that make the task seem less daunting? (I’m not sure myself.)

Or maybe we could settle for an approximation. We are pretty sure that slavery has been costly to the descendants of slaves and beneficial to the descendants of non-slaves. Make a rough estimate of the costs and benefits and swap. It won’t be perfect, but, if you are persuaded of the basic case for reparations, doing nothing isn’t going to be perfect either. It’s either leave an injustice in place by doing nothing or commit an injustice by imposing an imperfect reparations scheme that takes too much or too little from some and gives too much or too little to others. You have to pick the imperfection you are comfortable with.

But perhaps we should not throw up our hands. Consider the case of Georgetown University. According to an article in the New York Times, the Jesuit order that ran the predecessor of Georgetown 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. Cellini is having success in tracking down the descendants of the Georgetown slaves: you can read about some of them in the Times article. What could we accomplish if we dedicated ourselves to a broader effort? Maybe quite a lot!

Collective Responsibility

Collective responsibility would solve some of the problems of basing reparations on individual responsibility. We have two collectives, white Americans and black Americans, that have existed through slavery to the present time. The one group enslaved the other in the past and so owes reparations now. It’s pretty much the first story about the bicycle.

Our first question here has to concern the nature of the collectives. Taylor wanted to cut out white people who did not inherit anything from slavery and black people who did not lose anything from it. I suggested that collective responsibility works more like ownership of a company: you buy a stock, you get your share of the company’s profits and whatever liabilities shareholders have to bear (more on this in a bit). If you bought your stock right before the price goes up, you got lucky. If the company folds, you were unlucky. Your fortunes go with the collective, regardless of your personal desert.

So it seems to me that when Taylor wanted to pro-rate what individuals owe or can collect under the reparations scheme according to their ancestors’ participation in the slave system, he was basically rejecting the idea of collective responsibility. Similarly, when Natasha wanted to count the advantages that white people get from being in the majority, I thought she was taking the individualist route too: individual white people get advantages from being part of the majority in the US and they owe some of that back. Both points are fine, but they fit more naturally with the an approach to reparations based on individual responsibility than they do with one based on collective responsibility.

I really have no idea about what to do about Berto’s case of mixed race people when it comes to collective responsibility. Which collective do they belong to? Maybe we do the same splitting thing, where they both owe and receive reparations. Maybe this is a less pressing problem for collective responsibility. The collectives owe (and are owed) and exactly which individuals belong to which collectives is a separate issue that is relatively minor so long as enough belong to make up two genuine collectives. Would that work?

Helena said that there is no parallel in the bicycle examples to collective responsibility. So Boxill’s examples of the bicycle do not show anything about what a collective owes (or is owed). That seems right to me. I said that he switched to examples of corporate bodies like companies. But Chris said that wasn’t going to help, since shareholders typically only have limited responsibility for the debts and other liabilities of the companies they own. That is why companies can go bankrupt while their shareholders do not. (The shareholders do lose their investments in the bankrupted company, of course.) So between Helena and Chris, it looks as though Boxill has some work to do to make the collective responsibility argument stand up.

Will and Taylor both tended to prefer forward-looking reasons for transferring resources to backwards looking ones. So, for instance, if you think that reparations should only go to those who are needy, you probably aren’t thinking about reparations as much as you are thinking about needs. If you care about meeting needs, historical injustices are neither here nor there: both white and black people alike can be needy, after all. On the other hand, quite wealthy people can be owed reparations if things that they would have inherited were unjustly taken from their relatives.

Ella mentioned loses that probably cannot be repaired. There are limits to reparative justice. We can transfer money to make up for some of the present generation’s financial losses. But there were so many things wrong about slavery that cannot be undone.

Reparations for Housing Discrimination

Finally, Nathaniel said that even if the case for reparations for slavery falls down, there is a case for reparations based on housing discrimination in the more recent past.

To illustrate the example he was referring to, look at this map of Los Angeles. It shows the neighborhoods that Federal Government agencies rated as high and low risks. A mortgage in a neighborhood rated as a low risk would be a lot cheaper than a mortgage in a neighborhood rated as a high risk. As you will learn soon enough, that can make the difference between owning a home and not owning one. Real estate is one of the chief investments that most people have. So this had a significant impact on the distribution of wealth.

You can find the sort of argument Nathaniel was referring to spelled out in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic Monthly in 2014 (Coates 2014). 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.

Key concepts

  1. The difference between reparations and forward-looking considerations
  2. Boxill’s bicycle
  3. Individual vs. collective responsibility


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.