Political Philosophy Fall 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?

We started with a question that August raised last time. Which injustice are we talking about? In particular, isn’t it too narrow to focus only on the financial losses?

Here’s how I used the counterfactual test to frame August’s question. 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?

August proposed a way to decide when to employ the counterfactual test and when not to: you use the counterfactual test when doing so would be chosen by the people who suffered the injustice. (If you don’t like choices here, you could probably substitute “would benefit the people who suffered the injustice.”)

This makes sense. The point of reparations is to right the wrong done by making the victim of an injustice whole. Given that is the aim, it doesn’t make any sense to harm the victim. That’s not a way of repairing the damage done to someone.

If we accept August’s point, we have an amended counterfactual test. The amended test requires that we make the world the way it would have been without the injustice provided that doing so would benefit those who suffered from the injustice.

Is it too narrow?

August’s original point had two parts. One concerned which injustice we are trying to repair. The other concerned Boxill’s focus on financial losses. Rueben took up the second point. He said that money isn’t enough to right the wrong done in these cases.

Amadi made a similar point. He thought that financial reparations are clearly too narrow and also that making them would be counterproductive for political reasons. Reparations would be paid and that would be the end of efforts to address racial inequality.

This got us into an extended discussion of the various ways to advocate for and object to reparations.

For instance, I said that the Rueben/Amadi arguments were mostly forwards looking. They are broadly opposed to financial reparations for slavery. But their reason isn’t that the wrong didn’t happen or that there is no way to calculate the payment. Rather, their point was that paying reparations would mean that more important reforms that would have happened in the future will not happen. That is, they didn’t deny that there was a backwards looking reason to pay reparations, namely, to make up for wrongs that happened in the past. Rather, they said that it would be undesirable to do that because it would have costs in the future.

Much of Waldron’s essay, by contrast, is about the difficulty of applying backwards looking considerations to historical wrongs. His skepticism about reparations is different in that way. His point is not about the future consequences of paying reparations, it’s about the difficulty of figuring out what is owed when you look backwards. (I will include a summary of his argument at the bottom of this page.)

We also talked about the question of whether it would be good or bad if reparations were paid to people whose ancestors were slaves but who are now wealthy. We were not unanimous on this point, but a majority thought that if reparations made sense at all, then they should be paid to both wealthy and poor descendants alike.

That is solid backwards looking reasoning: if your ancestor was wronged and, as a consequence, you do not have the things that you should have inherited from that ancestor, you are owed a metaphorical bicycle even if you can easily buy one on your own.

If you think that reparations should go only to those who are not wealthy you might be engaging in forwards looking thinking. That is, you might be thinking that reparations would be a good way of improving the lives of poor people. If that’s your thought, you aren’t really thinking about the past. Reparations would be good for this reason even if poor people did not have ancestors who were treated unjustly.

Alternatively, you might think that reparations should go only to the poor because they have the best case for having been harmed by the past injustice. Someone who is wealthy today may have had ancestors who were treated unjustly. But, you might say, the wealthy person today has at least as much as he or she would have had without the injustice and so there is no case for paying this person reparations. If that’s your thinking, you are still using backwards looking considerations. You just don’t think they apply to the rich person.

The point of all this is to help clarify what you think. Everyone in the room had some opinions about reparations. The vocabulary of forwards and backwards helps us to say exactly what we believe. That’s the hope, at any rate.

Waldron’s arguments

We did not actually talk much about the reading today. So here is a quick synopsis.

Waldron notes a 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. Backwards and forwards looking considerations.


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