Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2019

Forward and Backward Looking Moral Theories


Locke serves as the inspiration for backwards looking, historical theories about justice. These theories look back to the historical record when they seek to answer questions about whether the current distribution of resources is just or not. If your ancestors properly acquired their wealth and properly handed it down to you, then your claim is historically clean. That, according to historical theories, is enough to show that it is properly yours.

Utilitarianism, by contrast, is forwards looking. Utilitarians don’t care about how a distribution of goods came about. The only question they think is relevant is “what distribution of goods would bring about the greatest overall good in the future?”

Historical theories are often favored by libertarians. They are also used by those who are interested in making a case for reparations for historical wrongs. The whole point of reparations, after all, is that something bad happened in the past that should be repaired in the present.

Darby and Branscombe argue that this is a mistake. They draw on social science research to argue that backwards looking arguments are counterproductive. In place of backwards looking arguments for redressing racial inequality, they provide a forwards looking way of thinking about the problem that is derived from the work of John Rawls and Iris Young.

Our discussion

Alexa thought that the problem is with collective responsibility rather than backwards looking arguments. People don’t like being told they’re responsible for things that are out of their hands. So they don’t like being made to feel guilty for what their ancestors did, as Darby and Branscombe say, and, according to Alexa, they also don’t like being told that they should feel guilty if society at large doesn’t achieve racial equality. At the very least, according to her, the case should be the same either way. Just to be clear: she wasn’t saying that they shouldn’t feel guilty, just that the reasons for thinking that won’t like being made to feel guilty about the past also apply to the forwards looking understanding of collective responsibility that Darby and Branscombe favor.

Clyde asked why their argument isn’t conservative. If the main idea is that we all have a stake in keeping social institutions going, then that gives a pretty good reason for not disrupting them. Maybe that’s the right conclusion, but it’s hard to see how it fits with a big effort to redress racial inequality.

Alec thought that if you were serious about the psychology of getting people to identify with a group, such that they would take responsibility for what it does, you would have to look at groups much smaller than the US or you would have to create a super nationalist understanding of the US. I take it that the thrust of the suggestion is that neither option would be palatable for our co-authors.

Jonathan, on the other hand, thought there was merit to the way that they identify the problem. He doesn’t think that backwards looking approaches will work. He also noted that a significant number of white Americans don’t believe that there is currently any discrimination against black Americans. The pedant in me is compelled to note that those are two different things: “we don’t think we’re responsible for what happened in the past” and “we don’t think there is a problem in the present.” Your note taker apologizes for this mildly ill-tempered hair-splitting. He reminds you that he is professionally obliged to do this sort of thing and asks that you not judge him personally.

Rachel mused about reparations for the Japanese Americans interned during WW II. She said that was easier than reparations for slavery because the individual victims could be more easily identified.

Alec noted that reparations for slavery would face difficulties in dealing with people whose ancestors were on both sides of the slave trade.

Sarthak thought that Darby and Branscombe had not come to grips with an important question: what is an individual supposed to do? That’s a big problem for collective responsibility, whether forwards or backwards looking.

Clyde thought a virtue of the forwards looking approach is that it avoids negative emotions, like guilt. Ali wasn’t sure he agreed. He thinks that people see forwards looking attempts to redress racial inequality as a zero sum thing, with losses for whites and gains for blacks. The suggestion was that whites would still feel the negative emotion of resentment if they were asked to make these kinds of sacrifices.

Finally, Professor Brown cast some doubt on the social science that Darby and Branscombe appeal to. She thought that education makes a big difference in people’s willingness to accept backwards looking responsibility.

Your note taker realizes that he has not actually given credit to everyone’s ideas from this day. But, as he also realizes that he is very far behind in posting his notes, he has decided to stop here with apologies for those who were left out.


Darby, Derrick, and Nyla Branscombe. 2014. “Beyond the Sins of the Fathers.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 38: 121–37.