Political Philosophy Spring 2019

Who Owes What?


We are seeing how a historical theory of justice, such as Nozick’s, works by considering Boxill’s case for reparations. This involves an analogy with a bicycle theft. Suppose someone took a bicycle, gave it to someone else, and the original owner died. The person who received the bicycle, no matter how innocent, should return it to whoever is the heir to the original owner’s estate. That’s the idea.

However, as Boxill notes, reparations for slavery won’t involve anything as simple as returning concrete items like bicycles. The effects of slavery are too pervasive. So how are we going to figure out who owes what to whom?

We went back to Nozick for an answer that we called the counterfactual test. Remember Nozick’s principle of rectification? He actually makes a fairly concrete proposal about what it involves. Here it is.

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)

It’s called “counterfactual” because it asks to imagine that the world had been counter to the way it was in fact. Specifically, we’re supposed to imagine that the injustice of slavery had not happened.

Having a description of what a just world would have been like back in historical time, we imagine the historical clock rolled forward until we get to our time. Then we compare this imagined just world with our own unjust world. This tells us how reparations should work: transfer resources (primarily money) until our actual unjust world resembles the imagined just world.

Waldron criticizes the counterfactual test.

Which injustice?

If we’re going to imagine the world as it would have been without the injustice of slavery, we have to start with a question: which injustice are we imagining didn’t happen?

  1. The capture and transportation of people from one place to another.
  2. Their uncompensated forced labor.

The implications of making our world resemble a world in which slavery never happened are monstrous. That would involved forced deportations.

Boxill just ignores the first and focuses on the second. But why doesn’t the first injustice call for reparations too? This feels arbitrary: there’s one way of dealing with some injustices and another way, yet unspecified, of dealing with others?

What if we partly abandon the counterfactual test? Give people some amount of money to compensate for the first injustice and then use the counterfactual test for the second injustice.

I can’t say that I love this. It feels just about as arbitrary as the attempt to ignore the first injustice. When do we use the counterfactual test and when do we ignore it? Maybe we could leave it at the discretion of the recipients: the descendants of slaves. If the point is to make up for their losses, perhaps it makes sense to give them the choice about what to do, assuming that they wouldn’t opt to harm themselves.

Is there really a surplus to redistribute?

Adam and Dylan posed an interesting question. Why is it so obvious that we could get to the world the way it would be if there hadn’t been slavery? Slavery probably enriched some people. But I think you could make a pretty good case for thinking that it made the country as a whole much poorer. Just think about what was lost:

  1. The entrepreneurial efforts of the slaves.
  2. The wages that would have gone to workers, both black and white.
  3. The need to invest in the education, health, and productivity of workers.
  4. Decades of peace, with hundreds of thousands of young men alive and doing productive work rather than killing one another in a civil war.

And we haven’t even gotten to the effects on Africa.

I’m no economic historian, so take all this with a grain of salt. Anyway, humor me for a second and suppose that, on the whole, we have much less wealth than we would have had without slavery. If that’s so, we can’t make our world look like the one that would have existed without slavery. We’re too poor; there isn’t enough money to get us from where we are to where we would have been.

Waldron’s arguments

Waldron notes another problem with the counterfactual test. We don’t know what decisions people would have made. We don’t know if some of our ancestors would have made incredibly bad financial decisions and others would have made very good ones. So we don’t know what the present value of an ex-slave’s estate would have been if the slave had been paid. Maybe it would be quite large, maybe it would be negligible.

Well, what if we imagined what would have happened if people had made economically rational choices? We could assume that the growth of a slave’s estate would roughly equal the growth of a non-slave’s estate. Would that give us enough information to apply the counterfactual test?

One thing to note is that this does not fit well with Nozick’s entitlement conception of justice. The whole idea behind the entitlement theory is that the only criterion for determining whether goods were rightfully transferred from one person to the next depends on what people freely choose to do with their property. What matters is what did happen, regardless of whether a pattern is met or not. But the counterfactual test asks what would have happened in different circumstances. Whether that is an interesting question or not, it doesn’t carry any moral weight in the entitlement theory. The fact that I would have paid for you to serenade me to sleep if I had appreciated how sweet and soothing your voice is does not mean that I actually owe you money for your singing services. If I agreed to pay you and you sang, then I owe you the money. If I did not agree, I don’t, whether you sang or not.

Waldron lists a number of other problems as well.

  1. Everyone’s property is tainted, not just the estates of the slaves and slave owners.
  2. Different people are alive now than the ones that would have been alive without slavery.
  3. Why shouldn’t we do a similar sort of test for all estates? That is, ensure that everyone has, say, an average sized estate compared with others.
  4. Why start with the imagined elimination of just one historical injustice? Why not imagine that none of them happened and compare the resulting imagined world with our own.

Main points

  1. Nozick’s counterfactual test.
  2. The problem of multiple injustices.
  3. How Waldron’s observation that people might have made bad financial choices is relevant to the counterfactual test.


Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Waldron, Jeremy. 1992. “Superseding Historic Injustice.” Ethics 103 (1): 4–28.