Political Philosophy Fall 2019

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 specific analogy he proposes involves the theft of a bicycle.

The clearest everyday cases go like this:

  1. A was wronged (injured, treated unjustly, etc.) by B.
  2. B is capable of repairing A’s injury.
  3. Therefore, B owes reparations to A.

Here, the person who is paying reparations, B, is also the one who did the wrong. And the person who is receiving reparations, A, is also the one who suffered the wrong. This is like the first version of Boxill’s bicycle case: Dick, the guy who steals the bicycle, has to return it to Harry, the guy he stole it from.

When we are talking about reparations for historic injustice, however, the people who pay are not identical to the people who did the wrong. And the people who receive the payments are not identical with the ones who suffered the wrong.

Boxill’s bicycle example tries to show how reparations could be like the ordinary cases. He gets around the apparent difference between them by using inheritance (Boxill 1972, 119–20). This is the function of the second and third versions of the bicycle case. In the second version, an innocent person is given the stolen bicycle; Boxill thinks its obvious that this person has to return the bicycle to its original owner even though he did not steal the bicycle. In the third version, the original owner of the bicycle dies; Boxill thinks it’s obvious that whoever has the bicycle has to give it to the heir of the original owner even though he was not the victim of the original injustice.

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. Black Americans living now are represented by Jim in the third version of Boxill’s bicycle case. They have been wronged because they do not have resources that belong to them and those who do have those resources should return them.

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.

Questions about the Bicycle Case

Normally, we say “Boxill did a dandy job with the bicycle case, now let’s talk about whether it applies to reparations.” But not this group!

Ruben and August pressed on the second version of the bicycle story. Here, Dick steals the bicycle from Tom and gives it to Harry. What you are supposed to say is “Harry has to give the bicycle to Tom even though he didn’t do anything wrong.”

But Ruben and August weren’t buying it. Dick is the one who owes a bicycle to Tom, not Harry. To see this, make the example just slightly more realistic. Imagine that Harry paid Dick $20 for the bicycle. If Harry has to give the bicycle to Tom, he’s out $20. Why should he lose $20? He didn’t do anything wrong! Dick is the one who has to make Tom whole so he has to give Tom a replacement bicycle (or the cash equivalent).

Gabriel had a different way of looking at the case. As he sees it, Harry has to return the bicycle to Tom because it was never his in the first place. Dick can’t sell something to Harry that does not belong to Dick so Harry could not have bought a stolen bicycle from him. The best description of the case, according to Gabriel, is that Harry has to return the bicycle to Tom and Dick has to return the money Harry paid for the bicycle to Harry.

One thing that I learned from this is that the second step of Boxill’s argument seems easier than it really is for two reasons:

  1. Harry didn’t give up anything of value in exchange for the bicycle. So if he has to give it to Tom, he’s no worse off than he would have been.

  2. Dick disappears from the scene. We just say that Harry has to return the bicycle without asking what Dick is supposed to do.

I think that both points are relevant for the analogy with reparations. The stolen wages of slave labor have entered the economy because innocent people have exchanged things for them. Reparations won’t be as simple as just returning stolen goods.

On the second point, I can see why Boxill has Dick departing from the scene. That’s what the slave owners did. They died so we can’t hold them responsible any more. So maybe our discussion was going down a bit of a blind alley. We spent most of our time complaining that Boxill had left out Dick, the person who committed the wrong and who is primarily responsible for making everyone whole. But in the case we’re interested in, the party who committed the wrong isn’t around to make everyone whole. So I can see why Boxill ignored Dick’s responsibilities.

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. This is because individual white people have ill-gotten gains from slavery simply through being white.

It is not being claimed that the descendants of slaves must seek reparation frmo those among the white population who happen to be descendants of slave owners. This perhaps would be the case if slavery had produced for the slave owners merely specific hoards of gold, silver, or diamonds, which could be passed on in a very concrete way from father to son. As a matter of fact, slavery produced not merely specific hoards, but wealth which has been passed down mainly to descendants of the white community to the relative exclusion of the descendants of slaves. Thus, 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)

If what was taken from a given slave was something concrete, like a bicycle or a pile of gold, then we could go get that concrete thing back and give it to that slave’s descendants. (Or sell it and divide the proceeds among the slave’s descendants.)

But what was taken is wealth and that wealth has spread throughout the white community. So individual white people have things that don’t belong to them because they belong to the white community.

That is what Boxill thinks. But I think that there are still important differences between the individualistic and group understandings of responsibility.

Before I get to that, I should note that Katya said there should be a third option.

  1. The government should pay reparations to the black community.

As she said, this is the way actual reparations schemes work. If the government is paying, then the money is going to come from everyone and not just the white community.

Individual Responsibility

Let’s start with the individualistic side. Here the idea is that people cannot be held responsible for the actions or unjust holdings of other people. If I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t have any ill-gotten gains from slavery, I shouldn’t be responsible for the fact that someone else has done something wrong or has ill-gotten gains from slavery.

As I said at the end of the previous section, Boxill thinks it’s all the same because the ill-gotten gains from slavery have spread throughout the white community. But that looks wrong to me. Some whites have benefitted a lot more from slavery than others. Some, such as recent immigrants, have not benefitted very much at all. And some, such as the descendants of non-slave-owning Southern whites, are arguably, far worse off than they would have been without slavery. Slavery suppressed their ancestors’ wages; it’s hard to compete with free. Plus the war to defend slavery cost many of them their lives and it’s not at all obvious that they stood to gain from victory. Finally, some blacks have benefitted from the ill-gotten gains from slavery too and some are not the descendants of slaves and so have not experienced wrongful losses from slavery.

So if we go with the individualistic conception of responsibility, I think we will have to start by being more discriminating. We can’t just say that all white people owe reparations to all black people. Rather, we will have to track 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. And then we will have to estimate the present day value of what was lost. And, finally, it will have to be true that the present day Harrys have enough money to pay the present day Jims. If your Harry is too poor to pay reparations, you’re out of luck.

Getting all this right strikes many people as an impossible task. One possible response would be to consider how close an estimate would have to be in order to be acceptable. Perfection may be out of our reach, but that is often the case for all forms of justice. So we should not necessarily throw up our hands too easily.

On the other hand, we might well be able to get closer to an accurate accounting than you think. 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, leaving inheritance out of it.

One problem that Boxill would have to face if he went the collective route is that his bicycle example says nothing about collectives. The bicycle example suggests that individuals have to return stolen property to its rightful owners (or their heirs). But it says nothing about the responsibilities of the other members of the thief’s race. Boxill never suggests that Dick’s second cousin, for instance, has any responsibility for doing anything about the bicycle.

Boxill himself introduces the analogy of a corporation in order to spread responsibility to the collective (Boxill 1972, 121). I take it that the idea goes something like this. If you buy a share of a corporation, you will become a part owner of that corporation’s historical liabilities and assets, just as if you had been an owner from the start. By the same token, every member of the white race has an equal share of the benefits and liabilities of membership in the race. I’ll leave it to you to think about how plausible you find that.

Boxill on Individual Responsibility

After class Tom said that he found what Boxill said about individual responsibility confusing. I did too.

First, I don’t really understand what Boxill thinks individual white people are supposed to do. The collective is supposed to pay reparations and they belong to that collective, so they will have to pay reparations as part of the collective. I don’t really know what else they would have to do as individuals beyond that.

Second, I found Boxill’s discussion of the heart transplant odd. He imagines that you have received a heart transplant that was taken from a deceased patient without the consent of the patient’s family. He says that you, the recipient of the heart, owe a “suitable reparation” to the family (Boxill 1972, 121). I suppose a lot depends on what a suitable reparation would be. A note of thanks seems to me to be at least a polite thing to do. Beyond that, though, I don’t know that the heart recipient owes the family anything. You did nothing wrong, after all.

Since that was the example that was supposed to illustrate what Boxill thinks individual responsibility amounts to, I join Tom in finding his views on this topic confusing.

So when I think about individual responsibility, I think about it in terms of matching individual victims of slavery with individual beneficiaries. That is different than the way Boxill thinks about it, but it’s all I can understand.

Race vs. Class and Forwards vs. Backwards

Who should reparations be paid to?

  1. The descendants of slaves who are poor (or not well off).
  2. The descendants of slaves regardless of how wealthy they are.

I think a case can be made for either way of doing it. August suggested a case for purely class-based reparations on the assumption that almost everyone in the lower classes is the victim of some kind of historic injustice that calls for repartions. (I’m not sure that he was advocating this view so much as considering it aloud, just to be clear.)

One thing I wanted to get out of discussing the point is to isolate two different arguments for giving reparations:

  1. They would make people’s lives better.
  2. They are owed to people for past wrongs.

The first is a forwards looking reason and the second is a backwards looking reason.

Similarly, this objection to reparations is also forward looking: reparations would not improve the lives of the recipients. Why? Maybe you think that, say, government handouts don’t improve the welfare of the people who get them. I think that’s dubious, but even if it’s true, it’s irrelevant to the case for reparations because it objects to the forward looking consequences of reparations while the rationale for reparations is backwards looking.

Key concepts

  1. The difference between reparations and forward-looking considerations
  2. Boxill’s bicycle
  3. Individual vs. collective responsibility
  4. Whether reparations should be based on race or class (in addition to race)


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


There was a handout for this class: 21.Reparations.handout.pdf